FOOD AND DRINK
Must Consume: Local Bitters Add a Twist to Thunder Bay's Cocktail Scene
Tax specialist-turned-distiller says there's a deep history of local booze-making (not all of it legal)
Justin Frape, owner of Thunder Bay’s new distillery making cocktail bitters, says his venture reaches back into a rich local tradition – a history of moonshining in Northwestern Ontario, “whether it’s nonna making grappa in the garage or one of the pioneer farmers who made corn [moonshine] in Nolalu,” a nearby town.
The craft distilling trend has really taken off across North America, and the execution has been a bit precious at times. Frape, a tax specialist-turned-booze entrepreneur who calls his distillery Frape & Sons Boutique Bitters, says he wants his operation to feel more down-home and casual than “buttoned-down and snooty.” The gear is pretty fancy, though: a gleaming copper reflux still crafted by a coppersmith in Kentucky, used in conjunction with stainless steel grain mashing and brewing equipment from Tennessee.
Frape plans to make upwards of 45,000 bottles of bitters in 2016 at his bare-bones distillery, located in an unassuming industrial building with views of Mount McKay in the city’s south end. The bitters are made in small batches, no more than 500 at a time, and each 100-millilitre bottle sells for $20. Bitters are flavouring agents for cocktails, flavoured with herbs, spices and other ingredients. They’re bold and intense enough that a dash or two is usually enough to impart depth and aroma to a cocktail recipe.
Most bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit purchased from an outside supplier with herbs, roots, spices and other flavouring ingredients (collectively known as “botanicals”). Frape takes the process further by distilling his own alcohol to use as a base. “The flavour of the base alcohol is part of the tasting notes of the bitters,” he says. “This gives our bitters a distinct, slightly boozy taste with a very clean finish.”
Frape’s bitters are made with Thunder Bay ingredients: water from Lake Superior and Kakabeka Falls; locally grown grains, rosemary, arugula, rhubarb, apples and jalapeno peppers; and locally roasted coffee.
Frape, a tax specialist and college instructor, was inspired to turn his love of craft cocktails into a business in 2013, after his business trip to speak at a tax conference overlapped with a craft distillers convention nearby. “There were all these guys with ZZ Top beards and Harleys,” he remembers. “How could I resist?” While he eventually wants to branch out to wheat whisky and gin production, he decided to start with a bitters distillery because he could operate on a smaller scale and learn the business.
After researching the art and science of distilling, he purchased his equipment and launched Frape & Sons Boutique Bitters in spring 2015. His timing coincided with both a resurgence in interest in bitters – some call it the Mad Men effect – and the growth of indie restaurants in Thunder Bay, where chefs and bartenders are eager to experiment with new flavours and local ingredients.
“Bitters are a very popular element in the craft cocktail movement,” sayd Bianca Garafalo, co-owner of two upscale Thunder Bay restaurants, Bight and Giorg, both of which use Frape & Sons bitters in their cocktails. “To have a local bitters distillery is rare, so it’s been very interesting for Thunder Bay. You wouldn’t have seen interest in bitters here five years ago. Overall in the city there’s a big following for cocktails and seasonal changes on cocktail menus. People are increasingly looking for drinks that are unique.”
Giorg serves a popular cocktail it calls the “Sophia Loren,” which includes chilled espresso and Frape & Sons coffee bitters. “The bitters evens out the flavours and enhances the coffee element,” Garafalo says.
There are a variety of ways for the home chef and bartender to use bitters – Frape points to examples like a dash of coffee bitters in rum and cola to mitigate the sweetness, rosemary bitters in a chicken or lamb dish, apple bitters in vanilla cake icing to create an apple flavour, or savoury turnip and carrot soup with a few drops of arugula bitters. Frape adds that he’s an old fashioned drinker; it’s a cocktail in which bitters play a starring role. “I like deep, intense, smack-you-in-the-face flavours,” he explains.
In the coming months, Frape intends to test bitters made with local mint, to partner with local craft brewery Sleeping Giant Brewing Company to create a wild blueberry bitters using a hopped whisky, and to age some batches in bourbon barrels.
Most Frape & Sons sales are over the border in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but the bitters are also found in restaurants and stores in Ottawa, Sudbury and Toronto, at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair and through the company website (www.frapeandsons.com). If all goes according to plan, Frape & Sons will be sold through the LCBO starting spring 2017.
When in Thunder Bay, you can buy it at The Cheese Encounter and find it on the menu at a variety of hip TBay restaurants. “I’m pleasantly surprised by how well we’ve sold here in Thunder Bay,” says Frape. “There’s a burgeoning craft cocktail culture and it’s very cool to be a part of it.”