by Liza Roberts
photographs by Nick Pironio
Craig Rudewicz stirred up his first batch of bitters behind the bar he managed at Little Hen restaurant in Apex a few years ago. Inspired by the cinnamon and clove flavors of the classic Angostura brand, his debut effort was “very cloudy, very thick, and not that tasty.”
In other words, nothing at all like Rizzo, the rosemary, grapefruit, and peppercorn bitters that earned him a national Good Food Award last year. Also nothing like his other Crude brand bitters, including Sycophant (orange and fig); Bitterless Marriage (hibiscus, lavender, and oak), or Big Bear (coffee and cocoa).
Bitters (for the glass-of-white-wine crowd) are a flavorful, often bitter, alcoholic concoction infused with botanicals like bark, herbs, fruit, roots, or spices. They are mixed in dropper-sized amounts into cocktails to add a certain zing.
Rudewicz makes his bitters in a warehouse near the Amtrak station downtown where he also makes shrubs (fruit syrups made with sugar and vinegar), runs a cocktail-supply shop, and gives cocktail classes. His wife, hospitality marketer Lindsay Lasserre, helps him out when she can, but it’s mostly Rudewicz doing all of the flavor-creating, batch-making, bottling, labeling, and shipping. He says Crude is North Carolina’s first cocktail bitters maker.
It’s an opening Rudewicz seized on as he surveyed the region’s cocktail scene after he and Lasserre moved here from Boston for Raleigh’s creative vibe and mellow weather. Local beer, he could see, was booming, but he didn’t think he had the patience to brew it. Local distilleries were gaining a toehold, which encouraged him. “More people are becoming aware of how to make a drink or try a new style of whiskey or gin,” he says. “Bitters were the best way I could contribute to that community.” It didn’t take a lot of tincture-tinkering before he zeroed in on a distinctive offering: bitters designed to mix not necessarily with bourbon or whiskey, but with lighter spirits like gin, tequila, or vodka. “I just kind of nerded out and started making different bitters at home,” he says.
When Walter asked Rudewicz to concoct a special cocktail to celebrate the month of March, he called on Rizzo to create a version of a Paloma, a traditional Mexican grapefruit-and-tequila cocktail. “When it’s March, you’re really ready for winter to be over. You’re hoping and praying it will be spring, but you’re about a month out.” Here’s his effort to bridge that gap with a North Carolina version of a Paloma – a word, he notes, that means dove in Spanish. “Since we’re using a few North Carolina products,” he says, “let’s call it El Cardenal.”
1 ounce blanco tequila
1 ounce Fair Game Beverage Company Flying Pepper vodka
(tobago-pepper-infused vodka from Pittsboro)
1 ounce Crude grapefruit shrub
¼ ounce simple syrup
Seltzer water, to taste
One whole dropper Crude Rizzo bitters
Sprig rosemary or slice grapefruit, for garnish
In a Collins glass filled with ice, add tequila, pepper vodka, shrub, and simple syrup. Top with seltzer. Stir to incorporate. Add one drop of Rizzo bitters. Garnish with either a rosemary sprig or a slice of grapefruit.