For people who don’t partake of cocktails, bitters can be a mystery.
“They’ve only been known by the imbibing population,” said Sara Lund, who owns two downtown Salt Lake City cocktail bars and is the founder of Honest John Bitters. “People who don’t drink may never have heard of them, or think that because they’re made with alcohol they’re not allowed to drink or consume them. But the process is no different than making vanilla extract.”
In simplest terms, bitters are what one gets when soaking aromatic botanicals in a neutral spirit. For hundreds of years, people have been soaking such ingredients as anise seeds, cinnamon bark and orange peel in clear alcohol, to extract the flavors and scents.
Some bitters were used medicinally, with the best-known brand, the Venezuela-based Angostura, invented in 1824 by a doctor as a tincture to ease stomach distress. They were also used for flavoring, to add bitter notes to balance out the sweet, sour and salty; in colonial New England, they were used to pep up something called “Canary wine” (named for the islands, not the bird).
In Utah, a state not traditionally known for its craft cocktail culture, at least three companies have sprouted up here in the last seven years. And the people behind those brands — Bitters Lab, Grandeur View Bitters and Honest John Bitters — say the product is more versatile and complex than one might think.
Wedding cakes and whiskey barrels
Andrea Latimer, founder of Bitters Lab, said she started experimenting with bitters in 2008, though it was an accident.
Latimer had a wedding cake business, she said, and was making her own vanilla, chocolate and almond-mint extracts from scratch.
“And I got into making old-fashioneds and things at home,” she said. “I became fascinated with this product I never really heard of, other than Angostura. I realized there were a few other companies out there making other flavors, and it was very similar to what I was doing with extracts.”
She began mixing bitters in her basement, she said; her friends teasingly referred to it as “the bitters lab.”
Latimer said she burned out on the intensity of making wedding cakes in Utah, so she drifted toward the idea of making bitters — not for cocktails, but to make less conventional desserts.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I can educate people and show them that there are uses for bitters besides cocktails,’” she said. “I opened a dessert stand at the Farmers Market called Bitter Sweet. We served fruit covered in bitters-infused sugar, then hit it with a brulee torch to caramelize it, and release those bitter flavor profiles.”
Soon, she said, customers asked for the bitters themselves. Latimer said she began researching bottles, droppers, and labels. After the market closed for the season, “I spent the whole winter figuring that out, and what flavors we’d start with,” she said.
In summer 2015, Latimer officially launched Bitters Lab at the Downtown Farmers Market. In her booth, Latimer said she initially offered three flavors: aromatic (cinnamon, anise, citrus & clove), charred cedar & currant, and habanero lime — all of which they still make.
Since then, the company has added eight more flavors, including burnt honey hops, blueberry cardamom and Utah celery & green coriander. The brand is available at dozens of establishments in Utah, including Harmons, Whole Foods, Caputo’s and Ogden’s Salt & Hops — and, according to the company’s website, businesses in 19 states outside of Utah.
Last year, Bitters Lab partnered with Uncle Nearest, a Black- and female-owned distillery in Tennessee. Named in honor of Nearest Green, the first African American master distiller on record (and credited with teaching Jack Daniel how to make whiskey), its master blender is Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great-great-great-grandaughter.
“We had collaborated with them on a virtual cocktail class,” Latimer said. “It really was just for Women’s History Month, and to support us as a bitters company, them as a whiskey company, both female-owned. They reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, we have this recently emptied 1856 barrel. Do you have a use for it?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, please!’ It showed up on a pallet on a shipping truck five weeks later, and as we were waiting for it to arrive, we came up with the flavor we’d put in it.”
The flavor Latimer chose was apple — a flavor she discontinued some years earlier because it generated too much waste. Latimer said she reached out to Green Urban Lunchbox, a local gleaning co-op, which provided 200 pounds of apples harvested from Salt Lake City gardens. In March — again in honor of Women’s History Month — they released their barrel-aged bitters,
“We had another virtual class with Victoria,” Latimer said. “We talked about the bitters, we talked about the collaboration. She shared her story, and her family’s story. It was very moving.”
Bitters Lab is now working on a new collaboration, Latimer said — this time with Beehive Distilling, who will provide a barrel in which gin was aged for seven years.
“That is the oldest gin, the oldest barrel gin on record,” Latimer said. “There is no gin to anyone’s knowledge that has been aged for longer than seven years. So that’s a really cool project. We have the bitters sitting in the barrel right now. They’ve been there for two months.”
The release date, she said, is yet to be determined. “We’re just kind of taking it as it goes,” she said. “When it’s done, it’s done.”
Bitters as a teaching tool
Anne Arendt-Bunds’ job is teaching technology to business students at Utah Valley University, where she’s a professor. Her hobby is roasting her own coffee, brewing tonics and making bitters.
She created her company, Grandeur View Bitters, last December to combine those two things.
“I figured one of us in the [technology management] department should have an LLC, or have run a business if we’re going to be teaching more business-related things,” she said. “So then it was like, ‘Well, if I’m going to start an LLC, what would I like to do? What would be fun for me as well as practical?’ Bitters came immediately to mind, because we were already making them for fun. They’re safer when it comes to not giving people food poisoning or something, right? They have a long shelf life. I can make them in small doses.”
Creating Grandeur View, she said, required approval from the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (which this month changed its name, replacing “Control” with “Services”), due to the alcoholic content of bitters. Arendt-Bunds is doing the onerous licensing paperwork herself, she said, so she can become the ultimate authority on starting an LLC and better serve her students — some of which are too young to drink.
Bitters, Arendt-Bunds said, aren’t just for cocktails. “My husband and I primarily use bitters in sparkling, or tonic water,” she said. “If I give a sample at the farmers market, I put it in a cup of sparkling water, so they can get a sense of the taste. You can technically add it to coffee, and that’s a pretty high bar to get coffee to taste different.”
Arendt-Bunds’ plan, she said, was to launch with six flavors. “But I hadn’t realized how difficult it is to get bitters approved by the [federal] Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. If I were to do it again, I don’t think I’d start with six, but that’s what I have!”
At present, she said, two flavors have been fully approved, three others are in the queue for approval, and one is still in the process of being approved.
All of Grandeur View’s bitters are infused in clear alcohol for a month, double-filtered, and aged in clay pots, she said. The two flavors now available are gooseberry-armageddon pepper and grapefruit complex, which received a 95-point gold rating from the International Wine & Spirit Competition.
Quake, which is in the queue for approval, was made as a gift to her geologist husband when they got married last summer, she said. “The goal for that one was to make it something you could add to coffee, so it had to have some pretty strong flavors,” she said, adding that it has potent notes of cocoa and raisin.
Orange-sumac was made in collaboration with her 21-year-old son, Alex, she said. She made citron, she said, “just because we weren’t sure what citron tasted like.” And in lieu of orange, which is common, “we made a lime aromatic,” she said. “I’m still playing around with how that should ultimately taste.”
Grandeur View bitters can be purchased online, as well as at the Wheeler Farm and Daybreak farmers markets. Arendt-Bunds includes recipes with every order and on her site, including recipes for champagne cocktails, and non-alcoholic drinks and even one for coffee.
“I’m starting with farmers markets and online so I can get everything as ready as it has to be, and then at some future point, phase two or phase three, would be trying to get it into markets,” she said. “But I’m just a one-person shop working out of a commissary.”
But doing everything herself, she said, was the most important thing — even more important than the final recipe for lime bitters.
“I’m doing this as by the book as I can,” she said, “because the idea really is also to live the experience, so any experience I have, my students may have, creating an LLC.”
Baking with bitters
Sara Lund, owner of the downtown Salt Lake City cocktail bars Bodega and The Rest, launched Honest John Bitters in 2016. She said she started using bitters in any way possible at both bars, to educate people about how versatile they are. At Bodega, Lund said she uses bitters in sauces, dressing, marinades and glazes; the drink menu at The Rest always includes at least three seasonal nonalcoholic drinks using bitters, she said.
Two holiday seasons ago, Honest John released an orange-clove bitters, which Lund said can be used for baking. “You can also use them for glazes for cinnamon rolls — for fall and winter baking,” she said. “It’s also delicious in tea.”
Though bitters traditionally use strong, flavorless spirits (“which is essentially Everclear, a very neutral, tasteless base that is high-enough proof it can extract all the flavors out of the ingredients,” Lund said), Honest John has experimented with more flavorful bases.
“Our black walnut, our chocolate and our coffee-cherry” — made with beans from Publik — “are all made with a high-proof bourbon base,” Lund said. “Our aromatic bitters are made with a high-proof rye. And those top four are our top-selling flavors. It’s not something you find very often.”
Honest John makes a box of 10 sample vials, including basics like orange, grapefruit, lavender, lemongrass/cardamom, coffee/cherry, sarsaparilla, and black walnut. It’s basically a sort of chemistry set for bitters, complete with a recipe booklet, Lund said.
“There’s only enough to make two or three drinks, or one substitution for a flavor extract if you want to cook or bake with them, so you can just try it, and determine what flavors you like, and how you want to use them,” Lund said.
For those who want to experiment, the sample sets are available online, and at Harmons stores, along with regular four-ounce bottles. “We actually have a recipe section on the website, one for cocktails, one for non alcoholic drink recipes, and also baking and cooking,” Lund said. “Everything from chocolate chip cookies to a steak marinade.”
Lund said Honest John is also an opportunity to teach people about everything bitters are capable of doing — and that’s the next bit step.
“That’s something we’ve really tried to focus on since we started,” she said. “That’s part of why we got an educational license, so we can hold classes and teach people. Last year, I was like OK, we’re going to do it. And then and then case counts would go up. You want to do it the right way, and you want good attendance and, and yeah, it just wasn’t the right time yet. But I think we’re finally there.”
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