Alex Staub has been working behind our Finishing Room bar since the earliest days of the distillery. In March of 2020, he’ll begin leading a workshop teaching guests how to create their own bitters and incorporate them into their cocktails. We sat down with Alex to discuss his professional history and what inspires him to craft his own bitters.
Tell us about your time at the Angel’s Envy distillery—what have you found rewarding? What’s been different from other jobs? Have there been any unique challenges?
I was fortunate enough to work the inaugural event at Angel’s Envy. Before there was an actual bar program in place, I was working for the restaurant that catered the ribbon cutting event. We must have done a decent job because we were asked to come back and work some of the other private events hosted in the Finishing Room. Back then, the only cocktails on our menu were our signature cocktail, The Henderson, and a classic Manhattan. It is very rewarding to see how far we’ve come since those first few events and to see how our menu has evolved to incorporate handcrafted bitters, ingredients and elaborate garnishes. One of the most enjoyable challenges of the job is consistently trying to outdo ourselves. Another perk of this job is the freedom to create. Every other bar program that I’ve ever been a part of has had their own prefabricated menu created by their own beverage director. At Angel’s Envy our menu is a collaborative effort from the bar team. We won’t put a drink on our menu that doesn’t get a unanimous “Yes” from everyone.
What do you like about crafting bitters? What initially drew you to it?
My girlfriend bought me a book while she was on a sales trip to San Francisco called Drinking the Devil’s Acre: A Love Letter from San Francisco and Her Cocktails by Duggan McDonnell and Luke Abiol that has a basic aromatic bitters recipe in it. I brought that book to the bar and that recipe kind of got the ball rolling for our team making bitters and tinctures (extracts). I still have a ton of bookmarks in that book from different recipes we’ve played around with. I guess my girlfriend buying me that book and the creative freedom that I have here at Angel’s Envy is what really got me into crafting bitters.
Can you walk us through what goes into creating a batch of bitters? Is there a simple recipe you’d recommend for people to try at home?
There are a lot of different ways to do it but the way that I like to make bitters is pretty simple. I have a big box full of little mason jars with different tinctures and bittering agents in them that I play around with. To make the tinctures, I combine a blend of overproof vodka and a selection of ingredients such as peels, roots, herbs and spices from our bar’s “toolbox.” I currently have about 60 tinctures to play with.
After the tinctures sit for a while and taste the way I want, I’ll blend flavors that I think might go well together in a very small batch until I have something that I like. I often utilize The Flavor Bible by Karen A. Page and Andrew Dornenburg to find flavors that pair well. It’s a great resource for creating bitters, cocktails or cooking at home.
Once I have a good idea of what flavors I want for the bitters, I’ll begin working on making a larger batch by combining the raw ingredients in large mason jar and then adding 100 proof vodka. Every couple of days I’ll give the mason jar a shake and taste the mixture to see how fast or slow it is infusing. I don’t really have a set amount of time that I let them infuse. I taste them frequently and when they taste the way I want them to, I’ll strain out the solid ingredients first through a mesh strainer, then for a second time through a coffee filter. It’s a lot of trial and error. For every recipe I’m happy with there are dozens of failed attempts. I think that’s the fun part. It’s okay to mess up and learn from those errors. When you have a final product that you’re happy with it is very satisfying.
Do you have any suggestions for how people should use their bitters? Is there a cocktail recipe you’d be willing to share?
I forget where I heard this, otherwise I would totally give them credit. A while ago someone told me to think of bitters as the salt and pepper of cocktails. That really resonated with me. Bitters can help balance the sweetness or acidity of a drink while subtly adding a hint of flavor or aroma on the back end. The right bitters can turn an okay cocktail into a great cocktail. You just need to learn through trial and error what flavors will complement each other. Bitters are cool because they can add those desired flavors, aromas and complexity to your drink without noticeably increasing the volume in your glass. If you have a cocktail that you’re working on that is almost right but missing something, you can give it a few dashes of the right bitter and you’ll have a great drink.
My orange bitters recipe is simple and can be used in many different cocktails. You’ll need orange peels, coriander, timut peppercorn and gentian root. I start by filling a quart sized mason jar with about a cup of orange peels. Then I’ll add a tablespoon of coriander seeds, a tablespoon of timut peppercorn and a tablespoon of gentian root. After that you fill your jar with 100 proof vodka and wait. Every couple of days shake your mixture and give it a taste. When it has a flavor that you like, strain it and it’s ready to use. It usually takes about two weeks before it starts tasting right. You can store it in a clean mason jar or put it into smaller jars. This is going to be a large batch for your home bar but works fine for our bar at the distillery. We go through a ton of orange bitters, so I always have a batch in rotation. I recommend trying out these homemade bitters in a classic Old Fashioned.
How did you get your start in the service industry? How did you find your way behind the bar?
When I was 16 I landed a job as a server assistant in a popular chain restaurant, but it wasn’t until I found an opportunity at a local Louisville restaurant that I really started to understand the ins and outs of the service industry, and the staff became like a family to me. I started as a part time busser, worked my way up to becoming a waiter. Eventually I found myself behind the bar where I tried Angel’s Envy Finished in Port Wine Barrels for the first time. Angel’s Envy was a fresh, new product back then and one of my co-workers who is a whiskey enthusiast was very excited about us adding it to our menu. We tried it together and we were both blown away! There aren’t a whole lot of other spirits that I vividly remember trying for the first time—at least none that resonated with me the way Angel’s Envy did.
What is it that you enjoy about the work? What keeps you involved and interested in what you do?
There are a lot of things that I enjoy about the work, but I’d say that here at Angel’s Envy, I really enjoy the guest’s reactions to a lot of our cocktails and just seeing the bar in general. It wasn’t until recently that a distillery could legally offer a cocktail experience at the end of a tour, so for the first couple years we were open, the bar was a real surprise and delight. Now here we are into our third year and I have regulars! We have guests who have taken the tour multiple times or attended one of our monthly cocktail classes to show their friends and family our cocktail bar. That is amazing to me. I think that is what keeps me interested in what I do.
Orange Bitters Recipe
1 Cup orange peels
1 Tablespoon coriander seeds
1 Tablespoon timut peppercorn
1 Tablespoon gentian root
1 Quart 100 proof vodka
Fill quart-sized mason jar with all ingredients and top with vodka. Shake the jar every few days, and taste to check the flavor around the two-week mark. Once it’s reached the desired flavor, store in a clean jar, or smaller clean jars. Add a few dashes to your favorite cocktails, particularly the Old Fashioned.