By Jamie Siebrase | Aug 07, 2017
Cocktail bitters, beverages, and syrups
Whitney was still in college when two seemingly unrelated things coalesced into one seriously delicious idea.She was studying Food Science, Ecological Agriculture and Botany at the Evergreen State College in Washington, and bartending on the side to pay for it. "DRAM was a mash-up of those two things," she says, explaining, "I took herbalism and plant identifications classes one summer, and that's when I realized most of the products we were using at the bars where I worked were synthetic, especially the bitters."
Whitney predicted a market for natural bitters manufactured with Colorado ingredients, and when she graduated in 2010 she began tweaking recipes she'd experimented with during undergrad. A year later, Whitney formally filed as a business, and began selling her bitters at the onset of a craft bitters boom. "I was one of two female-owned companies in the U.S. at that time making craft bitters," Whitney says.
She focused on bringing bitters back to their homeopathic origins. A lot of companies today cut costs using alcohol and synthetic flavoring to produce bitters, Whitney explains, adding, "Our food and beverage world has really turned over to synthetics."
But bitters -- real bitters -- were originally a concentration of herbs added to a base of glycerin or alcohol. "Historically, bitters were used for upset stomachs and nausea," Whitney begins. "They even had a snake oil reputation in the 1800s."
During Prohibition, Americans began mixing bitters into their cocktails. Most folks could get a fresh bottle of bitters weekly with a note from the doctor, and bitters -- they quickly discovered -- made moonshine much more palatable.
While it's easiest to make bitters by adding, say, a few teaspoons of raspberry flavoring to a huge jug of alcohol, Whitney prefers to start with one to two pounds of real raspberries, process them, and let output seep in a glycerin-based substrate. "Some companies will heat their mixtures to extract more, but we cold press everything," Whitney adds, before straining and bottling products with recyclable and biodegradable packaging materials.
Whitney does all of this by hand in a small-scale commercial kitchen in downtown Salida. "We aren't using any big machinery," says Whitney. "All of our products are raw, except for our syrups, of course."
In addition to six varieties of bitters -- including the company's top-seller, Black, a blend of black herbs -- DRAM Apothecary also yields a popular line of syrups plus teas, ready-drink beverages, and -- the company's latest addition -- switchel, a carbonated drinking vinegar.
"All of our products have been designed to offer the healing benefits of various plants," Whitney says. In fact, her company is the first wild-foraged bitters company in the country.
Whitney forages for Colorado herbs herself in the mountainous terrain around Salida. "We try to forage as many ingredients as possible, and that's predicted a lot of the flavors we offer in our lines," says Whitney, rattling off flavors such as sage, juniper, and pine.
"The rule for foraging is to take one-tenth of the population," Whitney explains. In addition to following that rule, she tries to utilize plants that benefit from being cleared from the forest, including invasive species like Canada thistle. "With our pine syrup, we try to get fallen branches or underbrush, which helps with forest fire mitigation," she says. Whitney always brings a trash bag along whenever she forages -- that way she can clean up anything that doesn't belong in the woods.
Whitney can't forage every ingredient she needs. Lavender, for example, doesn't grow wild in the U.S., and DRAM currently buys it from an organic supplier -- but not for long. She recently purchased land in Salida, where she'll soon grow the ingredients she can't find in nature.
DRAM Apothecary produces about 2,000 bottles of its bitters a month, plus 1,000 bottles each of its syrups, teas, and switchels. The company's products are currently carried by Dean & DeLuca stores nationwide. "We've focused on small-scale, high-end boutiques, and have about 200 wholesale accounts," Whitney says. She also runs a full online store for direct sales.
Challenges: "We need to start scaling production, and that can be a really big learning curve for a company like mine," Whitney says. She's currently evaluating whether to invest in in manual labor or machines. "It will probably end up being a mixture of both," she says.
Opportunities: At the moment, Whitney is focused on getting her ready-drink beverages into more stores in more states. "They launched last summer, and are carried in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah," Whitney says. "We're ready to expand to the coasts."
Needs: "We need a bigger production facility," Whitney says. She wants to stay in downtown Salida, and is waiting for the right real estate to become available. "We'll also need to hire employees again," she adds.