In The Spirit

A Bitter Little Christmas

Treat your cocktail enthusiast to the perfect stocking stuffer

 

By Tony Cross

I first met Craig
Rudewicz two years ago at Fair Game Beverage Company’s spirit release party. Craig and I (along with two other bartenders from Raleigh) were asked to create cocktails with FG’s Apple Brandy and Sorghum Rum. Craig was in his third year running Crude Bitters, North Carolina’s first cocktail bitters company. We briefly chatted, and he sent me off with his staple bitters to see what I thought. Since then, we’ve both been busy boys, but finally reconnected at this year’s Pepperfest in Chapel Hill. A few weeks later, I was able to drive up to Raleigh, and check out his new facility, as well as his new cocktail supply shop and classroom, The Bittery.

Craig and his wife moved to Raleigh six years ago from Cambridge, Massachusetts. He spent the next few years slinging behind a few restaurant bars, while managing as well. “It was a wonderful way to associate cocktails with food and the relationships with the kitchen,” Craig says about how he gained inspiration for coming up with his first bitters recipes. You see, bitters is usually an enigma to those that aren’t into cocktails, or are just learning. It’s pretty simple, actually. Bitters is to a cocktail like salt and pepper are to food. Bitters can also bring cocktail ingredients together that, without it, wouldn’t be a perfect fit. Bitters is used in food too, but I’ll save that for when I start a food column. In addition to creating bitters at the restaurant bar he managed, Craig and his wife started making their own syrups and extracts at home. “To get away from using products with high fructose corn syrup, chemicals and preservatives,” he says. “We appreciate a good cocktail, and wanted our drinks to be just as great as our meals . . . so Crude grew from that. I wanted bitters to be appreciated as a craft product just as much as spirits and beer.”

Crude Bitters was launched in 2012 while Craig was still working his restaurant gig; he started selling his homemade bitters at local farmer’s markets. If you head over to their website, www.crudebitters.com, you’ll see that Craig takes every step to make sure his bitters are as authentic as possible. “Our bitters are crafted in small batches from 100 percent maceration in organic, non-GMO alcohol, with no glycerin, chemicals or dyes,” he says. “Glass pots or wood barrels are used exclusively in the storage and aging of our products.” His attention to detail on all fronts hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s won many awards, including the Good Food Award (twice) and the Southern Living Food Award. His bitters also found its way into Mark Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari that came out in 2015. In it, Craig explains the origin of his company’s name. “The name is in reference to the rudimentary origins of bitters. Exotic (and undocumented) roots, herbs, and spices were aged in various liquids and beneficial (and unverified) claims attached to them. Hence, crude,” he says.

When Craig is coming up with a new elixir, he focuses more on what blend of flavors will work with a certain spirit or cocktail than narrowing in on a single flavor of bitters. “It can be difficult putting the right blend of flavor and aroma together,” he says, “but I always start with what spirit I would like the bitters to be used in.” This shows in his Rizzo bitters, with flavors of citrus, pepper, and rosemary — perfect for a gin and tonic, or even someone who is cutting calories with a vodka soda. Personally, I love adding his Sycophant Orange & Fig bitters to my Old-Fashioned. It pairs well with an aromatic bitter, giving the cocktail a slight candied orange and vanilla undertone.

Crude is the first North Carolina bitters company, but Craig foresees growth from other businesses with bitters and mixers on the horizon. “There is not much competition (at the moment). There are a couple of small companies around the state, and bars/restaurants always have great bar programs that produce their own house bitters,” he says. “I expect there to be a boom of cocktail bitters and mixers soon.”

It’s amazing what bitters can do for a cocktail, and the more you understand this, the better you’ll appreciate Craig’s passion. Don’t take my word for it, stop into his new space and take a cocktail class. In addition to being educated on bitters, and doing tastings, Craig will guide you on how to use his bitters in cocktails, and why different ones work better with different spirits. You can go online and subscribe to his mailing list, where you’ll be privy to Crude’s up and coming classes. OH

Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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