Raymond Snead moved to Boulder in 1978 for graduate work in computer science, a good decade before computers began creeping like thieves into the mainstream. When he wasn’t rock climbing, the Virginia native was programming.
The early bits and bytes toil worked out well for Snead. Computers, as you may have noticed, never fell into “fad” territory.
About eight years ago, he began messing with cocktail bitters, elixirs of concentrated flavor that bartenders use for making drinks. Friends liked them, so in 2012 he founded Boulder’s Cocktail Punk, one of the first contemporary bitters start-ups in the nation. And now, cocktail bitters are savoring quite the sweet moment, although not one that yet enjoys “hijack the cosmos” status (I, for one, am pulling for bitters to usurp computers for world dominance, and am turning to Snead for guidance).
Note to self: Pay attention to Snead’s interests for clues about zeitgeist-savvy commercial pursuits.
His hard work and commitment to craft has led to the distribution of his bitters across the nation, a whole lot of outstanding adult beverages — and the ability for Snead to ditch computer work for full-time business building.
Bitters a Passion for Cocktail Punk Founder Ray Snead
This year, Cocktail Punk won a Good Food award for its Oak Aromatic bitters, a collaboration between Cocktail Punk and Bryan Dayton, the owner of Oak at Fourteenth and Corrida restaurants in Boulder. Carlo Petrini, the founder of the international Slow Food movement, placed the medal around Snead’s neck. Food shaman Alice Waters kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ve always had this dual career,” said Snead, while we yakked in his tight, carved-out space within the much larger Vapor Distillery in East Boulder. “Wine has been my thing for a long time — in fact, I was employee No. 1 at Boulder Wine Merchant when it opened. It was a side gig while I was in grad school, and a lot more fun. And then I got interested in cocktails, and thought bitters were cool. So I started making them.
In the beginning, it was Snead, a kitchen and Google, for recipes (most of which, he said, were dreadful — and remain so).
Now, he runs a compact production line, complete with machines that fill small bottles with 12 different bitters recipes. Stacked pallets of shipping boxes and bottles rise high in the high-ceilinged space. Botanicals like gentian and cardamom fill bags. Vats of neutral high-proof spirits, bespoke-distilled by Vapor, contain the many ingredients that go into products like Saturnalia, Alpino and Colorado Cherry cocktail bitters.
“He starts from scratch. He’s a cocktail nerd,” said Oak’s Dayton, who began sampling Snead’s early batches back when Dayton was a bartender at Frasca Food & Wine. “He wants to do something thoughtful and rogue, and he pulls it off. And he’s so Colorado focused, which I love.”
Cocktail Punk’s Bitters Use Colorado Botanicals
While gentleman Snead and I sat in Cocktail Punk World HQ last week to talk drink, he offered samples of each of his bitters — a drop or two on my hand for the sake of inhaling aroma, and then tiny sips from little cups. Smoked Orange seemed like an ideal accompaniment to many drinks, including a proper Old Fashioned. Colorado Cherry would give a Manhattan even more confidence without pushing it into overbearing New Yorker territory. Saturnalia, vivid with flavors of cranberry, citrus and toasted walnut, celebrates the ancient and extremely merry Roman festival by the same name, which was the predecessor to Christmas.
Snead’s closely held recipes are borne out of acute and prolonged experimentation, and the commitment to craft shows. These beauties, which customers dispense into beverages with eye droppers, enliven not just cocktails, but also fruit juice, smoothies, warm beverages like tea and coffee, and one of my favorites, seltzer water. A few drops of Colorado Lavender in a cup of fizzy water? Much improved.
Good news, Boulderites. Not only are your fellow Boulderite’s potions for sale at places like Savory Spice, Hazel’s Beverage World, Peppercorn and so on, but you also can make bitters at home (Pro tip: They will not compare to Cocktail Punk’s, but preparing them is a gas — and they might taste good, too).
The good news keeps coming, Ye of Longmont, Louisville and Lafayette, thee citizens of Niwot, Nederland and Boulder. The Cocktail Conjurer himself offered a recipe for a simple aromatic bitters along the lines of Angostura Bitters, the paper-clad bottle you see on every bar in the country (and for good reason — Angostura is the standard-setter for aromatic bitters).
Said Snead: “There is lots of information on the internet about making bitters. Very little of it will help you make great bitters.”
He notes that “aromatic” means baking spices. Feel free, he said, to substitute or add similar spices to your homemade elixir.
For the tough-to-find botanicals, please do visit one of my favorite places in Boulder, Rebecca’s Apothecary on Spruce Street (just down from the Boulderado).
Recipe for Classic Aromatic Cocktail Bitters
1/2 teaspoon gentian
1/2 teaspoon quassia
2 cinnamon sticks, broken up a bit
1/2 teaspoon green cardamom pods, cracked
1/4 teaspoon cloves
2 or 3 star anise
16 ounces of 100 proof vodka
Directions: Add all ingredients to a clean glass jar. Cover tightly and store at room temperature for 10-14 days, shaking gently every other day or so.
Strain through a coarse strainer to remove solids, then through cheesecloth to remove any sediment. Put the final product through a No. 4 coffee filter if you want a really clear product.
The bitters will be potent, and, yes, bitter. If a sweeter flavor profile is desired, add 1-2 tablespoons of rich simple syrup and shake well and let rest a few times before bottling.
Bottle, preferably in clean 1- to 2-ounce bottles with dropper caps. Name your bitters and make amusing labels. Hand them out to friends. The bitters will last indefinitely, but you may notice diminished flavors after a year or so.
—Boulder’s Raymond Snead, founder of Cocktail Punk
This story first appeared in The Daily Camera.