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Bittered Sling Captures Place and Season in Small-Batch Bitters

A cocktail garnished with oranges sits next to a bottle of orange and juniper bitters.
Bittered Sling bitters are packed complexity and flavor. Photo by Issha Marie.

Upon returning home from Vancouver’s West End farmers market today, bartender Lauren Mote shares with me her recently drafted Tweet: “I will argue tooth and nail with anyone that says there's a better locavore diet than September. EVERYTHING is perfect.”

Mote tries to visit the farmers market every Saturday — especially in September. It’s her busiest month out of the year, and already this one is no exception. To help manage it, she bundles her tasks into specific days — yesterday for cocktail programming with the Four Seasons, today for projects with Uva, the wine and cocktail bar she manages. Some tasks do require her daily attention, however, including The Bittered Sling, the bitters company she founded with chef Jonathan Chovancek, whom she married two weeks ago. Two days after swapping vows, Mote hopped on a plane to South Africa, where she spent two weeks representing Canada in the Diageo World Class Finals. She came in 12th in the world among 55 bartenders — of those, just six women — from 50 countries.

Mote is no stranger to giving Canada, specifically Vancouver, a good name in the spirits world. At a time when certain products were unavailable in a city with a history of liquor law complications, she decided to take it upon herself to create what would be otherwise difficult to source — from maraschino to yellow chartreuse. “It helped to shape how I was bartending and how I was evolving,” she says.

That creative push propelled Mote into making her own bitters, and in 2012 she launched The Bittered Sling, a line comprised today of more than 25 flavors of small batch bitters. Mote’s studies in food science, coupled with Chovancek’s culinary background, lend a strong food focus to the retail products that isn’t dissimilar from the kitchen-driven bar programs Mote has been cultivating since 2007 — the same ones that led Paul Clarke of Imbibe to profile her as “The Cocktail Kitchen Scientist.”

Six small bottles in front of two bittered sling boxes.The Bittered Sling gift set contains a small taste of what the purveyors offer. Photo courtesy of Bittered Sling.

“I wrote my menus for cocktails very much the same way chefs would write their menus for service,” she explains, citing spins on classics like a negroni with yellow split pea-infused gin to evoke flavors of India. “I studied food science because I’m fundamentally attracted to what makes humans eat and drink everyday — the psychology of it and the evolution of why we eat and drink the way that we do.”

Despite her prowess for all things culinary, Mote didn’t spend too much time considering setting foot in the kitchen. “I’m a performer and need to be around people,” she says. “I need to see the delight in people’s faces and in their eyes directly rather than somebody coming into the kitchen and telling me.” At home, though, she enjoys splitting culinary tasks fifty-fifty with Chovancek. It’s that down-the-middle collaboration process that the couple puts into practice with each new flavor for The Bittered Sling, including one of their very first ones: Denman, which was inspired by the bustling and culturally diverse block in Vancouver.

A woman is behind the bar and handing an ingredient to a man standing on the other side of the busy bar. Bittered Sling co-owner Lauren Mote finds her inspiration behind the bar. Photo courtesy of Bittered Sling.

“We’d sit at opposite ends of the table with a pen and paper, and I’d say, ‘OK if you were going to take me on a culinary journey and we started in India, went to Sri Lanka, went around Southeast Asia and the Bengal Delta and ended up in Japan — what would that look like to you?’” Mote explains. Meanwhile, she followed the same assignment but with a bartender’s perspective. While the two used wildly different approaches — Mote mentally builds the bitters, from bittering agents to various spices, whereas Chovancek interprets the cues through a sauce — their notes were alarmingly similar. “It’s 100 percent a brain and life experience thing because Jonathan cooks every single cuisine type, and I create cocktails with every single spirit type.”

And while their own process might come easily, some challenges — especially the seasonal ones — are simply out of their control. “The story of our western elderberry bitters is one of the funniest and saddest stories of all time” says Mote, explaining that if the farmers don’t cover the trees once the berries bloom, the birds eat everything. “Anybody who has those bitters from 2011 will see it’s faded in color, but the flavor is still so incredible.”

More recent examples of their work together have shown up in a limited-edition travel pack they debuted for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail. Each of the featured bitters are terroir expressions of Tales destinations, including Vancouver’s “Gastown”, Mexico City’s “Condesa”, Buenos Aires’ “Palermo” and New Orleans’ “French Quarter.” The globe-traipsing set is a prime example of what Mote has come to enjoy most about the eye opening potential of bitters. “We can learn about different regions, communities, markets, and traditions and develop something unique to express what we felt in traveling to those places,” she says. “Bitters are a vehicle through which we can share our story with the rest of the world.”

A cocktail is in a mixing glass with a stirrer and ice and another is in a glass with ice and a cherry. There is a bottle of plum and rootbeer bitters in the foreground of the photo. Bittered Sling bring place and seasonality to make exceptional cocktails. Photo by Cory Dawson.

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