Phaedra Achor’s kitchen in a Petaluma industrial park resembles a Chinatown herbalist shop. Jars of aromatic botanicals — dried ginger root, star anise, juniper berry, cinnamon, fennel — line shelves next to tables of tincture bottles and a granite mortar and pestle.
These are the tools of the ancient craft of bitters making, one that is experiencing a revival as consumers rediscover classic cocktails. Part cook, part chemist, Achor, 43, is gaining national attention for her creations in this niche industry.
“I try to come up with flavor profiles that are not out there. I’d rather create something totally different,” said Achor, who grew up in Petaluma. “If someone had said five years ago that I’d own a bitters company, I’d have said ‘What are bitters?’”
Bitters are potent flavor extracts made by infusing botanical ingredients in alcohol. Traditionally used in medicine, bitters were later employed to give a kick — a couple of drops at a time — to fancy drinks such as the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. If a cocktail is an Armani tuxedo, then think of the bitters as a splash of fragrant cologne.
Achor took a roundabout path to the art of bitters making, eventually leading to her own award-winning brand, Monarch Bitters. Growing up experimenting in the kitchen with her mother, she later opened a restaurant in downtown Petaluma.
“I’ve always loved creating flavor,” she said.
While preparing to host a cocktail party, she researched some classic recipes and saw that they called for bitters. A deeper dive into the world of farm-to-table bitters (it exists) revealed that she could make her own bitters, mostly from ingredients she had in the house or in her garden.
So she whipped up a batch. To do so, start with a spirit base — Achor uses Skyy Vodka as well as gin and bourbon — and add aromatic herbs, roots, bark and seeds. Let it macerate for a few weeks until the flavors infuse into a heady concoction.
Achor’s homemade bitters were the star of the party.
“Guests were awed,” she said. “A bartender friend said ‘You should sell them.’”
Inspired by the initial success, she decided to make a go of it. Few others were making handcrafted, organic bitters locally, and there was clearly a market for them at places like Seared and The Drawing Board, where a craft cocktail renaissance was underway.
Achor publicly launched Monarch Bitters in 2017. A single mother of three, she also does massage work while getting the company off the ground.
Carefully sourcing the best organic botanicals, what she cannot procure Achor grows in her garden or forages in the wild. She has settled on a stable of about a dozen bitters and syrups that can be purchased at shops throughout the region including Wilibee’s in Petaluma and Napa Distillery. A growing list of 20 bars mix her bitters into their drinks.
Her flavors range from the spicy cayenne ginger bitters to the earthy wormwood bitters to the fruity cherry vanilla bitters. Her best seller, she said, is the bacon tobacco bitters. Using a dark Chinese tea to double for the tobacco flavor, this bitters produces an intricate bouquet of aged leather and smoky campfire that provides the shoulders on which a killer Manhattan can stand.
LEARN TO MAKE BITTERS
What: Mixology and bitters class with Phaedra Achor
When: 6 p.m., Nov. 30
Where: Griffo Distillery, Petaluma
More info: griffodistillery.com