"Five years ago I got super into cocktails," says Ryan Irvine. "I was buying all these cocktail books and I was buying a ton of bitters."
Around the same time, Irvine also began covering the topic of cocktails for this magazine, a post he performed admirably for about a year.
"Jeffrey Morgenthaler, the famous bartender, said there are only three ways to improve a drink: ingredients, recipe and technique. Once you have recipe and technique down, that leaves ingredients."
Because Irvine wasn't about to set up a potstill in his downtown apartment, he instead turned his attention to bitters, the second most vital ingredient in cocktails following the booze. Bitters were something he could begin tinkering with in his spare time, with the ultimate and immodest goal of making a product that was better than he could buy.
Along with the rise of craft cocktails in this country, there has been a corresponding revival of the bitters market, which also once flourished before being decimated by Prohibition. While there is a broad range of categories, styles and flavor profiles on the modern-day bitters market, the most common type, explains Irvine, is represented by aromatic bitters like Angostura and Peychaud's.
"Eighty to 90 percent of cocktails with bitters in them use aromatic bitters, so that's the style I wanted to tackle," he explains. "But I wanted to offer something with a slightly different flavor palate."
The key flavor components in aromatic bitters come from characteristically warm spices like cloves, cardamom and cinnamon — your mulling spices. Irvine liked that as a starting point, but his bitters would diverge in a slightly different direction.
"I decided to do something around Chinese five spice, because right there you've got clove, fennel, star anise, cinnamon, and then also some Szechuan peppercorn for heat."
Full Measure Bitters, the name Irvine and his wife and business partner Stephanie Jansky ultimately landed on for their new product, starts with those five key ingredients but contains another 10, including black mission figs for aroma and color. The characteristic bitterness in bitters comes from the addition of roots, barks and/or leaves.
Irvine next turned his attention to the production method, which typically involves a weeks-long maceration and extraction process that results in what he describes as blended but murky stew-like flavors.
"I have a technique that allows me to extract everything in 24 hours and bottle after 48," he says, being intentionally vague. "My technique is the best I have found for color, for aroma, and flavor clarity. It's a unique process that provides a cleaner expression of flavors."
When he landed on a result he was proud of, Irvine began soliciting opinions from pros he admired in the cocktail world. One of the first guinea pigs was Paulius Nasvytis of the Velvet Tango Room, known far and wide for its progressive cocktail program.
"It's got a unique flavor profile, but it's still something that's versatile enough to be used in quite a few cocktails," Nasvytis says of the bitters. "It's not too heavy in one particular ingredient and it's very well balanced. Having tasted the product in an Old Fashioned, I thought it was just delicious, but I'm looking forward to working more with the product to see how it works with various spirits."
"If you could please Paulius, you've done something right," Irvine remarked of the experience. "The first time he tasted it and liked it was what made me realize that I was on to something."
Bottles of Full Measure Bitters weigh in at 100 ml, or 3.38 ounces. They are topped with a "dasher top" as opposed to a dropper top because the gesture requires less time and fewer steps for busy bartenders. The price per bottle will run anywhere from $16 to $18, but each bottle contains enough bitters to make at least 50 cocktails.
As soon as this week, the product will begin appearing on the backbars of places like Velvet Tango Room, Porco Lounge & Tiki Room, and Society Lounge. It also will begin appearing at select retail outlets like Bank St. Wine & Spirits on West Sixth and Happy Hour Collection at the 5th Street Arcades. Irvine is the only person in Ohio legally doing this for sale, he says.
"We are a cocktail specialty shop that sells everything you need for your cocktails minus the booze," says Happy Hour Collection owner Marie Teckmyer, who opened the shop last year.
Already Teckmyer carries about 10 lines of bitters, with roughly 30 different types available. Shelf space at the shop is limited and a new product hits the market every day, it seems. The owner says that not only does she routinely turn down product requests, but she stopped carrying certain brands because the product no longer met her satisfaction. Still, she will be making room for Full Measure Aromatic Bitters.
"They are locally made, but more important than just being locally made, they are actually quality bitters," Teckmyer explains. "He is very good at extracting a bunch of different flavors and when you make a cocktail with them it's definitely a nice, well balanced cocktail."