BY KURT B. REIGHLEY
PHOTO COURTESY MILES THOMAS
Bitter isn’t the first word that springs to mind when you meet Miles “Scrappy” Thomas. Affable, handsome, thoughtful… yes. Perhaps even a little surly. But not “bitter.”
“Bitters,” plural, are a different story. In the past two years, thanks to his boutique line of specialty cocktail condiments, Thomas’ nickname is rapidly becoming synonymous with bitters—and not just in Seattle. Across the nation, you can find Scrappy’s Bitters at discerning lounges and vendors including Provenance in Chicago; the Cask in San Francisco; and New York City’s Cocktail Kingdom. (Here in the Emerald City, his wares are sold at DeLaurenti in Pike Place Market.)
Thomas started working in restaurant kitchens when he was fifteen, and soon graduated to mixing drinks. Like many craft bartenders, he made his own infusions, liqueurs and bitters to distinguish his beverages. But it was an informal get-together in early 2009 that convinced him he was ready for a wider market. Andrew Bohrer, who was then managing the bar at 22 Doors (and is now at Mistral Kitchen), hosted a bitters exchange, inviting other Seattle mixologists—including blogger Robert “DrinkBoy” Hess and Good Spirits author A.J. Rathbun—to bring enough D.I.Y. bitters for everyone to swap and sample.
As tactfully as possible, Thomas recalls that the others didn’t meet his expectations of what bitters should do. “Although the flavor might not have been terrible, they wouldn’t hold up in a cocktail.” He took them home, played with them, and still felt his were best. “You only use a couple dashes of bitters, so it needs to be bold, and have the effect on a cocktail you want: To bring some flavors forward, or help round flavors, or even be present as a flavor, depending on what you’re looking for.”
To understand how bitters should work, one first needs to know what the hell they are. If you took the SAT exams back in the 20th century, you may recall the curious puzzle: “Salt is to food, as bitters are to [blank].” What genius expected high school seniors to know the answer, especially when many ardent boozehounds don’t know exactly what bitters are made of, or why bartenders swear by them. Heck, their formal name alone, “aromatic bitters,” is confusing. Do you smell them or taste them?
“Bitters are the magic ingredient,” explains Hess. “Technically, anything called a cocktail, by definition, has to have bitters.” Up until Prohibition, it was a given that anything you saw that was in the cocktail section of a bartender’s guide had to include bitters. A few dashes of bitters are the key to many enduring cocktail recipes, including the martini and Manhattan.
Around for centuries, bitters are tonics made from herbs, bark, and other natural ingredients, such as cherry bark, vanilla bean, citrus peel, mint, and quinine, suspended in alcohol or glycerin. Originally, they were hailed for their medicinal properties. Remember those guys shilling “miracle elixirs” from the back of wagons in old Westerns? Those are bitters. And they really do work, to a degree. Mix a few drops with soda water to settle an upset stomach. Other folks recommend a tablespoon of bitters as a cough remedy.
But the secret ingredient that made a lot of bitters so effective was alcohol, sometimes up to ninety percent. That’ll steady your nerves for sure! But in 1906, the new Pure Food and Drug Act had the gall to demand that these so-called remedies start living up to their claims, and the number of bitters manufacturers dropped off. Post-Prohibition, only a handful of commercial bitters existed: The leading brand was Angostura, while intrepid connoisseurs might seek out Peychaud’s or Fee Brothers. But nature abhors a vacuum, and as cocktails of yore have returned to modern menus, new varieties and manufacturers have entered the field. Some of Scrappy’s key competitors include The Bitter Truth and Bittermens Bitters, both based in New England.
Scrappy’s started operating out of a secret laboratory under Tavolata in Belltown, but after business took off he moved into—and is rapidly outgrowing—his current space in Fremont. His basic line includes multiple varieties, including orange, grapefruit, cardamom, lime, chocolate, celery, and Thomas’ signature blend, lavender. Having so many flavors at your fingertips opens a world of possibilities to the bartender, explains Thomas. “If you were a painter, and the bar was your color palette, you’d want as many colors as you can get.”
His root beer bitters, which taste great in an Old Fashioned, were especially well received. Early on, customers began pulling out their wallets and offering big bills in exchange for tiny, half-empty bottles. After temporarily suspending manufacture while he tinkered with the formula to address FDA strictures concerning sassafras, root beer has recently returned to market, and a new aromatic flavor will be introduced shortly.
Making your own bitters can be a time-consuming pursuit, but it isn’t necessarily difficult. Just be prepared to do a little homework. There are plenty of recipes online; Thomas recommends Regans’ Orange Bitters No. 5 for beginners. “That is a great basic bitters. You get that earthy, bitter, dirty flavor, and it gives you an idea of how all the components work.”
Whatever recipe you choose, don’t be thrown off by esoteric-sounding ingredients in older ones. “Often times, an ingredient looks like something that doesn’t exist anymore, but in reality, there’s another name for it,” says Thomas. Prickly Ash berry, for instance, is just a highfalutin alias for Szechuan pepper. Membership in a coven isn’t required to find necessities like cinchona bark. A visit to an apothecary like Pike Place Market’s Tenzing Momo or Dandelion Botanical Company in Ballard should suffice.
Related: Regan’s Orange Bitters Recipe No. 5
Kurt B. Reighley is the author of United States of Americana: Backyard Chickens, Burlesque Beauties and Handmade Bitters – A Field Guide to the New American Roots Movement. As DJ El Toro, he can be heard playing a wide variety of music every Wednesday night from 9p.m. to 1a.m. on KEXP 90.3 FM and kexp.org.