Interview – with Ben Leggett of Elemental Distillers – Marlborough District, New Zealand

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Flavors Produced to Date

Coffee & Pimento‘the mature digestif’ – medium roasted coffee beans from the highlands of Ethiopia, enhanced with a touch of blackstrap molasses and spicy pimento.

Grapefruit & Hops‘the citrus refresher’ – macerated with zest from ripe Gisborne grapefruit and organic Motueka hops from Nelson.

Blackberry & Balsamic‘the rich berry’ – An aromatic bitter essence created in the tradition of old English ‘shrub’ cordials. A perfect marriage of house dried Karaka blackberries and tart pomegranate balsamic vinegar lifted with pink pepper.

 

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Bitters Hub  –  What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production ?

Ben Leggett  – It was two-fold. One; I was coming to the end of my professional bartending career and was already a fan of the world of bitters, and two; I had already committed to the dream of one day owning and operating my own craft distillery, the bitters was a good place to trial creating my own brand/product. And so I launched a single batch range of three flavours called Regency Bitters out of the kitchen of the bar I was running at the time. The lessons learnt during this trial were vital in developing Elemental Bitters later.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product? I’ve read that you’ve put in 13 years prepping luxury spirit brands in the UK as a brand ambassador. I’ve heard stories about that job from other ambassadors having to be on both the day and night of long hours. Is it true at being quite the burn where it and the business travel aspect takes its toll after a while?

BL – Yes and yes. From a bartender point of view, being a Brand Ambassador for a premium spirits company is the greatest achievement. Travel the world, unlimited booze, free publicity, no KPI’s. The truth is always much different as such, few Brand Ambassadors remain in the role more than a couple of years. It is even harder still on any relationships.

Being an ambassador for a few different brands taught me many things but strongest of all was networking. Thanks to those roles I merged into Brand Management and worked closely for many years alongside creative marketing agencies to launch new releases of cognac, scotch and rum to name a few. Having experience in marketing and brand development alongside a network of people in different fields of the industry was massively beneficial.

BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

BL – The bitters in all honesty was always a route to market for my follow up products, gin and vermouth/amaro. Bitters are a fun and versatile product but with very little retail value to Joe Public. I also moved back to my native New Zealand to bring my dreams to light and we’re a bit behind the curve when it comes to cocktail vogues like aromatic bitters. That said they are now sold nationwide as well as small volume sold to Australia and back to the UK.

If there was one thing to improve it would be time – my days are tied up holding down a full-time job, being a new Dad, trying to launch a new gin brand, opening a new craft distillery and… promoting the bitters. That said I wouldn’t change a thing, loving every minute of it.

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BH –  Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there?

BL – There is always a way to up scale and therefore cash in on higher economies of scale. The question will always be at what point do you begin to compromise your initial brand and product. I do need to scale up but am not forced to do so until demand dictates I do so. Once I have my own distillery open and can work full-time for myself, I will be able to forecast and prepare better for larger volumetric deliveries.

BH – What kind of feedback do you get from professional bartenders, and do you wish that more bartenders would get involved in regards to upping their game with a wider range of bitters usage?

BL – Feedback has been great from bartenders who have said both how refreshing it is to not have another ugly bitters bottle and how good it is that the primary ingredients come before the bitter snap.

I will admit there is a bit of over romanticization behind bitters by bartenders. It’s great they/we covet our collections of strange essences but I find many are not using them in the correct way. Education can go a long way to amplifying the industry of what, why and how bitters are bitters.

BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

BL – At a F&B/GM/Manager level of the industry you need to not ‘sell the story’ of your bitters but the ‘promotion/potential profitability of their business’. It’s tough to talk about GP’s and retro deals with bitters so, easier to talk about how a menu is enhanced by a listed bitters recipe and how far a single bottle goes compared to standard spirits etc. The rest is down to replacing any bitters brands they might already have.

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BH – What is the longest maceration process for any of the flavors you’ve produced to date?

BL – Not as long as many think. For me it’s just under one month. Time is only relevant to botanical ratio and the condition (fresh v dehydrated v whole v powdered) of the ingredient.

BH – What is the facility like in which you create your various bitters and flavors?

BL – Double garage attached to my house, residential address. I rent too, don’t own.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?

BL – Once I’ve played around enough and created a direction I want a flavor to go, I look for the best of each of those core ingredients. For me origin is very important as is the story of the people behind them. All I do is pull them together. We proudly cross-promote all of our suppliers. In addition I’m looking for the unique. Our blackberries and grapefruit are New Zealand hybrid species and even our balsamic vinegar is macerated with kiwi pomegranates from a local olive farm. Basically – the unique and boutique.

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BH – What are your storage and temperature necessities that you feel equate to the best results for your products?

BL – Good question. While we all understand flavours extract faster at a higher temperature, at the end of the day it is what works for you. As long as you are consistent each time. As my batches are dictated by seasonality of key ingredients, I’m making my batches at the same time each year and cross-reference my ambient temperatures each time. Once I can make this in my distillery, I’ll have more temperature control.

BH – Is all of your bottling and labeling done in-house?

BL – Yep. I have just upgraded to a hand bottle machine for speed and a consistent fill but labeling and wax dipping are all done by hand. I even cut out my own carton dividers.

BH – How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, flask-style etc?

BL – Another good question (although I’m intrigued by what a ‘woozy’ is). One of the key lessons learnt by my first trial brand of bitters was that pipettes are a bad idea in bitters bottles. They may be cool but are not only a more expensive packaging but I found bartenders dispensed in drops rather than dashes using too little and shifting less product. I now use dasher plugs with a wide aperture, so the right amount of flavor is added to a standard drink.

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BH – How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz., 2oz., 4oz?

BL – I’m in metric so for me it’s mls. My bottles are 100ml/10cl. It’s a great size for delivering around 75 dashes a bottle, exporting can be done through regular post due to being within volume limits and a nice looking bottle size on a backbar.

BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters in New Zealand? or your region of Marlborough more specifically , and do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go?

BL – Nope. NZ doesn’t regulate by state or province but nationally so one guideline for all. Bitters are only recently recognized by excise and you need no license to produce or distill in NZ only licenses for work safety, customs control and food hygiene.

BH – What are the costs/fees/expenses involved, and are there regular facility inspections?

BL – Nope. Not even an annual license fee. We do get a customs inspection once a year but take stock and record all excise movements well so no issue. Other licenses take a bit of effort and application fees but once obtained last for many years.

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BH – Do you have any new flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point?

BL – Afraid not, although I’d like to bring back some of my original Regency flavours like Bourbon Oak Smoked Mango bitters and Ginger & Apricot Bitters but all current focus is on the distillery and gin startup.

BH – What do you mean on the website when it says “sustainably produced from the bi-product of our national cheese industry”?

BL – Ha! Yeah, like most commercial gin or bitters producers around the world, it’s the most cost effective neutral base alcohol that drives your bottom line. In the UK there is ample neutral grain spirit, US has plenty of neutral corn spirit and for us in here in NZ, we have grass fed cows. The curds from our dairy cows are used to make yogurt and butter while the whey bi-product is distilled off into a sustainable neutral spirit.

BH –  I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far.  Will you be doing any barrel-aged bitters in the future?

BL – Maybe but most barrel-aged bitters do more for marketing than actual flavor. Barrels are the romance but I’d use oak chips as they are a more consistent flavor delivery and cost effective. More of a fan of smoke and char flavours over oak in bitters.

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BH –  What are the most samples and least samples of trial and error testing you had to go through to get the flavor profile you wanted with a couple of your releases ?

BL – No exact figures but I don’t co-macerate my flavours so no major errors made early on. I independently macerate each ingredient so I know at what ratio each is best released. I then blend these together in a recipe and leave to marry for a period of weeks before bottling.

BH – Can you talk with us a little about your future spirits production of Gin, Amaro, Vermouth, and Liqueurs?

BL – The gin is called ‘Roots, Marlborough Dry Gin’. It is also built on a whey spirit base and comprised of only 6 core botanicals. As an ex cocktail guy, I believe in less is more and while I love brands like Monkey 47, I don’t believe you need 47 botanicals to make a good gin.

Roots like the bitters is about getting the best from each ingredient and promoting a full tracability from root to cup. As such we have foraged wild juniper from the highlands of Macedonia, Bulgarian organic coriander seed, NZ grapefruit, NZ organic hops, NZ wild foraged gorse flower and NZ native kawakawa fruit.

Bottled at 45% vol and delivered in a ‘London Dry style’ where juniper plays primary. All are batch distilled in a copper pot. Recipe has been 2.5 years in the making (from my garage).

BH – You’re also a freelance drinks writer and have your own blog called Drinking Cup (drinkingcup.net) that has some very interesting and in-depth content, of which your latest entry is a great piece on what you’re doing now, called Distillery or Death – One Man’s Mission to Open a Craft Distillery: Part 1. How many years have you been at it with this beautifully-designed site page you’ve created?

BL –  Cheers. The blog was my way of keeping up as an ambassador on knowledge as well as allowing me a platform to share what inspired me. A few of the articles went semi viral like Understanding Maturation – Part 1 and A Lego Guide to the hipster Bartender which both hit 14,000 Facebook likes each and were read over 50,000 times.

Although I have to admit I haven’t written a real article for almost two years due to the above commitments. I need to follow up on Part 2 of The Story of American Whiskey – Part 1. Maybe I’ll have more time when I’m dead 😉

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BH – Ben, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. I’m sure the visitors here on Bitters Hub will appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating Elemental and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand. Cheers!

BL – An absolute pleasure! Keep up the great work yourself and if you or any of your readers are visiting New Zealand, come say g’day!

Website – http://www.elementaldistillers.com

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