Mix a Maine-ier Drink With a Dash of Maine-Made Bitters

Here are four of our favorite brands.

Maine-made bitters from Vena's Fizz House, Herbal Revolution, Sweetgrass Winery & Distillery, and Owl & Whale
Photo by Dave Waddell
By Joel Crabtree
From our March 2023 issue

Doled out in dashes and drops, bitters are but a minuscule portion of any cocktail, yet they’re often the difference between just-okay and great, the way a pinch of cayenne can be the crucial element in a pot of chili. “Bitters are the spice rack of beverages,” says Mary Jo Marquis, who oversees retail sales of bitters at Portland cocktail bar Vena’s Fizz House, which produces more than a dozen bitters. Its Island Bitters, made with charred pineapple, might spruce up a Tiki drink, or Flowers Bitters, made with chamomile and jasmine, might lend a floral tone to a martini. Some skew explicitly Maine-y. For instance, Vena’s uses white pine from owners Steve and Johanna Corman’s coastal property in Cushing for a Maine Pine Bitters, which also includes spruce, rosemary, grapefruit and lemon peel, juniper, wormwood, angelica root, coriander, and gentian root. It’s great for a woodsy, herbaceous riff on an old-fashioned.

Bitters are made by steeping ingredients in alcohol until the flavors are highly concentrated, and Vena’s is one of four Maine producers. Kathi Langelier, founder of Herbal Revolution, in Union, makes teas, shrubs, and tonics, and for bitters, she uses lilac and rhubarb, both harvested on her 21-acre farm. The latter is accented with ginger, lemon verbena, anise hyssop, lemon peel, hibiscus, and honey — a versatile profile that plays well with vodka, tequila, or gin. She also makes a few varieties for the bar at Barren’s Distillery, in Camden.

Sweetgrass Winery & Distillery, in Union, makes several bitters, each featuring a Maine fruit — blueberry, cranberry, elderberry. The distillers call a dash of their blueberry bitters with rum and sweet and dry vermouths a Mud Season, and it does indeed taste like summer is around the corner. Owl & Whale, in Portland, makes a number of bitters too, and their Sea Smoke uses smoked Maine sea salt to effect a subtle richness that helps draw out other flavors — try it in a daiquiri, margarita, or other sweet-sour citrusy drink.

Bitters are, all in all, about creating or teasing out nuances, and Owl & Whale co-owner Bob Cutler allows that, for the casual home bartender, it can all start to seem rather esoteric. However, it doesn’t need to be. “I think a simple gin and tonic with blueberry bitters, in the summer, at the beach or in the backyard,” he says, “is one of the most perfect, easy cocktails to make.” 

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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