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Petaluma bartender tastes the sweet success of bitters

When Petaluma resident and bartender Erin Hines noticed that artisanal cocktails and the “farm-to-bar movement” were starting to migrate to Sonoma County, she expanded her garden to include fruit trees, hops and plenty of herbs.

In 2013, she founded Bitter Girl Bitters, a business where she sells her handmade bitters, or highly concentrated liquid extractions used to flavor cocktails. Using homegrown and locally-sourced ingredients, she creates small batches of the mixtures that can be purchased online and in businesses across the Bay Area.

Hines, who splits her time bartending in both Marin and San Francisco, began experimenting with different flavors and ingredient combinations more than 10 years ago, using a variety of ingredients to create crafty concoctions.

“Making bitters is essentially an infusion process. I start with my main flavor components and add the bittering agents in the later part of the process,” explained Hines, who claimed that adding flavors at the end of the operation makes her Bitter Girl Bitters a flavor-forward and approachable product.

In October 2014, she released her first batch of bitters aptly titled Batch One — an earthy combination of oranges, tangerines, vanilla and pomegranate. It wasn’t long before several flavors followed including a Bitter Rose, made with rose petals, hibiscus and lavender along with various seasonal releases that have included Pear Jordan (pears and hops) and Mom’s Prickly Poms (prickly pear, pineapple and guava).

“It’s such a good time to be in this business,” said the 33-year-old.

The Marin native moved to Petaluma more than three years ago and cites the vibe of the town and the great soil as reasons for her move.

“I have chickens and grow oranges, pomegranates, walnuts, berries, lemon balm, mint and the list goes on,” said Hines, who said her homegrown ingredients set her product apart from others.

Originally used medicinally, bitters and tinctures eventually made their way out of medicine cabinets and into saloons by way of liquor. Booze, bitters and sugars were traditionally the three pillars for cocktail making and, aside from some modern day creative tweaking, this essential trio remains the backbone for all classic drinks.

Hines knows the formula well, and after more than a decade of bartending throughout the Bay Area, she noticed that despite all of the spirits on the market, quite often there was only one bitters option — Angostura. She decided she would be the one to change that.

But the business was not an overnight success. Hines, a member of the Bartender’s Guild, is convinced that it really matters who you know and without her connections and the many years spent working in bars, she isn’t sure her business would have made it.

“It’s been scary — it was really slow in the beginning of this year, but all of the sudden things picked up and I now have several accounts and both Williebees and Petaluma Coffee & Tea sell my bitters,” she said of 2016.

She’s also worked with local businesses to forge partnerships and develop new flavors.

“My newest flavor Morning Wood — Barrel Aged Coffee was a result of a collaboration with Petaluma Coffee & Tea,” said Hines, who combined the local coffee beans with cocoa nibs, and pink peppercorns to create a hearty essence that pairs equally well with whiskey and ice cream.

Getting to know other artisanal producers in Petaluma including Stillwater Vodka and Sonoma Portworks has been revelatory for Hines.

“It’s like we are all working together instead of competing,” she said.

She hopes to continue to get to know her community and plans to incorporate more locally produced ingredients in future batches.

Hines doesn’t have any plans to quit bartending. In fact, that is where she does some of her research.

“I try to initially make drinks without including bitters, but once I add a few little drops, the flavors of the drink are heightened. Bitters are a bartender’s salt and pepper—they bring out the existing flavors and really complete and finish a drink,” Hines said.

(Contact Tanya Henry at argus@arguscourier.com)