Kelsey Riley is an herbalist with her own line of skincare products, and Nick Andresen has a background in chemistry and business, but the two share a passion for gin — to the extent that they decided to start a business together. Riley and Andresen formed Strongwater last winter with the long-term goal of distilling their own spirits, but their first products are a series of bitters and shrubs that showcase Riley's expertise in botanicals.
A shrub, Riley explains, is a sweetened, infused vinegar intended to capture the medicinal benefits of the fruits and other botanicals used. Strongwater's shrubs use apple cider vinegar, organic Colorado honey, fruit and herbs in much the same way as they were made more than 200 years ago in Colonial America. And like the original shrubs, Strongwater's concoctions can be used in cocktails or in non-alcoholic drinks. They come in flavor like blueberry and mint, peach and rose, and persimmon and lavender.
The bitters are made from more complex blends of herbs and spices in a grain alcohol base. Each ingredient, whether it's turmeric, cardamom and sassafras in the Golden Ichor or the vanilla beans, cacao nibs, Oregon grape root and milk thistle in the Amores Melipona, adds a flavor characteristic and a medicinal component. And while Riley and Andresen provide recipes to help both professional and home mixologists create cocktails with Strongwater bitters and shrubs, they note that only about thirty percent of the products they sell end up in alcoholic beverages. The other seventy percent is sold to customers who use the infusions for the claimed health benefits — everything from digestive issues to blood detox to liver and kidney support.
Colorado has seen a recent boom in new distilleries making craft spirits for an increasingly demanding clientele. "Our shrubs and bitters balance better with better spirits," Riley explains. Most mass produced bitters have a single-profile flavor and have limited uses, she says, but Strongwater offers more versatility. "For bartenders, it's a fun new thing to try," she adds of the shrubs.
Strongwater rolled out its first products at the Denver Flea last December but is finding a market in liquor stores and restaurants around town, including Argonaut Wine & Liquor, Gozo, the Bitter Bar in Boulder, Union Lodge No. 1 and Marczyk Fine Foods. "At Marczyk, they were already getting customers asking if they carried shrubs, so it made sense there," says Andresen.
"Mike Huggins [co-owner of Union Lodge No.1] used our Golden Ichor and won an Old Fashioned contest at the Source," he adds.
For those on the more herbal side of things, Strongwater can be found at Artemisia & Rue on Broadway and at Apothecary Tinctura on Sixth Avenue. The company also sells direct on its website. If you're looking to try a cocktail made with a Strongwater shrub or bitters, Andresen and Riley point out that Dustin Lawlor at the Kitchen is using the blueberry-mint shrub and James Lee at the Bitter Bar is working wonders with their bitters.