Lara Nixon's Bitters

By Veronica Meewes
Photography by Dustin Meyer

As handcrafted pickles and house-cured meats continue to grace the pages of menus across town, and waiters wax at length about where local greens were sourced, more and more local bartenders are also arming themselves with an artisanal arsenal: aromatic bitters made either in-house or by small-batch producers.

 

Drinks are becoming as garden-to -glass as food is farm-to-table, and it’s only natural that bitters would eventually glide into the limelight. They are, after all, the salt and pepper of the bar world and older than the cocktail itself. “Bitters are probably the oldest medicine,” says Lara Nixon, formerly one half of Austin’s Tipsy Tech spirit-education program, and Austin’s newest bitters queen. Her company, Bad Dog Bar Craft, just launched Texas’s first line of locally produced, organic bitters.

Originally ingested for their many purported health benefits, bitters are tinctures made from extracting roots, barks, herbs, spices, fruit peels, flowers and seeds into (typically) an alcohol base. To help counter the strong medicinal taste, imbibers eventually began to dilute and sweeten the tinctures, thus creating the cocktail. Today, aromatic bitters are used to add depth to drinks as well as to cut sweetness and to balance contrasting cocktail components. “They mirror exactly what spices do in food,” Nixon says.

After Prohibition was repealed, all but a couple of commercial bitters companies disappeared.  But today, as the cocktail renaissance continues to thrive and grow, mixologists are researching, rediscovering and recreating old bitters recipes, as well as inventing their own. Nixon’s botanical lab is a modern-day apothecary: vessels and jars of all shapes and sizes are tucked into different drawers; bags of fragrant shrubbery are labeled with exotic names like damiana and pau d’arco bark; funnels and scales stand at the ready. Experimentation and patience are essential to the creation process. “It’s hard to taste a bitters and deconstruct it,” she explains. “They’re a very complex and married flavor. Some bitters have as few as five or six ingredients; some have thirty.”

But it’s not just flavor Nixon looks for when perfecting a bitters formula. She’s also watchful for mouthfeel, bitterness, astringency—a plethora of subtleties. And since different botanicals extract at different rates, extraction alone is a trial-and-error process. “I’m really lucky that I’ve been cooking for so long,” says Nixon. “It helps me to understand how flavors go together.” Once a desirable combination is found, she begins experimenting with dilution as well as the tincture’s reaction when added to various spirits.

Bad-Dog-Bar-Crafts

Bad Dog Bar Craft’s flagship bitters showcase inherently Texan essences, like the root-beer-reminiscent Texas Sarsaparilla Drying Bitters and the barbecue-inspired Fire and Damnation Bitters. Nixon has about 10 other flavors in the works, with a Texas grapefruit coming soon and a mesquite blend on the horizon. She’s busy producing other handmade bar products, too, like artisanal syrups, fortified wines and vermouths, liqueurs and Victorian-inspired ornamental barware. The cameo-like canine profile that serves as the logo is an homage to Lara’s very own bad dog, Penelope.

“I wanted to have products that were really kind of fun, that sort of showed my personality a little bit,” explains Nixon. She plans on touring the country with Bad Dog Bar Craft and encouraging dogs and their owners to attend events, where they can pose in costume for Victorian-inspired portraits together. “We’re not taking ourselves very seriously, to be honest. In the spirits industry, there are a lot of people who take themselves quite seriously and I think that really takes the fun out of it. When it’s no longer fun, then it’s time to get out of the business.”

Nixon is excited to inspire both consumer interaction and community involvement. “We have a very tight-knit, cooperative bar community, and we all help one another out,” she says. “This community really lends itself to helping people be successful as entrepreneurs, or in their own endeavors, and there’s something really special about Austin in that way.”

For more information about Lara Nixon and Bad Dog Bar Craft products, visit baddogbarcraft.com.


 


DIY MULLED WINTER BITTERS

Courtesy of Lara Nixon

1 c. Rittenhouse bonded* rye whiskey
1 c. Laird’s apple brandy 100 proof (not Laird’s applejack)
3 3-in. cinnamon sticks
15 cloves
20 cracked allspice berries
1½ T. coriander seeds
1 cracked nutmeg
5 cardamom pods
1 t. gentian root Zest from ½ a medium orange (if the orange is waxed, scrub before peeling)
2 oz. of grade B maple syrup

In a wide-mouth mason jar, combine the rye and apple brandy. In a heavy skillet, toast all of the dry spices, except the gentian, until fragrant. Add the toasted dry spices, gentian and orange peel to the liquor jar and screw on the cap. Let the mixture macerate for 9 to 10 days at room temperature, shaking once each day. Afterward, strain all of the solids out of the mixture through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth and discard the solids. Add the maple syrup to the strained bitters and shake. Allow to sit 1 more day before using.

Suggested use:

CLASSIC MANHATTAN

2 oz. rye whisky
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2–4 dashes Mulled Winter Bitters
Maraschino cherry, to garnish
   
Combine ingredients in a pint glass, add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a Luxardo maraschino cherry. If you can’t get a genuine maraschino cherry, please skip the cherry.

*Note: “Bonded” or “bottled in bond” spirits are those that have been aged and bottled according to United States government regulations.  They must be the product of one distillation season and one distillery, aged in a federally bonded warehouse under government supervision for a minimum of four years and bottled at 100 proof.

 



DIY TRADITIONAL ORANGE BITTERS

Courtesy of Lara Nixon

4 c. vodka
¼ lb. dried orange peel, preferably from bitter oranges
½ t. fennel seeds
½ t. coriander seeds
1 cardamom pod, cracked open
½ t. gentian root
   
Place all ingredients in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Store at room temperature for 7 days, then strain and use.

Suggested uses:

MARTINI

2 oz. gin
1 oz. dry vermouth
2–4 dashes of Traditional Orange Bitters
Lemon or orange peel, to garnish
   
Combine ingredients in a pint glass, add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon (or orange) peel.


VESUVIUS

Courtesy of Lara Nixon

1¾ oz. Oronoco Brazilian white rum
½ oz. rich honey syrup (2 parts honey to 1 part hot water)
½ oz. lime juice
1 dash (more if you like it really spicy) Bad Dog Bar Craft Fire
   and Damnation bitters
¹/8 t. Del Maguey Chichicapa mezcal
Lime and mint, to garnish
   
Combine all ingredients except the mezcal in a shaker. Chill a cocktail glass, then swirl the mezcal in the glass. Shake and strain the rest of the drink into the glass and garnish with a lime wheel and mint leaf.


THE FORD HYBRID COCKTAIL

Courtesy of Lara Nixon

1 oz. Old Tom Gin
1 oz. blanc vermouth, mid-sweet such as Dolin Blanc
3 dashes orange bitters (I prefer Regan’s)
3 dashes Bad Dog Bar Craft Sarsaparilla Dry bitters
Maraschino cherry, to garnish
   
Combine all ingredients with ice in a pint glass and stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a Luxardo marschino cherry. If you can’t get a genuine maraschino cherry, please skip the cherry.