Growing up in a Nicaraguan household, I was introduced to hard liquor by my dad's bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. Nicas love hanging out with Johnnie. He's a smooth cat who's been the master of concocting aromatic amber spirits since the 1800s. At the tender age of 13, I became a full-fledged Scotch whisky man thanks to Johnnie.
So when I was invited to celebrate the launch of Johnnie Walker Double Black at the House of Walker in Little Haiti, I was like, "Well, don't mind if I do!"
The evening of April 18, I joined dozens of Scotch whisky lovers who tasted the complex yet masterfully crafted Double Black blend. I was also among a chosen few who got to learn how to make bitters, the aromatic and spicy herbal alcoholic beverage that adds a nice kick to any glass of Scotch.
It all went down inside an eclectic warehouse located at 360 NE 62nd St. The space has been converted into an urban tropical oasis consisting of individual white wood-framed cottages lined with white-painted wood decks and sandy patches.
I began the night by ordering a Red Label Scot Free from Rocky Yeh, a popular Seattle bartender whom Johnny Walker flew in for the fete. He mixed 1 ¼ ounces of Red Label Scotch, 1 ¼ maraschino liqueur, a dash of Angostura bitters, and a dash of orange bitters, and topped it all off with a flamed orange twist. When it touched my lips, I thought, This is what oranges in Heaven must taste like.
Cocktail in hand, I made my way to a room inside the main cottage, where I joined a dozen other drinkers for the bitters class. Johnnie Walker master of whisky Gerry Graham introduced us to our instructor, Tobin Ludwig, a bald, mustached Brooklynite who cofounded Hella Bitter, a small-batch cocktail bitters company based in Williamsburg, Virginia.
"Bitters takes generally three weeks to one month to macerate," Ludwig explained. "After you all have made your jars of bitters, I'll take it with me to New York. I'll babysit it. I'll cradle it in my arms every day, and in a number of weeks you guys are going to get some beautiful little bottles of the bitters you made today."
After trying the citrus and wormwood aromatic flavors of Hella Bitters with Double Black, Ludwig got to work. We each got a mason jar containing a small bit of a clear liquid Scotts call "the water of life," AKA moonshine, that formed the base for the bitters. Ludwig instructed us to pour ten ounces of Double Black into the jar. Then it was time to add the herbs in the following order: one star anise, one Indonesian cinnamon stick, three cloves, three strips of orange peel, a teaspoon of raisins, a quarter teaspoon of peppercorns, three Jamaican allspice berries, a teaspoon of gentian root, two strips of Madagascar vanilla, and caraway seeds.
I closed the lid, swirled my concoction, and handed the jar to Ludwig, who promised to return my hooch in a month. Bam!
Once the class ended, I chatted with Ludwig's partner Jomaree Pinkard, who explained how they got into making bitters. It started off as a hobby in 2007. "We were gifting the bitters to friends," Pinkard relays. "Then we did a Kickstarter campaign in 2011 to make a huge batch. We raised more money than we expected, so we made more and sold the excess bitters to bars in Williamsburg."
In the past two years, Ludwig, Pinkard, and a third partner, Eduardo Simeon, have sold Hella Bitters to dozens of bars on the Northeast coast. In Miami Beach, Hella Bitters is available at the Broken Shaker at the Freehand Hotel (2727 Indian Creek Dr.) and Pubbelly (1418 20th St.
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I capped off the evening with a shot of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, the rarest and most expensive blend of the Striding Man Society.
Cheers to Johnnie!
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness.