"For so long, we've been able to go to the store and get whatever cheap things we want. And now people are becoming more interested in handcrafted, regional products," says Shae Whitney, the City, O' City bartender who founded her own company, Dram Apothecary, which creates organic, handcrafted bitters. "People aren't going to bars and ordering rum-and-Cokes anymore. They're going to bars for the experience of having a fancy cocktail again."
For Whitney, those fancy cocktails must not only meet a sophisticated standard of taste and quality, but one of naturalistic health -- which she wants to provide with her lovingly prepared bitters.
Whitney, who started Dram in the summer of 2011, today makes five varieties of bitters, which she sells to Denver restaurants including Steuben's, Forest Room 5, Cafe|Bar and Ace, as well as locations in Portland and New York. She grows most of the ingredients in her own back yard, and what she doesn't grow, she harvests in the mountains or other open spaces.
But her interest in herbs and natural foods dates much further back than that. A Colorado native, Whitney left her home state in 2006 to study herbalism, food science and agriculture at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. "I spent four years visiting farms, studying how different modes of production were affecting our health and our economy; analyzing samples from farms back in the lab and studying the standards of organically certified farming," she says.
When she returned to Denver in 2010, however, a changing economy had minimized the options for a young food scientist looking to challenge our nation's health standards. "The only job offered at the time was testing somatic cell count in cows milk at Robinson Dairy," she recalls, "which is basically testing how much pus was in the milk."
So Whitney turned toward the most profitably comfortable occupation available in a down economy: Bartending. In her free time she continued to study food and organic farming, building a substantial urban garden and raising a few chickens while also developing a name for herself with her signature craft cocktails.
While reading M.F.K. Fisher's A Cordiall Water, a book of strange, holistic remedies from ages past, she stumbled on a recipe for sage bitters: "It was a really aloof recipe that read 'go up into the mountains, pick some sage, pack it into a jar and cover it with whiskey. Drink it in two weeks.'"
While hiking in the mountains, on a whim she tracked down the specific aromatic sage mentioned in the recipe, then followed directions to make the bitters -- and was delighted with the result. "It was amazing!" she says, adding that she was surprised at how such an unspecific recipe based on wild ingredients could yield a product far superior to standard industry bitters.
"Angostura and Peychauds are the two most common bitters you'll find in bars now," she says. "And they use synthetic ingredients and dye in their bitters. If you order a sazerac, and you see that red color when the bitters is dropped into your drink, that's a dye. Or take Fee Brothers bitters -- those are just glycerin and flavoring. To me, those shouldn't even be considered bitters, that's just a food flavoring."
With her bitters, Whitney aims to reattach the bond between the earth and what we put in our bodies -- without sacrificing taste. "Health and organic food are important to me," she says, "but at the same time, I like to drink. I like to be indulgent. This company has been a manifestation of my own life: I can get up in the morning and have a cup of tea with bitters in it, and then I can stay up all night drinking Manhattans with bitters."
Since that first batch of bitters, Whitney has refined her process, creating several varieties from a host of herbs, barks, berries and exotic roots. While bitters have a sordid history as patent medicines around the turn of the twentieth century -- when they allegedly could cure everything from fever sores and dyspepsia to blindness and obesity -- today they've regained their credibility.
"It's most definitely helpful with digestion," says Whitney. "Bitter flavors induce salivation, which kickstarts your digestive system. My Chamomile bitters are really good for allergies; and my Hair of the Dog hangover tonic will save you the morning after heavy drinking. There have been digestive bitters on the shelves at Whole Foods for years, but most of those taste terrible. And I'd been making tinctures and herbals for years back in school, but it never crossed my mind to put them into cocktails. I had this division of: this is herbal medicine, and those are bitters. Though they basically stem from the same root."
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But Whitney doesn't want to get much more specific than that. "This industry is getting really competitive," she notes. "There have been something like twenty new bitters companies in the last two years. Which is the largest resurgence in around a century. People who like bitters often become collectors, looking for old editions of Angostura on eBay, or rare bitters from Germany that they had to smuggle back here. They have astonishing collections, and will do things like place a drop of bitters on their hand, watching how it rolls to test the consistency. And I'm not so much focused on that. I'm focused on what's important to me: making medicinal, digestive bitters that are also designed to taste good. Whichever reason people buy them for, I've provided options either way."