The Mulberry Project is a well known travelling pop-up bar who are not strangers to Kenya. They had a pop-up at The Alchemist last year which was well received and introduced a whole new world of craft cocktail flavours to Nairobi. Now they are back! Well, not exactly but they did pop into the city for a week with their build-a-cocktail menu and I was able to track them down and attend their cocktail masterclass.
The interactive class, allowed participants to take a step behind the bar and mix their own cocktails with some guidance from two of the master mixologists. At the end, 4 participants were selected to make their own original cocktails from scratch while the other cocktail enthusiasts cheered them on.
After everyone dispersed to a late dinner, I sat down for a final round of cocktails with Mulberry Project mixologist, Joshua Newhouse to talk bitters and cocktails.
Let’s start with the most basic question: what are bitters?
Bitters are an overproofed spirit mixed with a herb or fruit or vegetable. When you add your herb, fruit or vegetable to the spirit, the high alcohol breaks it down and pulls out the flavours so after a few days you’re left with this super potent thing you would never drink on its own but you learn to use it in small quantities.
That makes sense. The only contact I have had here is with Angostura Bitters…
Here’s the thing with bitters in certain scenes, I don’t know if its because the cocktail scene is still developing and people haven’t invested in them so the market is not there for it yet. A lot of places we go where the cocktail scene is about to rocket they haven’t heard of varieties of bitters yet so we almost have to smuggle ours in.
So we’re all unfamiliar with them.
Yeah, that’s not surprising. Bitters are a recent thing that came up in the last 5 to 10 years and now they are really popular. So 10 years ago what you would be able to find in any bar in New York and London was Angostura Bitters and maybe Orange Bitters and then the last 10 years as craft cocktails began to have this big turn, companies that were doing bitters have done the same thing and expanded the range of bitters to match the popularity of these cocktails. So now you can get bitters in any flavour you can imagine.
You’ve mentioned New York. Having served cocktails there and here in Nairobi, how would you compare where we are in the cocktail scene?
What I have noticed in the Nairobi cocktail scene is that people are doing very advanced things but if you ask for simple cocktails then there’s a bit of confusion because they’ve gone from zero to trying to catch up with everyone else and so they skip all the steps of what makes a really good baseline cocktail. However, I saw the cocktails that were made at the World Class competition and they looked really good so you could say that Nairobi is on par with the rest of the world but it’s just missing that step in between.
It’s just like you describe. The Nairobi cocktail scene is big but it is also on the cusp of breaking out and becoming even bigger. I am sure you saw that when you had your pop up at The Alchemist last year.
There is an audience for craft cocktails here. At our last pop-up, we had such amazing support and everyone was so pumped. People really enjoyed the whole concept of building your own cocktail, with different combinations and it always works for people who love craft cocktails, are adventurous and willing to try new things.
What bitters do you carry and use in your cocktails?
Well at The Mulberry Project we’re trying to reel it and standardise a lot of things. One of those things is our bitters and what we carry. So right now we working with Angostura bitters, Regan’s 5 Orange Bitters, Scrappy’s Bitters (they do a lot of flavours and they do them well) Chocolate, Grapefruit, Celery, Orange, Lavender , Mole Bitters from Mexico (traditional way of cooking w/cacao & chocolate) with funk and spice and a lot of character and Apple Bitters.
Bitters are kind of the salt and pepper of the cocktail.
You’re adding all these flavours into a cocktail! What does adding bitters to a cocktail do for the taste?
Well, when you’re creating a cocktail you have a spirit, a sour element and a sweet element that balance then you’re adding other things like herbs or spices. Bitters add complexity to these flavours and create layers. For example, if you’re almost there with something or if you have 2 different flavours that aren’t quite meshing then bitters will bridge that gap.
Okay, now that we’re familiar with bitters could you give us a little advice on adding flavour to cocktails?
Of course! There are 4 ways to add flavour to a cocktail. Let’s use strawberries as our flavour of choice:
- Muddling: This is where you crush the strawberry straight into the cocktail for a flavour that’s very in your face.
- Infusion: Here you leave your strawberries to sit in your spirit of choice although this is mostly done with clear spirits such as gin. This makes the flavour a little bit more subtle.
- Tincture or bitters: I’ve already described it but this is when you let the ingredient sit for a longer period of time in an overproof spirit.
- Sugar syrup: This is made by mixing sugar and water in a 1:1 ratio, adding ingredients, strawberries in this case, to taste then blending and straining everything.
Look out for The Mulberry Project Pop-Up Bar at The Alchemist between August 1st and October 31st 2019.