WEST LOOP — Chicago's craft distilling scene has evolved to the point where it's no longer unusual to find locally made brands like Koval, Few and Letherbee sharing space behind the bar with Jim Beam and Bombay.
If entrepreneurs Chris Udouj, 34, and Janie Vitlina, 30, have their way, soon it will be just as commonplace for the city's mixologists to enhance those spirits with the couple's 11th Orchard Bitters, which have the distinction of being produced in Chicago from ingredients indigenous to the area, many of which Udouj and Vitlina have foraged themselves.
The West Loop residents — who are partners personally and professionally — are aiming to introduce their line of handmade small batch bitters at the Indie Spirits Expo in October and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of 400 bottles for the show. With 10 days to go, they're nearly halfway to their $7,000 goal.
Neither Vitlina nor Udouj has a background in cocktails. She works as a market researcher, and he just left a successful career in finance. But she has a long history of studying herbalism and practicing foraging, which the two consider crucial to the 11th Orchard brand.
Though she grew up in Ohio, just outside Cleveland, Vitlina was born in the former Soviet Union where "people really relied a lot on things that grew around them, because things were scarce," she said.
Her family eventually moved to the United States as refugees, but her parents instilled in Vitlina a knowledge of plants and nature, and they continued to forage.
"My family wanted to make sure you knew your food comes from the ground, that medicines come from plants," she said.
Founding a bitters company, specifically one rooted in foraging, is a natural extension of "my family's historical reliance on things that they grow," said Vitlina.
"And who doesn't love cocktails?" she added.
Initially used for medicinal purposes and now typically thought of as cocktail "seasoning," bitters aren't so much an untapped segment of the liquor market as one that's been a little forgotten, particularly in the century since Prohibition, Vitlina said.
Bitters can be made from a long list of roots, bark, flowers and herbs, which are steeped in alcohol the way tea leaves are steeped in water (though for weeks instead of minutes). Yet until recently, three brands — Peychaud's, Angostura and Fee Brothers — have largely defined the taste of bitters.
"Bitters can be lots of flavors — angostura is just one," said Vitlina, 11th Orchard's creative force. "It's really great to see such a variety of smaller handcrafted bitters popping up."
With 11th Orchard, Vitlina and Udouj aren't looking to challenge the big boys for bitters supremacy but rather to carve out a very specific niche.
"We are a Chicago brand. This is not a national brand," said Udouj. "Our target is bars, hotels and restaurants in the Chicago area."
Specialty cocktails have become a big draw, and "other options of bitters creates a more interesting drink" and a point of differentiation, he said.
Bitters also can be used instead of flavored syrups for nonalcoholic drinks, Udouj said.
"We have a SodaStream [at home] and we'll put our bitters into that," he said.
The trick now is getting restaurateurs and beverage managers to give 11th Orchard a taste.
Udouj and Vitlina zeroed in on four signature infusions — red clover, rosehip, white pine and birch bark — for reasons that go beyond mere flavor preference (though there's that, too).
"We wanted people to take a look at the nature around them. You could find any one of these four flavors across the city," Vitlina said.
"Red clover's everywhere; rosehip is planted on the 606 [bike path]," she said. "These are flavors we literally have around us, in our backyards or the empty lot next to you."
To be clear, Udouj interjected, the couple is most definitely not foraging ingredients from vacant lots or forest preserves. The former, he noted, would be imprudent from a toxicity standpoint, and the latter is illegal.
Rather they've gained permission from area farmers to harvest ingredients like clover that would otherwise be treated as a weed. They've also reach out to suppliers for things they can't forage, making sure to buy organic or fair trade products, Vitlina said.
Rest assured, Udouj said, "We're not picking red clover from the sidewalk on Madison at the United Center."
Chris Udouj, foraging for 11th Orchard's signature red clover. [11th Orchard Bitters]
Janie Vitlina, on the hunt for ingredients. [11th Orchard Bitters]
The source, end product and in use. [11th Orchard Bitters]