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Bitters revival is adding complexity to cocktails - and baking

Ingredients that make up a bottle of gin are displayed at the Victoria Spirits Distillery in Saanich, B.C. Wednesday May 15, 2013.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

VICTORIA — Tradition is an important ingredient in a family business, and for Victoria Spirits, known for its gin, it is also part of their bitters.

In modern cocktails, bitters are known as the salt and pepper of a good drink and come in a range of flavours, including orange, lime and pear.

"Just a dash of bitters can change the character of a drink, adding new complexity and dimension," said Peter Hunt, master distiller at Victoria Spirits.

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Hunt released the Victoria company's flagship product, Victoria Gin, in April 2008 with the help of the rest of the employees, who happen to be his sisters, brother-in-law, stepdad and mom.

"At the time there was a lot of cocktail culture going off in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada," said Hunt.

"A lot of people were making their own bitters including bartenders. We had access to alcohol and we were starting to see the revival of bitters. We thought we could do pretty good bitters too."

Bitters were introduced for their medicinal purposes such as treating seasickness, but eventually were added to cocktails as a way to dilute their pungent bitterness.

At Victoria Spirits, where they make a line of three bitters — orange, black pepper and rosemary grapefruit — they use the redistilled tails of their gin distillation combined with botanicals to give each their distinct flavour.

While the decision to include bitters among their products seemed natural, Hunt also sees it as part of a re-emergence of bitters in cocktails.

Bartenders aren't the only people using bitters in their recipes. Professional cooks like Hunt's sister Anna of Victoria's Charelli's and Co. began including them in her dishes after they started making them at the distillery.

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She uses the orange bitters in baking such as pancakes, cookies and brownies and another flavour even made an appearance as part of their Mother's Day meal.

"I used the black pepper bitters in a compound butter," she said. "I softened some butter and mixed it with salt and black pepper bitters and fresh chives and then I moulded it and set it up in the fridge. Then we served that with our steak, and it was also great on bread."

As the bitters trend spreads on the West Coast, another family distillery in Beamsville, Ont., has begun making and selling a Niagara grape-based bitters.

Peter Dillon, who is one of the owners of Dillon's Small Batch Distillers along with his son Geoff, has been interested in single malt whiskies since he was a graduate student.

"I actually began indulging in collecting it more than 30 years ago and I built up a good collection of all the different distilleries," said Dillon. "I think that kind of printed itself on my son Geoff, who became a scotch aficionado as well."

Dillon's opened their doors in December with a collection of Canadian rye, gin, vodka and four flavours of bitters.

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As a chemist Peter Dillon's interest in the distillation process and the creation of bitters began before the startup of the company.

"I've read a number of books, some of the older and newer ones on the history of cocktails and mixed drinks, and the original definition of a cocktail is a mix of spirits and bitters. A hundred years ago there were no cocktails that didn't have bitters," he said.

After many years with a limited selection of bitters on the market, Dillon said the distillery is struggling to keep up with the demand.

"People are going back to the days when there was more art to cocktails and more complexity in the drinks than just one-dimensional spirits and a can of soda pop," he said.

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