A Bitter Emergence

How the Medicine Cabinet Melded with the Bartender’s Toolkit

 Photograph by  Cat Mayer  

Photograph by Cat Mayer 

If the emergence of the craft cocktail has left you with some questions, you’re not alone. For example, What are aromatic cocktail bitters and shrubs? How do these concoctions find their way into a drink, and what purpose do they serve? Or, where can I get my hands (and tastebuds) on some?

    Bitters are a highly-flavored spirit made by infusing a neutral base such as alcohol (or glycerin, for a non-alcoholic option) with botanical ingredients such as herbs, fruits, roots, and even nuts. Originally (and still) used as a digestive aid, bitters are an essential ingredient in classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and New Orleans’ signature Sazerac. Modern-day mixologists love them for the dimension and interest they bring
to a beverage.

    Bitters production can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, who were known to infuse medicinal herbs into jars of wine. The practice grew in the Middle Ages, during which the availability of distilled alcohol coincided with a renaissance in plant-based medicine. Bitters were rumored to help with many ailments, most notably to help cure a stomach ache. Some current large-scale bitters producers claim their recipes were even formulated during this time. 

    From approximately 1800-1919 the world of bitters flourished, but with the Volstead Act of 1919 most makers of bitters were forced to shutter. Angostura, Peychaud, and Boker’s were some of the few that survived Prohibition. 

    Ingredients like cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel, cardamom, nutmeg, and cinchona bark are commonly used in bitters, which can be aged from one month to five years. Today there are countless different flavors on the market, including many artisanal and small-batch varieties. Producers of bitters are notoriously secretive about their recipes, though. For example, only five people in the world know the full recipe of Angostura bitters!

    A shrub, or drinking vinegar, is a concentrated syrup made with fruit, sugar, and vinegar. Like bitters, the shrub began as a medicinal product and a method for preserving fruit, especially berries. Popular in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, its use continued in the American colonies through the late 1800s. After falling out of popularity, especially after the advent of home refrigeration, shrubs are once again being appreciated in craft cocktails, on their own, or mixed with sparkling water or other mixers for a fresh and fruity “mocktail.” 

    Here in western Colorado, aficionados of aromatic bitters and shrubs are doing creative and inspired work. Dram Apothecaries in Salida uses organic, wild-foraged Colorado herbs to produce seven varieties of alcohol-free bitters. At Bin 707 Foodbar in Grand Junction, 

an array of artisanal cocktails incorporate shrubs and bitters, including Dram’s Wild Mountain Sage, Angostura, and several home-made renditions. In the North Fork Valley, sommelier and Storm Cellar Winery owner Jayme Henderson is the force behind the award-winning blog Holly and Flora (hollyandflora.com), which celebrates “culinary-inspired, garden-to-glass” cocktails and is a go-to source for concoctions that are both home-grown and sophisticated. 

    The recipes that follow are your chance to get on the botanical-beverage bandwagon. (Even if you’re “on the wagon,” both bitters and shrubs offer tasty options for non-drinkers.) Our bitters-based Canyon Collins, and Henderson’s Strawberry Pimm’s Cup Cocktail and Spring Strawberry Shrub are simple ways to start. Once you’ve mastered them, all are adaptable to keep you sipping through the seasons. 

The Angostura Collins was created by Jamie Boudreau at Canon Whiskey and Bitters Emporium in Seattle, hailed as one of the world’s best bars. Our version was adapted by Western Slope native Brandt Bishop, who served as executive chef at Canon. It incorporates bitters from Dram Apothecary, produced in Salida and available online at dramapothecary.com, to produce a Colorado take on this classic cocktail. The drink’s layered look reminds us of dramatic canyon walls. Try out other juices or bitters for various flavor and aesthetic combinations.  

The Canyon Collins Recipe

Ice

1 oz fresh lemon juice

1 oz rich simple syrup (made with 2:1 sugar-to-water ratio)

1½ oz chilled soda water

1 oz Hair of the Dog bitters 

Strip of lemon peel

1. Add the lemon juice and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake until chilled. 

2. Strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice, and add soda water. Gently pour the bitters over the top to create a layered effect. Garnish with the lemon peel. 

3. Serve with a straw, and stir before sipping.