Taste sweet truth about bitters this weekend at the first-ever Wine Country Distillery Festival
When liquor lovers gather at Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park on Saturday for the first Wine Country Distillery Festival, they will be tasting craft gins, whiskeys, vodkas and more, including the first locally made commercial absinthe, from artisan producers throughout Northern California.
They will also be savoring craft concoctions - shrubs, tonics, flavored syrups, boldly seasoned nuts and a kaleidoscope of bitters from North Bay producers - that have followed in the wake of the spirits revival.
Bitters are of particular interest, in part because there are endless variations, more than enough to hold the interest of foodies obsessed with the next exotic taste; and in part because its history reaches back hundreds, even thousands, of years.
There were once dozens of domestic bitters producers, but as Prohibition was enacted a century ago and picked up steam during the last half of 1919, demand declined. Only three brands - Angostura, Peychaud and Fee Brothers - survived.
For the next several decades, one or more of these bitters could be found in nearly every bar around the world. The Manhattan, Sazerac, Old Fashioned, Champagne cocktail and many other classic drinks all rely on bitters for their signature taste.
Bitters, sometimes called digestive bitters, are also used medicinally but more so in the past, it seems, than currently. There was a time when someone suffering an upset tummy would be treated with a glass of sparkling water or ginger ale spiked with a dropper full of orange bitters to ease symptoms. These digestive bitters work surprisingly well and are especially helpful when you are recovering from an intestinal virus.
But what are bitters, exactly? The answer is simple: Bitters are alcohol that is flavored by macerating herbs, spices, roots, bark, flowers, berries, fruit and vegetables for weeks, months or years. The concoction is then decanted and sold in small bottles typically fitted with an eyedropper.
Flavors are so intense that two or three drops can be enough to transform a beverage. Orange is probably the most common flavoring agent but ginger, grapefruit and cardamom are extremely popular as well.
Today, interest focuses primarily on culinary bitters, with flavors that reflect their makers' passions. These new craft bitters have captured the attention of restaurant chefs, too, and it is increasingly common to find dishes flavored with a dash of bitters.
Napa Valley Distillery, which makes several of its own bitters, sells bitters from dozens of producers, including those from the other three North Bay makers: Bitter Girl and Monarch Bitters of Petaluma and King Floyd of Novato.
Among the Napa Valley Distillery's most unusual flavors are Spruce Shoots, featuring citrus and pine; Dandelion and Burdock; and Wild Sage and Spiced Cranberry. (napadistillery.com)
Bitter Girl Bitters
Erin Hines, who founded Bitter Girl Bitters in 2013, makes her bitters using mostly ingredients she grows herself. After taking some time off last fall as she welcomed her firstborn in September, she released a new flavor, Go Walnut, using nuts from her two trees.
“Most producers go in the direction of nocino,” she explained, referring to Italy's sweet walnut liqueur. “I wanted the walnuts to be the focus so I didn't add other ingredients.” The Go Walnut is really bitter, she added.
Bitter Girl currently has five flavors: Pear Jordan pairs the fruit with hops; Mom's Prickly Poms features pomegranates; Bitter Rose uses flower petals from Hines' garden; Batch One, the first flavor Hines crafted, is now in its twelfth batch and is made with oranges, tangerines, vanilla bean, pomegranate, cinnamon and more; Morning Wood features barrel-aged coffee.
Bitter Girl Bitters are sold throughout the United States and in Australia. (bittergirlbitters.com)
Monarch Bitters was founded by Phaedra Achor in 2015. Her newest flavors include Smoked Salt & Pepper Bitters; Honey Aromatic Bitters; and Honey Lavender Bitters, which join such flavors as wormwood, cherry vanilla, citrus basil, bacon tobacco, cayenne ginger and lavender.
Achor teaches classes, too, that she refers to as “Mixology 101.” At a class at Spirit Works Distillery in Sebastopol in late January, 20 students were tutored in the history of bitters in cocktails and were given a formula for crafting balanced drinks, which they used to make their own, on the spot.
They also made their own bitters, using a Spirit Works spirit, Monarch syrups and botanicals from among those Achor brought to class. She sent them on their way with instructions to store their bitters in a cool dark place and to shake them vigorously once or twice a day for at least two weeks and longer for more intense flavors before decanting it.