In our continuing Canada's Tastemakers series, we profile people who are making an impact on Canada's food scene, from authors to producers to chefs and more. Today Tiffany Mayer shares the story of Jennifer Tyldesley, a Whitehorse resident who makes cocktail bitters under the Free Pour Jenny's label, featuring ingredients foraged in the wild or grown in her Yukon garden.
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Jennifer Tyldesley might just have the solution to the worldwide vanilla shortage.
It turns out those spirits flavoured with herbs and other botanicals, and generally used in cocktails, are a sweet substitute for the essential ingredient that’s costing bakers big dough at the moment.
But not just any bitters. It has to be Tyldesley’s own Solstice Bitters, a concoction the Whitehorse resident makes with low-bush cranberries, a tart, red fruit sweetened by the first Yukon fall frosts.
Those berries from one of the territory’s best-known plants are coaxed and cajoled into a baker’s dream by steeping them in rum alongside star anise, cinnamon, cloves and a touch of molasses.
“It’s like Christmas pudding in a bottle,” Tyldesley said. “It’s very Christmasy and aromatic.”
As it turns out, it’s bang-on in baking and when it kisses rum, whisky or vodka in a cocktail, which was Tyldesley’s original intention for her bitters, bottled under her Free Pour Jenny’s label.
Using them in anything, though, is akin to drinking in the natural beauty and flavours of the Yukon.
“They really capture the Yukon in a 100-millilitre bottle that fits into your carry-on,” Tyldesley said with a smile in her voice.
That’s no run-of-the-mill sales pitch, either. That flight-friendly packaging is an homage to Tyldesley’s former career as a search and rescue pilot in the military, and later, as an airline pilot.
Taking Flight to Canada's North
Flying had been Tyldesley’s passion since she earned her wings as a 16-year-old air cadet in Vancouver. The sky was no limit for the young pilot, who studied at Royal Roads before the military college transitioned to a public university in 1995.
After training on the Prairies — an experience that ultimately prepared her for winters north of 60 — she flew the hulking Buffalo in life-saving missions out of Comox, BC.
And then the north beckoned. It was a place she’d flown into a few times for work, and where she and her husband travelled and “loved it.” So when her husband’s job required a move to Whitehorse 12 years ago, the couple willingly traded one of the country’s most populated regions for one of its more remote.
“We were both really excited to live here. It’s a stunning place,” Tyldesley said.
Still, there was flying to be done, and Tyldesley did it as a pilot for a commercial airline in the Yukon until family responsibilities compelled her to give up the friendly skies three years ago.
“When I did that, I gave myself the gift of time — time with my kids and time with my husband,” she said. “Some of those things I did spend time on, I spent more time on now.”
They were grounding activities including foraging, gardening, cooking, mixology and what Tyldesley calls alchemy, “just mixing things.”
Reading was also on her revamped to-do list and that included the James Beard award-winner Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons. The book, a tribute to the boozy elixirs treated as medicine before bartenders used them to balance sweetness in cocktails, became her muse.
Tyldesley decided to make her own drink additives, starting with a coffee and pecan concoction that impressed family and friends.
“I really started tinkering in the kitchen and experimenting. I just kept making more bitters and people said you should try selling them at craft fairs.”
Crafting Cocktail Bitters in the Yukon
She took that advice, officially launching Free Pour Jenny’s in November 2016 and selling out wherever she went. It spoke to her talent as much as the current popularity of the craft cocktail movement.
“People loved it and so I said, ‘Well, I’ll make more.’ I just kept slowly growing and that was two years ago.”
Making bitters gives Tyldesley as much of a high as flying. Her lineup has grown to include at least 10 regular flavours, with the occasional seasonal limited edition. But they all have one trait in common: each spirit must contain Yukon ingredients that have either been foraged in the wild or grown in Tyldesley’s garden.
She loves showcasing the North’s wild side in her fireweed, solstice, spruce tip and rose hip bitters, while her green thumb shines in the cucumber-mint and rhubarb versions. Tyldesley leans on other Whitehorse food artisans for that Yukon touch in her coffee and pecan bitters, which features locally made birch syrup and beans from a nearby roaster.
Even those more reminiscent of southern climes, like her orange bitters, include nods to the North with the addition of black walnut leaf and spruce tips.
It’s the alchemy more than anything that Tyldesley loves about the alcoholic preparations.
“That word comes up a lot for me. It’s the transformation; it’s taking something and adding something else and coming up with something completely different than the two ingredients you started with,” she explained. “Being someone who’s always been drawn to tinkering in the kitchen … it’s something that captured my imagination more than anything in a long time — probably since I started flying.”
Where To Find Free Pour Jenny's Bitters
Two years in, Free Pour Jenny’s is still a popular fixture at craft fairs. Tyldesley has also taken the business online with a Free Pour Jenny's online shop, and has ambitions for a commercial production facility to keep up with demand. She's co-authored two cocktail books with Yukon food writer Michele Genest, too.
“It’s wonderful just to turn over a new leaf and use a different part of my brain — a really creative side of my brain,” she said.
And a part of that finds ways to use her cocktail staples outside of a highball glass — like making solstice bitters the new vanilla, or other bitters a peppy addition to vinaigrette.
“A little goes a long way,” Tyldesley said about her bitters. “You open a bottle and this amazing aroma comes out. You think, what am I going to do with that? I can mix it with whipped cream or put it in salad dressing. Or today, I’m going to put it with gin.”
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Tiffany Mayer is a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at Time For Grub. You can also listen to her food podcast, Grub and read more of her work here on FBC.