Bitters are aromatic tinctures made by infusing herbs, roots, barks, berries, fruit peels, and other botanicals in spirits. While they are generally alcoholic, up to 40%, they are not considered spirits, but similar to an extract – think Vanilla Extract. Traditionally bitters were used as medical tonics to aid digestion and were drunk as a shot, the bitterness stimulating salivary glands and aiding digestion. Later, bitters were added to other spirits as a flavor enhancer, thus creating the ‘cocktail.’ The well-known Angostura bitters were first compounded in 1824 by German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert as a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies. So bitters have been around a long time.
Kari’s hand crafted bitters are made in small batches. The Island’s mild maritime climate is perfect for year round growing of traditional bittering botanicals such as dandelion, Oregon grape, angelica, hyssop, hawthorne, gentian, yarrow and rhubarb. We tasted through her line up. It was not surprising that I gravitated to those that were a bit spicier – cardamom saffron – aromatic and complex with the predominance of cardamom with a subtle finish with the floral and earthiness of saffron; crabapple cranberry- perfect for fall and comforting warm mulled drinks; aromatic orange with touches of ginger, cinnamon and pepper; and Old Fashioned with a richness and depth of flavor imparted from the cloves, bourbon and black cherry.
Then we turned to tasting shrubs. This is an Arabic word meaning ‘to drink.’ Traditionally a shrub is a sipping vinegar made from equal parts fruit, sugar, vinegar and often complementary herbs and spices. It is a rather simple process: let fruit and sugar infuse overnight or up to several days, then strain. Reserve sweetened fruit for preserves or simple syrups. Add vinegar to strained liquid to create the shrub. Shrubs are shelf stable, so were popular in Colonial America. They were seasonally made to preserve the overabundance of fruit at harvest and were then enjoyed as a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage.
Shrubs fell out of popularity with the advent of home refrigeration but are quickly gaining popularity with the burgeoning artisan cocktail craze. Kari’s shrubs use organic apple cider vinegar as it offers a pleasing non-vinegar nose, structure and is readily available. We tasted several of her shrubs – Quince and Meyer Lemon; Mango, Persimmon and Ginger; and Cranberry Citrus. They were decidedly more concentrated and sweeter than the bitters with a pleasing acidity on the finish. While sipping neat or straight up is possible, it quickly became apparent how shrubs could be used to create a refreshingly infused carbonated beverage, interesting cocktail or dessert. Add a few dashes to some fresh strawberries instead of lemon juice or balsamic. The possibilities are limitless. We have included some of Kari’s cocktail and sophisticated “mocktail” recipes below.
You can find Kari’s products at San Juan Island Distillery and at the San Juan Island Farmer’s Market. Her bitters are currently available online at http://www.onlybitters.com/brands/Kari’s-Island-Elixirs.html.
As an apprentice at San Juan Distillery, Kari’s interest for bitters and cocktail additives piqued when helping to develop seasonal botanical blends and cocktail recipes for their gin line. As a longtime forager for herbs and botanicals, even before the resurgence of using wild products from the land became widespread, her new business is a perfect match for her passion. She loves mixology and the interplay of various flavors on your palate. When Kari is not concocting cocktails or elixirs, you will find her on the water with the Conservation Canines program. This program uses dogs and handlers to locate whale scat so researchers can study these animals in a non-invasive way.
1 ½ oz Rum
½ oz fresh lime juice
1 oz Shrub
Strong Ginger Beer
6 dashes of bitters
Combine spirits, lime juice and shrub in tall glass, top with crushed ice and ginger. Swizzle until chilled. Garnish with bitters and lime wedge and/or mint. Try aged rum, lime, Apricot shrub, and Rhubarb Strawberry Bitters; or try mixing vodka, lemon juice and Quince Meyer Lemon shrub and Elderflower Black Current Bitters.
1 ½ oz. Gin
1 oz Shrub
Prosecco, Champagne or dry hard cider
4 dashes of bitters
Combine gin and shrub, shake with ice, strain and top with sparkling wine. Garnish with bitters and citrus curl. Try gin, Plum Shrub, prosecco and Old Fashioned bitters; or try brandy, Spiced Pear Shrub, dry hard cider and Cardamom Saffron Bitters.