Pinkies raised, we were ready to dip into Crude Bitters founder Craig Rudewicz’s liquid passion at the latest Creative Collisions session at DesignBox in downtown Raleigh. Organized by Karl Sakas, the free lunch series profiles a different speaker on the second Wednesday each month.
Cautioned that our sample shot glasses “weren’t for shooting,” we tasted drops of his creative cocktail (and cooking) flavorings while listening to an hour of his storytelling. Rudewicz wove in stories about his craft through threads of history combining medicine, Prohibition and how a 5-year-old can buy alcohol at the nearest Harris Teeter.
Historically a cure-all for “whatever ails you,” the early 1800s herbal remedies known as bitters promised to treat everything from gout to malaria to a headache, but in the process some “doctors” included poisonous plants. To temper the risk, the U.S. government stepped in to regulate bitters as flavorings rather than an elixir extolling health benefits.
The main remnant left from those early days is Angostura, a brand so dominant that when someone wants “bitters” this is nearly always what they get. It defines the market, kind of like the reverse equivalent of asking for a Kleenex when you need a tissue. You would never mistake Angostura’s clove/cinnamon/black spice for Peychaud’s more floral, licorice flavor, the only other common brand, invented for a bar in New Orleans back in that same era.
After the health claims died out, bitters’ next big heyday was making Prohibition’s bathtub gin or whiskey taste less like the bathtub ring and more like a palatable cocktail. Even if you didn’t get the kind of alcohol that made you go blind it all still tasted pretty awful, and the mob soon figured out that speakeasies could market “better hooch” by adding just a few drops of something special to cancel out the inferior alcohol flavor.
Even after the U.S. government repealed Prohibition in 1933 cocktail drinkers kept a taste for Old-Fashioneds, and that was the comfortable role bitters played behind the bar for the next 70 years or so. That was until 2008-09 when retro craft cocktails hit maximum hipster level and Angostura couldn’t keep up with the increased demand, causing a shortage and flinging the door wide open to other brands.
It wasn’t too long after that when Rudewicz, a bartender, started getting creative. Always searching for the “perfect drink,” he and his wife Lindsay experimented with different recipes, filling pint-size mason jars and giving them as gifts. He quipped that the jars “started taking over our cupboards, and I had three choices: throw them out, make more friends or start selling them.”
Lucky for us, he chose the third option.
“At heart I’m a drinker and want great flavors,” Rudewicz said. His penchant for gin and tequila prompted some lighter experimentation: one of his most popular bitters combines rosemary (which he grows) with fresh grapefruit peels. The alcohol sucks out the color and the flavor; after a couple of months the peels are pale.
Which begs the question: are bitters alcohol? North Carolina is a controlled state, with very strict rules surrounding alcohol. Bitters have proof, like vanilla extract, getting a clean flavor from an alcohol base, so he researched bitters companies in other states, ABC laws and even downloaded entire statute. No one really knew what to do but someone finally decided that he was good to go, or maybe it was just that “they didn’t want to talk to me anymore.” NC’s quirky laws mandate that he has to buy his wholesale 5-gallon drums of alcohol from out of state — not from local sources — and that he has to use it within a certain timeframe.
As produced, his bitters are 180 proof, so he proofs it down with water, NC honey or sorghum “so it doesn’t blow your hair back.” And yes, since it’s not regulated as alcohol, a 5-year-old could buy a bottle.
Rudewicz explained that the roots and barks he uses are what gives bitters its signature bitter flavor, and sometimes a grassy or herbal aroma. Gentian root is most common herbal; cichona bark or root, flavors found in (real) tonic water, even grows wild here in NC. Wild cherry bark, used in his coffee cocoa version, is more fruity.
His motto of “cocktails with or without suspenders” is a play on lowering the perceived pretentiousness of craft mixology for home enthusiasts. He encourages playing with flavors, whether it’s with a drink or main dish.
As a jump start to experimenting, Crude Bitters offers free classes in mixing bitters into cocktails, non-alcoholic drinks and food. Fifteen attendees or so at a time can taste spirits from around NC while learning to mix and match seemingly bizarre combinations; classes start again at the end of January. Rudewicz drops knowledge like the fact that bitter tastebuds are on the back of the tongue, and that bitters “should hit your nose first and then add just hint of flavor.”
Too much bitters makes the drink, well, bitter, cancelling out liquors, syrups and pretty much anything else. Sometimes the flavor rounds out a drink, like hints of coffee and cocoa for whiskey, or can “wake up” others.
His bitters names are as creative as his recipes:
- “Rizzo” rosemary, grapefruit and peppercorn, the only bitters to ever win a Good Food Award and excellent in dressings or marinades.
- “Pooter” smoke and salt, with Lapsang tea providing the smoke aroma and flavor to create “a killer Bloody Mary finish, and good for rubs or grilled fish.”
- “Lindsay” pecan, magnolia bark, and just enough habenero “to wake your taste buds up.” They have to fight off the squirrels to harvest the two pecan trees on the property, and the magnolia bark is from family trees in Georgia.
- “Big Bear” coffee and cocoa and “Sycophant” orange and fig, both of which can substitute for vanilla in baked goods.
- “Bitterless Marriage” hibiscus, lavender, oak.
It doesn’t need refrigeration and won’t ever spoil, but he suggested using the bottle within 2-3 years, and that “if you have any left then you need to drink more.”
Crude Bitters also produces shrubs, aka “drinking vinegars.” Also an interesting historical story, shrubs came about when farmers didn’t want to waste a bountiful apple season. Rather than let them rot, they chopped them up and covered them in barrel with cane sugar and vinegar to instantly preserve the harvest. After awhile the mixture forms a syrup that they diluted with water to drink in the fields, refreshing on a hot day and helpful for digestion. Mixed with seltzer or flat water it makes a sweet, yet tart, drink.
Another soda option is his tonicola, a cross between tonic water and root beer and spiced with coffee, ginger and birch. Bright with a bitter note, it’s slightly sweet and “finishes with a whole bunch of coffee.” Speaking from experience, he recommended making the seltzer first and adding bitters and the tonicola once it’s in the glass — NOT putting it through the soda stream — so it doesn’t clog it and explode.
He’s had three years to perfect his methods, and just celebrated a year in the space at 517-A West Cabarrus Street in Raleigh. In addition to their hand-crafted flavors, the store also sells items to build a home bar.
And as for the name? He chose to honor the crude origin of bitters, but as Lindsay pointed out, it’s also in his name: Craig RUDEwicz. Sweet.