Tagging behind Carlos Victoria around Sunset Park, Brooklyn, is a little like trailing the mayor of a small town. Pick him up at 39th Street and the moment you’re on Fifth Avenue, an old man greets him with a private joke. He lingers for awhile in bodegas and fruit stands, talking to the guys about what spices and produce have come in (dried grasshoppers are not always available). He stops in at Rico Pollo 3, a crowded Dominican restaurant, and the woman behind the steam table hands him a container of pernil for his Cuban Sándwiches. He runs into his mom who’s out shopping at a store down the block. She bestows kisses all around and has some family news for him. One more kiss goodbye then he heads over to El Rancho grocery store on 44th Street (they have dried grasshoppers for him!) and then a turn on 46th Street and a steep climb up the hill to Eighth Avenue to one of the most vibrantly fresh produce stores you’ve ever seen. The Asian women at the cash registers give him a special smile as he pays for a handful of herbs. All along he’s softly humming to himself, a contented man on a mission, as he finally arrives at his store, Sunset Botanica on 40th Street where he brews some of the most interesting bitters you’ll ever drip into a cocktail.
That was a couple of months ago. He closed his store in December, despite a loyal following of bar owners. I count myself lucky to have found him and am now in possession of several bottles of Carlos’ different flavored bitters. Every time a cocktail is made in my house I have to slap several hands away from stealing them.
Bitters is an ancient brew of herbs once used to treat all kinds of stomach and digestive ailments. In fact, this was how I first encountered it when I was a bar waitress and the owner mixed a good amount of Angostrua in a glass of seltzer to calm menstrual cramps. I can’t say I liked the taste but it worked. I suspect that for most people their own first encounter comes in a cocktail glass.
Carlos was working at a fashionable bar in Williamsburg when he started experimenting with cocktail recipes. He may have a degree in architecture but building drinks from different spirits, fruits and spices proved more intriguing. The complexity of bitters fascinated him, the way it underscored the taste of individual liquors. Its amber tones added beauty.
“You first taste with your eyes,” he said. The drink’s color, the correct pour in the glass, the perfect froth or iciness, all go into making a cocktail the deeply satisfying pleasure it can be.
He began to research the history of bitters. There is no standard recipe for it beyond being composed of herbs and spices steeped in alcohol. Carlos started by using traditional ingredients but quickly turned to searching through spice stores to discover unique blends. He experimented with dehydrating citrus fruits and crushing up flowers.
At times, the results were less than perfect.
“I was working for awhile on a blend of vanilla and peach but then I thought about throwing in cinnamon. It wasn’t that cinnamon was a bad idea but I added to much. The whole batch went bad just like that,” Carlos said, snapping his fingers to illustrate the millisecond between perfection and failure.
Along the way, he created cocktail recipes and tested them out on colleagues and friends. Bosses at the various venues where he worked were supportive of what he was trying to do and allowed him to offer his creations to customers. All tolled, it took about two years of constant effort before he felt comfortable enough in his ability to produce consistent, finely balanced bitters and to go out on his own.
The renewed popularity of cocktails have fostered a handful of crafted bitters brands. Carlos’ Dominican heritage separates his from the competition. Along with herbs and spices his blends may include chili and mezcal. A friend from Mexico brought hibiscus blossoms back for him. Those dried grasshoppers add a pleasing tang to a mix for rimming a margarita. He also makes shrubs–another old tonic that consists of fruit and vinegar–and adds them to cocktails. His pineapple ginger is particularly bracing in a recipe for mito y leyenda.
Carlos plans to begin offering his bitters, shrubs, and dry rubs online sometime this spring. In the meantime, he’s orchestrated several pop up events that include hors d’oeuvres and live music with his cocktails. Keep an eye out for both by following him on Instagram. In the meantime, relax with one of his cocktails.
Vanilla Old Fashioned
1/2 oz simple syrup
Sunset Botanica vanilla bitters
2 oz whiskey or dark rum
Stir the bitters and simple syrup together in a rock glass then add rum.
Add a handful of ice cubes and stir for 30 seconds.