Citrus flows through the veins of bar pros. Lemon twists and Tom Collins. Lime wedges and Margaritas. And oranges, the fruit responsible for some measure of the gorgeousness of a well-crafted Old Fashioned.
At this point, I think it’s fair to suspect that barman and Old Fashioned-lover D.J. Riemer bleeds orange, although not blood orange.
After nearly more than a decade of crafting drinks in his native Wisconsin, Minnesota and Washington state, he started thinking about orange liqueurs. The market already supported sprawling groves of orange liqueurs, from elite Grand Marnier to cheap fluorescent stuff harvesting dust on the bottom shelf. But still, Riemer thought something was missing.
Orange liqueurs are essential bar tools. Some are very good. Riemer desired great. So he experimented.
He zested oranges with a handheld zester. He used the citrus dust to infuse high-alcohol, neutral spirits. Once satisfactorily orangey, he amended the liquid with water to lower the proof, and sweetened it with organic cane sugar.
Orange liqueur batch No. 1, done. He liked it.
Riemer knew he could do better. He kept at it.
This hands-on, aromatic work describes a fair bit of Riemer’s world since he launched Grove Street Alchemy in Longmont.
Now, more than a year into fiddling with recipes and techniques, Riemer is crafting heady orange liqueur: perfumed, smooth, balanced, haunted by whispers of spice he adds to the process.
And his mechanical engineer girlfriend has relieved him of the toughest part of the process, the hand-zesting. She invented a gizmo. It spins the oranges on a rod. He controls the speed with a foot pedal, applies the zester to the rotating orange, and collects mounds of zest in short order.
Those first batches required two hours of stroking a zester back and forth across oranges to get through a case of fruit. Now he polishes off 10 cases in about the same period of time.
The upped volume helps. Riemer’s orange liqueur is available in many Boulder County and Front Range liquor stores. Restaurants like Santo, McDevitt Taco Supply, The Bitter Bar and River and Woods in Boulder use the liqueurs in drinks, most notably as a replacement for other orange liqueurs in margaritas. Longmont spots like La Vita Bella, The Roost, Still Cellars, Jefe’s and West Side Tavern also use Riemer’s concoctions.
Riemer now is now crafting new liqueurs. His Meyer lemon, fennel and gentian root liqueur is on shelves now. And he’s working on a smoked coffee liqueur, and one based on Hatch chiles.
While hanging out with Riemer at the distillery, he offered me samples of the Hatch liqueur.
I’m a former resident of the Land of Enchantment. Chiles, rather than citrus, sluiced through my veins for years. I find most chile-spiked beverages disappointing, especially chile beer.
Riemer’s chile liqueur first made me hiccup — spicy food does that to me. And then it compelled me to take another sip. This was essence of roasted green chile, in a glass.
Riemer’s whole project — capturing essences in liquid — seemed idyllic to me. I imagined him spending days in the distillery messing with whatever catches his fancy — chiles, cardamom, rose petals, lavender, smoke. A professional alchemist. Dream job.
But it’s a business. Alchemy is just one part of the cocktail. Riemer’s day job is beverage director at 24 Carrot Bistro in Erie, a charming, ambitious spot with a killer bar program.
“I get to do this on my own terms, because I’m also employed. I don’t need income from Grove Street,” said Riemer. “I saved my money to start this, and sole ownership is important to me. I can take the lumps in stride.”
Many other beverage startups — from breweries to distilleries to kombucha companies — lean hard on investors to get the operation off the ground and to fuel it through early, lean years. Investors help tremendously. But they also place their own demands on the founder’s business. It’s a tricky balance, as Boulder’s many startups, especially in the natural foods space understand. Growth is often necessary for success. More rapid routes towards growth normally involve investors. Things can grow complicated, fast.
Riemer desires growth, but at his pace. One step at a time.
Some of them are missteps.
“I like them,” said Riemer. “Mistakes are education.”
Riemer grew up in rural northern Wisconsin, and worked in bars to pay his way through undergraduate and graduate school, where he studied psychology. At some point towards the end of his advanced education he decided hospitality was his field, rather than working as a psychologist or finding a job in a corporation.
Years of running bars gave him business smarts, but on a micro-scale. He understood how to make a bar profitable. He did not grasp the myriad challenges of running a business.
“The paperwork is astounding,” he said, something I hear all of the time from people who make adult beverages of any kind.
There’s also the ingredients. The bottles. The graphic design. The website and social media and insurance and everything else.
“The sales part of this was a big wake-up call,” said Riemer. “I hand-sell everything. I thought I knew what it took to run a business in this industry, but there is an entire universe out there that is not behind a bar. It takes tenacity.”
It takes alchemy, too.
His formula for product development is pretty simple. His targets are liqueur categories that he believes need quality adjustments.
“I have no desire to improve on something perfect, like Frangelica. I would not try to improve on Braulio (an Italian amaro),” he said. “But if I think I can raise the bar, I’ll give it a try.”