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Bitter sweet success for Petaluma company

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LEARN TO MAKE BITTERS

What: Mixology and bitters class with Phaedra Achor

When: 6 p.m., Nov. 30

Where: Griffo Distillery, Petaluma

Cost: $45

More info: griffodistillery.com

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

Cost: $45

More info: griffodistillery.com

“It just enhances it three to fourfold with depth and complexity,” she said. “It’s this really cool thing that you drop in and this magic happens.”

At a tasting competition at Griffo Distillery, Achor left some of her rose petal bitters with the emcee, who fell in love with them. She was also, as it happened, a nationally renowned libation expert and cocktail judge and was part of a panel that USA Today convened to select the top 10 bitters in the country.

Monarch Bitters was ranked in second place, behind Liber & Co. of Austin, Texas.

“I cried. I had to read it three times,” she said of first hearing about the honor. “It totally took my breath away. It’s amazing.”

The panel praised Achor for creating bitters that harken back to a lost era.

“Monarch Bitters takes inspiration from the forgotten cocktails of decades past when handcrafting their organic bitters from ingredients sourced in the Sonoma County countryside,” the USA Today wrote.

Achor hopes to use her new found fame as a springboard to take Monarch Bitters to the next level with a goal of national or international distribution, though she admits she will need some investment capital to get there.

In the meantime, though, she’s content doing the things she loves, like gardening, hiking, cooking and experimenting with flavors.

For all of her work with bitters, Achor is actually quite cheerful.

“I don’t want to come off as bitter,” she said. “I’m so not bitter.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)