Christy Christmas and Katie Elliott sit at the corner of the bar top inside Jefferson Street’s The Water Dog, a small array of cocktails in front of them.
A smoked Old Fashioned as well as its sweeter, fruitier counterpart. A Bloody Mary complete with olives, pickle and a giant celery stalk. An unnamed, mostly downed mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream, Kahlua and Tito’s Handmade Vodka.
While a regular patron at the bar might look at the pair and see two 30-year-olds enjoying a late afternoon drink, Elliott and Christmas are actually taste-testing their handmade bitters, seeing how they fair in actual cocktails The Water Dog stirs up.
“I think it really accentuates the hot cocoa [bitters],” says Christmas, taking a sip of the sweet concoction, which incorporates one of their newest flavors. “After you swallow that sip, your tongue has a little bit of heat on it and that’s what we’re going for.”
Longtime friends, Christmas and Elliott started Blackwater Bitters last December when they wanted to make Christmas gifts for their friends and family.
Both women had backgrounds in restaurants, with Elliott having worked at Rivermont Pizza for eight years and Christmas bartending at school in Georgia and in Guatemala, so they tried their hand at making coffee bitters.
A combination of botanical extracts that are mixed together to create a bitter, sour or bittersweet flavor profile in a drink, bitters actually date back to before the cocktail, when they were used for medicinal purposes, says Christmas.
Bitters eventually found their way out of the medicine cabinet and into some of America’s most classic cocktails, becoming, as Elliott calls them, “the salt and pepper of the cocktail world.”
“Drinks have become fancier and more sophisticated,” says Chad Duncan, general manager of Fifth and Federal Station. “If you look at what other bars are doing and things like that, people are trying to be more and more creative with the way they’re making their drinks. One way to add to that creativity is to add bitters; it enhances or changes the profile of the alcohol it’s in.”
Christmas and Elliott enjoyed making the coffee bitters so much, they kept trying new flavor combinations and within a year had launched an entire line of craft cocktail bitters that are now being used in several Central Virginia establishments, including The Water Dog and Fifth and Federal Station, as well as in Richmond, Fairfax and Charlotte, North Carolina.
“They make a good product and they care about what they put their name on,” says Dave Henderson, owner of The Water Dog. “That just shows in their passion. When we talk to them, you can see it come through. It makes our cocktails better and it’s a great story for the customer.”
Blackwater Bitters uses its own recipes, which Christmas and Elliott have crafted and perfected over the past 12 months, and as many local ingredients as possible.
“Just like anything else with cocktails and mixology, it’s a science — actually moreso with bitters because it’s very methodical,” Christmas says. “It’s precision. It is crucial to [come] up with a good blend. We’ve done a lot of experimenting, a lot of researching.”
Currently, the brand features eight bitters, which range from the classic aromatic variety — a direct competitor for the traditional Angostura bitters most bars use in “Mad Men”-style drinks, like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan and champagne cocktail — to the aforementioned hot cocoa-flavored bitters, which come with a habanero kick underneath the notes of chocolate.
“Their flavors are just really, really good. They taste exactly as they’re named,” Duncan says. “… It doesn’t taste like a chemical or a manufactured bitters in the sense of mass manufacturing. You can tell that they take the time and the effort to create flavors that truly represent what they want them to.”
Every Blackwater Bitters batch is handmade, meaning Christmas and Elliott clean, weigh, muddle, chop and peel every ingredient by hand before proofing it in the spirits to extract the flavor and preserve the ingredient.
Since each ingredient has a different steeping rate, which can range from one day to one month, most components are proofed in their own separate mason jars, Christmas says.
“If we were making lavender bitters, for example, we would get a whole bunch of lavender and we would steep that in 100-proof spirits. That’s a separate extract, just like a vanilla extract or anything else,” she says. “We’d also do a lemon peel extract, lemon ball, burdock root — all these different things in separate jars [because] they extract at different rates. Then when they’re done … we combine them to create a lavender bitters.”
Over its first year of business, Blackwater Bitters has rotated its products seasonally, keeping some of its staples, like orange and coffee, while featuring limited edition flavors, including ginger-lime and the cleverly named Apple-Achia, made with smoked apples from Drumheller’s Orchard.
In addition to the Nelson County orchard, Blackwater Bitters currently uses ingredients from Golf Park Coffee Co., Lynchburg Grows and Hill City Coffee.
“It’s good for both parties involved. We have so many friends … and it’s just good to help promote the local makers,” Elliott says. “When you collaborate — scratching each other’s backs — it’s a win-win.”
And it’s not just about using local products for Christmas and Elliott.
It’s about building relationships with local restaurants. In addition to The Water Dog, the first restaurant to place an order with Blackwater Bitters, orders also have been placed by Fifth and Federal Station, The Dahlia, El Jefe, Waterstone and Virginia Distillery.
Duncan and Henderson have been so pleased with the products they both say they plan to use Blackwater Bitters’ blends exclusively as soon as they finish up with their older stock.
“We use the name brands — Angostura and things like that,” Duncan says. “Honestly, we here would rather support someone local. That’s the whole reason we purchased them.”
In honor of Blackwater Bitters’ one-year anniversary, Fifth and Federal Station and The Water Dog each offered up their favorite recipes highlighting the Hill City-made products. Both restaurants partner with Afton-based Silverback Distillery, so you’ll also see their products pop up below.
Courtesy of The Water Dog
2 ounces Silverback Distillery’s Blackback Honey Rye
2 dashes Blackwater Bitters’ hot cocoa bitters
1 dash of Torani Toasted Marshmallow Syrup
Silverback Distillery bourbon barrel stave
Large, circular ice cube
Steps: Light the barrel stave to create small flame. Place highball glass rim side down over flame to capture smoke. Once the glass is smoked, flip it right side up and immediately add large ice cube to hold smoky flavor. Add hot cocoa bitters, marshmallow syrup and Blackback Honey Rye.
Get Off My Lawn
Courtesy of Fifth and Federal Station
1 ½ ounces Old Grand Dad Straight Bourbon Whiskey
3 drops Blackwater Bitters’ rosemary bitters
¼ ounce house-made rosemary honey syrup (½ cup honey, ¼ cup water, and rosemary sprigs brought to a low simmer for about 5 to 10 minutes; rosemary sprigs removed after mixture has cooled)
¼ ounce simple syrup
Steps: Mix whiskey, bitters and syrups. Peel orange and squeeze fruit into drink, discarding pulp. Add sprig of rosemary and orange peel as garnishes. Serve over ice.
Courtesy of The Water Dog
1 ounce Havana Club Anejo Blanco
1 ounce Havana Club Anejo Classico
2 splashes of Blackwater Bitters’ aromatic bitters
1 ½ ounces orange juice and pineapple juice
1 ounce grenadine
Steps: In a 16-ounce pint glass, mix ingredients and float grenadine on top.
Smokey Old Fashioned
Courtesy of Fifth and Federal Station
1 ½ ounces Silverback Distillery’s Blackback Honey Rye
3 drops Blackwater Bitters’ orange bitters
1 ounce maple syrup
Splash of water
Steps: Light barrel stave to create small flame. Place cocktail glass rim side down over flame to capture smoke. Once glass is smoked, flip it right side up and immediately add ice to keep in smoke flavor. Mix Blackback Honey Rye, orange bitters, maple syrup and a splash of water. Add orange segment (it can be smoked if desired) to drink.