Distiller’s Perspective: Reconstructing an Original French Amer

The Golden Moon Distillery in Golden, Colorado, recently closed its doors after 16 years of producing creative, award-winning craft spirits—such as its Amer Antik, closely based on a mid-19th century recipe. Here, Stephen Gould explains what went into the old-fashioned bitters, and he shares advice for up-and-coming distillers.

Stephen Gould , Ryan Pachmayer Jul 2, 2024 - 14 min read

Distiller’s Perspective: Reconstructing an Original French Amer Primary Image

Courtesy Stephen Gould

Our Amer Antik was based on the original formula for amer, which is amaro in Italian or amargo in Spanish—they all mean bitters. This was produced and very popular in the French colonies, and later in France from the 1830s.

I acquired distiller’s notes from 1851 and decided to see whether I could create what is essentially the original product. I also had old samples of some of the original formulas. After two years of playing around with it, I got the flavor profile correct.

It’s a nine-step process, and the only deviation from the original formula is that we removed an ingredient called calamus root because the FDA considers it a carcinogen, so it’s not allowed. I’ve had distillers accuse me of using that ingredient because they think they can taste it. But what I was able to do is reverse-engineer a flavor profile using other ingredients.


Amer Antik is not an easy product to make. These are pre-Prohibition pharmacological medicines. The original formula was an anti-malarial drug. It still works, with huge amounts of cinchona bark in it—the same ingredient that they use to treat malaria today. It’s very bitter. What you’re going for is a complex, typically earthy flavor profile that ties back to the main ingredients. Bitter oranges and cinchona bark are the main flavor inputs.


If you’re looking at Suze, which is an amaro—or amargo because of where it’s made—that primary flavor is gentian root. Specifically, it’s yellow gentian. Gentian root is very pungent, and it has been used for centuries medicinally, and in a variety of Spanish, French, and Italian bitters or amaros, with varying degrees of sweetness.

What you want is that big punch from that primary botanical—and then you want to figure out how you really want to use it. So, we’ll go back to the gentian model. A number of Italian amaros are made with gentian. My favorite is a little distillery in Rome that makes Amaro Formidabile. It’s essentially gentian-based like Suze, without all the sugar, and then barrel-aged. It’s dry, earthy, and awesome. Every time I go to Rome, I find a bottle.

I buy neutral spirits for my botanical distillates. I look at neutral as a white canvas. I don’t have a big column still in here. I can buy a higher quality neutral product that I can use as a basis, and then like an artist would paint, I use the botanicals to paint. I typically use neutral grain, but I’ve used neutral French grape spirit, particularly for prototyping.

In Cocktails

Amer Antik makes beautiful cocktails. It makes a better Brooklyn than anything else, a better Liberal, and a better Brittany. A little bit of it in pretty much any whiskey cocktail will totally change the game. You can taste what cocktails tasted like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The other thing I like to do is a riff on a Brooklyn with tequila that I call The Ciudad. I substitute our Curaçao in place of maraschino, and tequila instead of whiskey. It’s a delicious cocktail.


Small-Batch Tests with Botanicals

I’ll do single and multiple botanical distillation on a one-gallon still. Some of the biggest distilleries in the world use the little copper pot stills to prototype. If we have a major shift in the supply of herbs or spices, I’ll do a test run.

The biggest thing I struggle with is consistent supplies of Curaçao peel, the raw orange peel. We built Amer Antik on organic Curaçao (Laraha) orange peel that we sourced from Morocco. Morocco has had a series of droughts, so I’ll source bitter orange peel from four or five different countries and then distill all of them to test. And a lot of them we just throw out or end up putting in cocktail bitters. I probably test more citrus peel than anything else.

There are certain botanicals that you’re going to get an entirely different flavor profile by distilling two of them together. Juniper is one of them. When I build a product, isolating doesn’t necessarily give you the final result. I need to taste how the botanicals will react together. What I will typically do, then, is a single botanical distillate and a two- or three-bonatical distillation.

Sourcing, Terroir, and the Story

For God’s sake, don’t go online and order whatever you can get because most of it is crap. Do the research—there are certain online retailers that sell quality ingredients. Go on the forums. ADI still has a forum. Go on social media, talk to other distillers, learn as much as you can and ask people who they’re buying stuff from.

Then figure out where things are coming from because terroir is huge. People will say it’s not, but terroir is freaking huge—grain, grapes, anything.


And then it’s the way they’re handled. You want to try to be pesticide-free if at all possible. And that’s not, “Oh, I want to be organic.” No, it’s distillation. Certain chemicals that have been used to do certain things with your botanicals, those chemicals will come through the distillation process and become concentrated. And not only can they add bad flavors, you might not want that stuff in your body either.

I’m really picky about my fruits and botanicals in all my products. I’m not a locavore—just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good. Having said that, if you walk into our herb room, every single orange-colored bag that we have was grown at Fruition Farms in Larkspur, Colorado. I grew different types of wormwood there as well. But I would get my seed stock from Switzerland. I can import bulk botanicals from Switzerland and then use the same seed stock to grow it here, and they’re entirely different. That’s terroir.

Distillers need to understand quality, flavor profile, and story. Story is as important as anything else. People want to know what they’re putting in their body, where it comes from, why it’s there. You’ve got to have a story, and it’s got to be true. Don’t make it up because someone will figure it out.

Do you have to tell me where your botanicals come from? No. But if you have something special in there, brag about it. Chartreuse, they’re getting yellow gentian from the Pyrenees. They’re bragging about it. Breckenridge bitters, they’re wildcrafting gentian from the Rockies. I love that product. The way they use gentian in their product is brilliant, but I don’t want to copy it—it’s already out there, and it’s a part of their story.

Brag about what makes your product unique, because you’re different. That’s why I’m making amaro. Being different is what inspired me.


Advice for Up-and-Coming Distillers

Do you really need to make your own version? When I teach classes, I give a fernet recipe. One of my students came up to me once, and the only product he’d made at the time was a fernet, and it took gold at a major competition. He literally used my slide to make it. That’s beautiful, that’s great. But will it actually sell?

Then people ask why I’m not making a fernet. It’s because I can go buy Leopold Bros., or I can go buy Fernet Branca at the store. I like both of them; they are great products. There are a dozen good fernets that I can buy in the U.S. market. I’m a craft distiller—I need to sell my product for twice the price that you can buy Fernet Branca. Do I really want to compete with them?

The mindset I went into when I created Amer Antik is that it didn’t exist. So, I’m basically bringing something new to the table. I’m bringing something old, a lost spirit that I was re-creating that nobody else had.

I have a collection of more than a dozen stills, with around half of those in working condition. The average distiller tends to buy the most efficient still they can buy. All the bells, all the whistles, all the plates, the whole bit. And what they end up doing is they often have a still that is not well-suited to the product they’re making. Because when they went out and bought the flashy still, they weren’t thinking, “What do I really want to make?” All those plates and columns are going to rectify the living hell out of whatever they’re distilling.

The science and engineering of distillation is optimizing the separation of alcohol from other chemicals. The artistry is understanding how to manage the inefficiencies, so that your spirits have character. This is why you see not only old stills in my distillery, but new stills that are designed to look like and function like old stills. Because they’re less efficient, and it tastes better than if you strip the hell out of it.


Research, Research, Research

I got my botanical skill set by going down a rabbit hole in my research library. I look toward the things that the Irish did in the 1880s, and it had a direct lineage from the 1850s French botanical distilling techniques. I have a large collection of books, many rare, on distillation. I use them for my research, to inspire formulas.

I originally acquired books that the underground absinthe community recommended. They were very willing to share knowledge, and there were books that they would talk about. Some of the things they would talk about were right, some were wrong. Those in the know would tell me to find specific books. So, I just started from there, reading and figuring it out. In the 1800s, the epicenter of distillation technology was in France. And these books were basically designed to be read by journeymen and trained distillers—they were reference manuals. I have a bunch of those, some of them are amazing. They are not for the faint of heart, however. They’re not for people who don’t have a solid knowledge.

I also have books that were published in London or the United States for use in the New World. They were designed for people who weren’t journeymen. If you add these two bodies of knowledge from the 1700s and 1800s together, now you have roadmaps to do things that in many cases, modern distillers just don’t do.

Add to that several publications that came out in North America on the eve of repeal of Prohibition, which were basically reference books for the American distilling community that had lost two generations of journeymen distillers. Now you’ve got another roadmap, and you start adding these together, and you’ve got a body of knowledge that you can exploit. I’m not a genius, I just read a book. It’s a book that nobody thought to look at.

Epilogue: A Sudden Ending

When interviewed for this article, Gould revealed that Golden Moon was in the process of selling the company, an effort that had been ongoing since December 2023. Unfortunately, the sale fell through, and the company has since ceased operations because of an inability to service its debt. The bank is preparing to liquidate the company’s assets.

Despite numerous awards, a diverse product range, and an exceptionally knowledgeable distiller, Golden Moon could not recover from the costs of a significant pre-COVID expansion. The distillery thrived in the years before COVID, but the combination of tariffs and the pandemic dealt a severe blow. “It kind of gutted us,” Gould says.

A key aspect of Gould’s business strategy was selling Golden Moon spirits overseas. However, that strategy took a blow when the European Union imposed a 25 percent tariff on American whiskey in response to U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum.

Gould had constructed a flexible, scalable facility designed to “plug things in,” with a capacity of up to 9,000 casks. By early 2024, the facility was operating at only 10 percent capacity as Gould attempted to raise capital or sell the company. Unfortunately, those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. —Ryan Pachmayer