By Gregory Daurer | Dec 08, 2020
Salt Lake City, Utah
"I own a cocktail bitters company," says Latimer. But adding them to cocktails is only one of the uses for her company's bitters -- which include flavors like Apricot Vanilla, Blueberry Cardamom, and Fig & Black Walnut. "They're great in coffee and tea, too," she adds.
As important as the creation of her company's bitters is to her, Latimer considers educating the public about what bitters are -- and their multiple uses -- a major part of her job as well.
Latimer explains about bitters, "They're basically concentrated extracts you add into your food and drink. They're most commonly associated with cocktails, but you can actually use them in all sorts of things. Think of them like a vanilla extract." In fact, they have the same legal designation as vanilla extract -- which is often made using grain alcohol and vanilla beans -- thus, allowing bitters to be sold at, say, grocery stores. But unlike a vanilla extract, bitters will also have the addition of one or more bittering agents -- such as cassia bark, gentian root, cinchona bark, devil's club root, and wild cherry bark. And although bitters are often thought of as a digestif, Latimer says, "Ours are more flavor-forward. They taste pretty different than digestif bitters do."
Before focusing exclusively on running a bitters company, Latimer sold brûléed fruit at farmer's market incorporating the bitters she prepared. With the same creativity she previously brought to making wedding cakes as a baker, she would sprinkle bitters-infused sugar over the top of the fruit and then use a torch to caramelize the sugar. One of her seasonal selections was fresh cherries with her Charred Cedar & Currant bitters within the caramelized sugar. "I just wanted to show people a different way to use bitters, since a lot of people [in Utah] are religious and they don't drink," says Latimer, who grew up near Salt Lake City.
Mind you, though: Latimer happily makes bitters that are utilized by bartenders within Salt Lake City's booming craft cocktail scene, as well. Bitters, she says, "provide a backbone to your cocktail" by binding together all the ingredients. "Without bitters, sometimes cocktails can seem a bit flat," Latimer says.
Latimer prepares her bitters in 500 square feet at Artspace Solar Gardens in Salt Lake City. There, she infuses "herbs, roots, barks, spices -- and then any fruit, vegetable or wood component" into grain alcohol in three- to 10-gallon batches, stirring them every day in their containers, aging them for two to four weeks. Then prior to bottling, they're run through either a basket filter or a filter machine -- or sometimes both. Some of the batches require multiple filtrations to make sure bits of, say, walnut or charred cedar are adequately removed.
Charred cedar wood? Indeed, Latimer adds pieces of charred cedar, in addition to currants, into one of her infusions. She says, "It's the same concept as to how you would age a whiskey: you're aging that in a charred oak barrel, and those charred notes bring out the flavors in the wood." She adds, "You'll get a little earthiness, you'll get a little smoke from charred cedar." For her Burnt Honey & Hops bitters, she cooked down Utah-produced honey in order to crystallize it, bringing out the "earthier" and "more floral notes" within it.
In addition to honey, Latimer locally sources other ingredients like apricots, cherries (used in some of her bitters, as well as sold as prepared cocktail cherries), celery, and habanero peppers (for her Habanero Lime bitters concoction). "The rhubarb that we get here is so good," she says of that ingredient she incorporated within her Rhubarb & Sea Salt bitters.
In addition to the company's production space, Latimer took on an additional 340 square feet earlier this year in order to teach classes on bitters. But when COVID-19 hit, she had to return around $5,000 worth of deposits. Luckily, a $5,000 development grant from the specialty grocery chain Harmons -- which recognized Bitters Lab for its local sourcing and community involvement -- kept the company going. "That couldn't have come at a better time," she says.
Latimer switched to teaching online, increasing her educational schedule to weekly classes. "We're gaining a really big following in Texas," she says, before adding, "We've been teaching classes to people from Seattle to upstate New York -- and we've actually had someone from Puerto Rico join one of our classes a few weeks ago, which is really cool."
Thanks to A Priori Distribution, Bitters Labs products can be found across Utah, as well as at specialty stores in a dozen additional states. The company grew 200 percent between 2019 and 2020. And, despite Covid, she forecasts it will grow another 100 percent next year.
Bitters Lab releases four seasonal offerings over the course of the year as part of its subscription service. The Summer Solstice release was Hibiscus & Yuzu. This year's Winter Equinox release is Hōjicha Tea bitters.
And then there's her year-round, more traditional-style Aromatic bitters, which her website calls, "Perfect for classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan," featuring a blend of anise, cinnamon, cherries, clove, and gentian root.
"Our Aromatic has cinnamon and warm, winter, spice-forward notes," says Latimer, a self-described "alchemist" of bitters. "A lot of people say it kind of tastes like what Christmas smells like."
Challenges: "Figuring out how to grow at a rate that is sustainable for myself and my other employee," says Latimer. Besides her onetime income from baking, Latimer's prior employment background includes healthcare administration -- such as, "enrolling patients into [cancer] trials, processing bloodwork." She points out, "I've never had a business like this, I've never worked at a production sort of facility."
Opportunities: "I honestly think the virtual classes," says Latimer. "Education is the most important part of what I do." She adds, "If we can't educate our customers on how to use our product -- or bitters in general -- we are doing a disservice, and we're going to lose people."
Needs: "Space," says Latimer. The company's already outgrowing its original production unit, as well as the extra one it moved into this past spring. "I would guess in the next year we [will] be looking for something a little bit bigger to move our entire production to."