Bitters are to craft cocktails what salt is to baked goods: an important elevation. I’m always surprised when I don’t see salt in the recipe for any baked good. It’s the secret of great bakers — that seemingly small addition that draws out more fully the other flavors. I feel the same about bitters in cocktails. While they may not draw out the other flavors like salt does, they enhance the overall flavor, making it exponentially more than it would otherwise be.
Until recently, it’s been a secret of great bartenders, used rarely at home by the resident cocktail maker (or baker). But these days, what was once understood and used primarily by the professionals is now accessible and approachable to everyone. At price points on average from $8 to $20, they’re also an affordable way to add interest and depth to drinks and eats.
Bitters are referred to as both tinctures and tonics and consist of esoteric roots, herbs and barks, steeped in an alcohol base. The very word tincture is defined as a medicine in which a drug — in this case those healthful elements from the natural world — is dissolved in alcohol. A tonic is similarly defined as a medicinal preparation meant to restore vigor and well-being. Bitters were introduced to America in the 18th century, as cure-alls. The one you’ll hear most every bartender talk about is Angostura, a highly concentrated type first produced in 1824 in a town of the same name in Venezuela and now made in Trinidad and Tobago. Angostura might be the most common, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best. Made with artificial color, bartenders talk about it like it’s the yellow powder accompanying the dried macaroni in the blue box that you’re supposed to see as real cheese.
Instead, there’s a movement toward craft and small-batch bitters. We in Colorado have a couple of incredible local resources for craft bitters — Cocktailpunk in Boulder and DRAM Apothecary in Silver Plume. Cocktailpunk began after owner Ray Snead, a Boulder food and beverage veteran for more than 30 years — and the first employee of Boulder Wine Merchant besides the owners themselves — began making bitters as an experiment that turned into a hobby.
“Bartender friends loved them too, first Allison Anderson at Frasca Food & Wine and Bryan Dayton at Oak at Fourteenth; they encouraged me, and it went from there,” Snead says. “Now we are in the best places in Boulder, and are expanding to Denver, Longmont, Fort Collins and even Charleston, S.C. In fact, I just shipped the first bottles to a distributor in Australia.”
Currently available in three flavors, Cherry, Orange and Aromatic, Cocktailpunk prides itself on the use of no artificial colorings or sweeteners.
To make bitters, it’s a process much like making extracts, where the bitter elements, along with the flavor ele ments, infuse in liquor. Vodka, gin, white rum, whiskey and brandy are all great liquor options. But unlike the ease with which home cooks can get their hands on vanilla beans, cinnamon or citrus, to make homemade extracts, getting hands on bitter herbs and barks takes more ingenuity.
Silver Plume, a town long-known as one of ghosts, seems like a most appropriate place for the bitters craft, where DRAM Apothecary makes its home. Both the town and the craft itself are steeped in mystery and legend and magic. Shae Whitney, owner, herbal alchemist and Colorado native, collects herbs and barks from the mountainside surrounding her space. This is as local as it gets.
DRAM was conceived when she alchemized her experience as a bartender with her love of the plant world.
After studying food science, herbalism and botany in college, Whitney put her specialized knowledge to use in the real world. And what’s more practical than a cocktail? Having been trained in bartending by none other than Kurt Cobain’s sister, Kim, in Olympia, Wash., Whitney learned at the hip of someone serious about that particular craft. But Whitney says, “Kim liked to make sweet drinks, so I had to teach her how to make them Susan France more balanced.”
When I ask Whitney about Silver Plume, she says, as she hands me a pamphlet on the storied place, “The town has been here since 1872. It burned down twice. … We bought this place in January, did all our own renovations and opened in June.”
Brady Becker, Whitney’s partner and co-owner, says Silver Plume isn’t as far as some might think. He says he can often get there from central Denver more quickly than he can get to North Boulder. Five vintage barstools sit in DRAM’s tasting room at a low counter that, Whitney says, “would have been the average bar height for people of that time, the late 1800s.”
Turns out they kept the original bar from the bakery that occupied the space for the 40 years before Whitney and Becker found it. In honor of the building’s history, they left the “Bread” sign hanging out front. They even kept the original, charming grain bins, now lining the inside wall to the left of the front door, many with grain still inside them. DRAM offers five flavors of bitters: Hair of the Dog, Wild Mountain Sage, Honey Chamomile, Citrus Medica and Black. They also make two loose teas: Cascara Coffee Cherry Chai and Cascara Coffee Cherry Tea. In late October, DRAM also had a Pine Syrup available for purchase at the bar, now available for sale on the website.
Whitney keeps limited weekend hours to leave as much time as possible to work her craft, and when she opens to the public, she serves a specialty cocktail and small bites, making the 53 miles between Boulder and Silver Plume feel like nothing to get this kind of experience directly. The tasting room is worth the drive as a destination visit or as a stop to or from the mountains.
If DRAM is the calm, cool and collected older sister, Cocktailpunk is the energetic, eclectic and edgy younger brother. Even each of their labels reflects this.
When I ask Snead what sets his bitters apart, he says, “I think of these as very modern bitters. They are simple and elemental building blocks that work in a lot of cocktails, not exotic flavors that you have to build a cocktail around.”
This is great news for the home cocktail makers who likely wouldn’t want to outfit their home bar with bottles upon bottles of bitters, like professional bartenders do. A few wellchosen ones that are versatile and the bar is ready for business.
“The home bitters user should understand that bitters are not exotic in cocktails,” Snead says, “and in fact the very definition of the word ’cocktail’ includes bitters. Bitters are used to accent and balance a cocktail, and one way to think of it is that bitters are to cocktails as spices are to food. Many classic cocktail recipes use bitters in one form or another, and there is no better starting point than the Manhattan: two parts rye, one part sweet vermouth and bitters, Cocktailpunk Cherry recommended. Garnish with a good cherry or a lemon twist.”
Where some bitters makers, like Snead, make bitters solely for use in cocktails, Whitney honors their medicinal origin and recipe possibilities, along with what they can do for a cocktail. Originally they were used to cure all kinds of ailments, most especially digestion issues. I found myself shaking a few drops directly from the bitters bottle into my mouth recently when my stomach was upset. It worked.
During my visit, I enjoyed a cup of chili, which had dashes of bitters in it, along with chocolate and one of Colorado’s best beers, Left Hand Milk Stout.
I also got a taste of DRAM’s famous cornbread, made with fresh sage, rosemary and their sage bitters. In fact, DRAM offers a number of cocktail and food recipes using bitters on the website, so you can try making Whitney’s clever recipes at home.