Potion No. 5 — Chico's Five by Five Tonics Company
By Melissa Mendonca
Photo by Michelle Smith
The Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Sazerac have more in common than being popular Prohibition-era cocktails that are making a comeback with the emerging craft-cocktail movement. They all include bitters as a small but significant component of their ingredients.
For people as passionate about the buy-local movement as they are the seriousness of their cocktails, Chico’s Five by Five Tonics Co. is the answer to fresh, local, expertly crafted bitters.
“Making these is essentially how you would make a tincture, a Chinese remedy,” says Jesse Smith, herbalist and owner of Five by Five. His journey to bitters began not in bartending but as an acupuncturist with a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine from Five Branches University in Santa Cruz.
“It’s a nod to the training that made this all possible,” Smith says of the name Five by Five Tonics Co. In traditional Chinese medicine, there are five traditional flavors and five elements that must be incorporated into a remedy.
In radio communication, “5 by 5” is a way to communicate top clarity and top quality. With a smile, Smith also admits that that the name is also a “funny coincidence” in that it pays homage to a character in his favorite TV show, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
The route from medicinal tincture to cocktail bitters required a lot of u-turns and recalculating. Medicinal tinctures are often incredibly bitter and equally unappetizing. A cocktail bitter must be strong but pleasing. It took months of experimentation for Smith to find the right combination of ingredients like cardamom, orange peel and coriander. “The trick is to find the balance in all that,” he says.
Bitters were first developed for cocktails as a way to mask the harsh taste of poorly distilled spirits, such as bathtub gin and moonshine. “Nowadays you’re looking to enhance the flavor rather than mask it,” he says. A growing number of craft distillers offer top-quality spirits now, so the point is to bring equal attention to each component of a drink, including the bitters, which may be only a short — but important — splash.
Smith has also developed a tonic syrup based in the Chinese herb Gentian root. Mixed with a quality club soda, it creates a tonic water that more closely resembles the experience when gin and tonics were mixed as malaria prophylaxis. “The idea behind this product is to go back to that time,” he says.
He adds, “If you’re going to go so far as to get the right gin, go the extra mile and get the right tonic.”
One thing that Smith really enjoys about mixology is the potential to make something remarkable through the care of adding craft ingredients. His all-time favorite drink is a Manhattan, which brings in the traditional American spirit of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a cherry garnish such as a real maraschino cherry or a brandied cherry.
“Everything in the drink has the potential to be made perfectly or at least really well,” says Smith. “There’s also potentially so much variation in each of the products that you can wind up with something very different.”
One could say that a car crash brought Smith to where he is today, which is not only the owner of Five by Five Tonics Co., but the acupuncturist at Sierra Nevada Brewery’s on-site medical clinic.
In seeking healing to injuries sustained in a crash, he found chiropractic care and therapeutic massage incredibly important. When he combined this insight about complementary medicine with his martial arts practice, which mirrors much of the philosophy of Chinese medicine, he found his niche with martial arts friends who were also attending Five Branches. Once he discovered Five Branches, “I signed up within a month,” he says.
Five by Five Tonics is celebrating its first-year accomplishments with a new public tasting room and retail shop. The newest bitter, Grapefruit Oolong, just hit the shelf and is lined up next to an array of rare barware that is for sale. Classic Old Fashioned and highball glasses seen in old movies such as “The Thin Man” can be difficult to find. Smith has been scouring sources to bring them to his Chico shop.
Of the fine craft cocktails he strives to make, he says, “They have to be in the right glassware. It has to be correctly served.”
As Five by Five Tonics Co. grows, Smith looks for inspiration to Chico businesspeople like Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada Brewery and Sarah Adams at Chico Chai, who have made their products important to the region. His business is still a one-person show and it’s important to him that people know, “The business has somebody behind it. It’s a personal story. The product means something.”
Five by Five Tonics Co. • 27 Lost Dutchman Drive, Chico
(530) 828-6466 • www.fivebyfivetonics.com