When bitters were first added to alcohol the cocktail was born. But the history of bitters reaches back much further than the early 19th century. Although now used almost exclusively as flavoring agents for our favorite cocktails, (and an instrumental part of the craft cocktail revolution), bitters as traditional tincture and herbal medicine have been around since time immemorial. In her new line of hand crafted bitters, Shae Whitney, founder and bitters maker of DRAM Apothecary, has managed to merge these worlds once more. And it’s our health and taste buds that stand to reap the benefit.
O&G: Okay Shae, in a dozen words or less, why use Bitters?
Shae: They have so many uses, from flavoring cocktails, sauces and cookie batter to soothing upset stomachs and calming allergies. My Honey Chamomile Bitters will add a delicate charming nuance to cakes and muffins, a soft and interesting kick to any cocktail and if you battle with seasonal allergies like I do, a hefty shake in small glass of water will calm reaction symptoms immediately. Bitter flavors induce satiation which in turn kick starts your digestive system and gets things moving along.
O&G: Now we’re talkin. How did you get started?
Shae: I studied food science, agriculture and herbalism in my college years, so the preparation of bitters was familiar to me, from a medicinal standpoint. Bartending was my main bread and butter for about 7 years, and one day I found myself reading the ingredients of the classic Angostura Bitters and I was shocked to see they use synthetic flavoring and dye, two things I am very opposed to. So I set out to make better, all-natural bitters that could even have added health benefits.
O&G: Sounds like in DRAM you’ve found a way to merge your two passions then, mixology and herbalism.
Shae: Absolutely. I have essentially fused these two worlds together with my product line. This is something I am very proud of, being able to make bitters that don’t just taste good but will also make you feel good! DRAM is the only wild-crafted bitters company. It truly is a product of the Colorado soil, my home, and that is precious to me and fans of DRAM.
O&G: Would you say there’s such a thing as “northern Colorado terroir”?
Shae: The location of our factory is definitely important to the bitters. Our bitters are crafted at 9,100 feet in Silver Plume, CO using spring water straight from the peaks. Silver Plume is considered to be a “living ghost town” as there are original historic structures preserved in time on dirt roads, with less than 100 people living among them. We chose this setting as it was in line with our aesthetic and belief in bitters made the old-fashioned way with wild herbs gathered from the surrounding hills and valleys.
I can’t speak for a general terroir of Colorado, but I do know something special happens when you craft bitters using herbs grown in fresh mountain air, away from pollutants and contaminants. We are working on opening the space up as a bar/cafe/tasting room. If you ever find yourself in Colorado please do stop by!
O&G: Foraging herbs from hillsides in the Colorado summer sun? Sounds like you have your hand in every step of the bitters making process, from bark to bottle. This speaks to the difference between artisanal bitters and their more commercial equivalent, no?
Shae: In my opinion commercial bitters companies aren’t even in the business of manufacturing bitters, they are in the business of manufacturing synthetic culinary flavorings. Commercial bitters are crafted using alcohol, and a bittering root such as gentian, synthetic flavoring and dye. By making them this way they essentially cut out the most important, (and time consuming part), which is allowing herbs to steep and macerate in alcohol for 1 week to 6 months.
Artisanal bitters are generally made in very small batches, around 2-5 gallons, while commercial are made on a massive scale, in giant plastic or stainless steel tanks. At DRAM we use only glass and wood in the crafting of our bitters as I was taught that metals can have various reactions with herbal preparations. We never use plastic as it is known to leach chemicals.
O&G: It’s 5 o’clock somewhere, let’s talk consumption.
Shae: I have a recipe for Hollandaise Sauce that was born out of a desperate moment. I had no citrus in the house, artichokes on the grill and hungry guests. I decided to use my DRAM Citrus Medica bitters in place of the lemon juice and the result was this lovely sauce with unusual and intoxicating depth to it. I include this recipe on a little card with all of my orders.
But to quench your thirst…here is an interesting recipe using ROOT plus DRAM Hair of the Dog Bitters. I am a huge fan of ROOT liqueur made by the folks at Art in the Age in Philedelphia.
2 oz bourbon
1 oz ROOT
1/2 oz grapefruit juice
splash of ginger ale or 1/2 oz simple syrup
5 shakes DRAM Hair of The Dog Bitters
Combine all ingredients and shake with ice. Serve in a mason jar over fresh ice and top with a float of sour beer, preferably Duchesse De Bourgogne. A nice wheat beer will do the trick as well. Garnish with a lemon wheel or fresh mint.
Interview by Brad Jones. Big thanks to Shae & the DRAM team for schooling us. Photo’s provided by DRAM.