Bitters are back, baby, and one local is looking to get in on the action.
“The traditional recipes for a cocktail up to the late 1800s were all the same—bitters were a part of almost all cocktails,” says Kip McCharen, founder and owner of McCharen’s Bitters. “It’s a seasoning. It serves the same function as salt and pepper or lemon juice in a dish.”
McCharen launched his eponymous bitters company out of necessity—he got into making craft cocktails but couldn’t easily buy the ingredients he wanted. He made a batch of bitters in July. It turned out to be a large batch. At first, he thought he’d give bottles away as Christmas gifts. But he couldn’t wait that long to share them.
“I am terrible at keeping secrets, so I let some friends try them, and they really liked them,” he says.
Bitters have been around for more than 1,000 years, but they’ve been slow to catch on with the modern artisanal crowd. While there are thousands of craft breweries, cideries and distilleries, and more popping up all the time, the number of bitters makers in the U.S. is still somewhere around 50, up from only a few about a decade ago.
And just how many of those four dozen craft bitters producers are located in Virginia? Zip, zero—until now.
McCharen, whose education is in political science and economics and who currently works in finance, saw an opportunity, so he called up the Charlottesville City Market in early August and asked if they might, at some time in the future, have space for him to sell his products. They told him to come down that Saturday.
After several successful markets and finding his way into a handful of restaurants—Miso Sweet, Lost Saint, Citizen Burger Bar and The Bebedero—through personal contacts, McCharen is at the point where he’d like to scale up and buy commercial kitchen space. “I think he’s got a really cool angle on it, and it might be early enough in the game to catch lightning in a bottle,” says Lost Saint co-owner Patrick McClure, referring to the ability of small bitters producers to be successful on a large scale.
There’s one problem, though: The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission doesn’t know what to do with McCharen.
To answer why, you’ve got to understand a bit about how bitters are made. They are, essentially, booze infused with aromatics. You start with a high-strength spirit, steep with a bittering agent like gentian root or wild cherry bark, and flavor it with star anise, orange peel or mint. Sometimes you dilute the infusion with distilled water or sweeten it with syrup.
Where things get interesting is in the taste of the final product and how it’s marketed and sold. There’s no standard for perceived bitterness (international bittering units, or IBUs, are specific to beverages made with hops), so the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has to make a judgment call on every bitters-like product to decide whether it’ll be “potable” or “non-potable.” Potable bitters, like aperol, fernet-branca or even Jägermeister, are marketed and sold like any spirit. They’re a standalone drink. Non-potable bitters are what McCharen’s shooting for.
“It’s this weird fine line,” he says. “They take whatever it is and dilute it down…and depending on how it tastes, they can say it is non-potable. The point is there is no measurable way to do that.”
The fact that no one has produced bitters in Virginia in more than a century only makes things more complicated, McCharen says.
Even if the ABC doesn’t yet know what to make of McCharen’s Bitters, local tipplers seem to be on board. McCharen said before going into business he looked at Google traffic for several bitters-related keywords, and Charlottesville was among the most active areas in the region. Consumer response has borne that out—he’s been profitable through his farmers market and bar sales, and when he teamed up with Miso Sweet to introduce his products at a cocktail dinner in early October, the response was positive.
McCharen says he’s optimistic ABC will figure things out soon—there are about five other alcoholic beverage boards nationwide with rules in place for bitters—but there’s no timeline on his ramp-up. When he does go to full-scale production, he said his goal is to develop flavors that are quintessentially Virginian.
“You’ve got gin from England, rum from the Caribbean, whiskey from Kentucky, and I find it fascinating that there isn’t a flavor of Virginia in cocktails—it’s not represented,” McCharen says. “I’m just really focused on trying to expose Virginia history through flavors.”