Interview – with Sara Lund of Honest John – Salt Lake City, UT

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Flavors Produced to Date

Aromatic ~ Grapefruit ~ Nola ~ Orange ~ Black Walnut ~ Sarsaparilla ~ 

Lemongrass Cardamom ~ Coffee Cherry / Seasonal – Celery Shishito

They also have a 3-bottle mini gift set – Orange ~ NOLA ~ Aromatic

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

Sara Lund – Honest John Bitters Co. was a bi-product of my Bar Manager, Executive Chef, and myself wanting to create interesting flavors for our own use in The Rest’s cocktail menu. Flavors that we couldn’t find anywhere on the market. We started making very small batches of unique flavors to be used exclusively in our seasonal menus. Once this process started, I personally became very interested in the ingredients that they were made with and the history of bitters themselves. I decided to start pursuing the opportunity of actually branding, bottling and selling the bitters, and launched Honest John Bitters Co. as a sister company of The Rest in October of 2016.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product?

SL – I have owned and operated a cocktail bar and restaurant called Bodega + The Rest for about 6 years. I have a very talented Exec. Chef (also a partner in Honest John) and Bar Manager that assist in recipe development for both the bitters and the bar program at The Rest.

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

SL – So far (knock on wood), we have been able to keep up with the demands for the product. What has been ironic, is that our most popular and best-selling flavors have been those that were initially intended to be “limited” or only offered for a 90 day period. We have had to change gears quite a few times to continue to supply the most popular flavors.

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 ?

SL – Honest John grew much faster than I had anticipated. We launched in October of 2016, and within 90 days of launching, had to go through an entire repackaging phase to keep costs down and supply the amount of product that was being requested. We spent our first year with a distributor, and decided that was not the best fit for the company and the level of involvement we wanted to have with our wholesale accounts. We spent that first year getting things in order so that we could offer our own wholesale program, and are now in a position to do that. Any growth in the near future will include expanding the product line (i.e. syrups, shrubs, cocktail tools) not necessarily the volume.

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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?

SL – Well, haha… I’m fortunate enough to also be in a position where a professional bartender is a part of almost every decision we make in regards to the bitters products and flavor and recipe development. The Rest is a perfect vessel to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. I believe that most craft cocktail bartenders would use the best product out there in all of their menus, if they were the ones making the decision about what could and couldn’t be brought in. Unfortunately, most of them have restrictions due to cost and keeping margins on cocktails high enough to turn a profit. I see both sides being a bar owner and the owner of what is considered a “high end” bitters product due to the price point that Honest John retails for.

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?

SL – I think about this all of the time, and we have spent a lot of time seeking out these individuals and offering more education on our product. It has been mind boggling to me as we have started running our own wholesale program with Honest John and have had more direct contact with the buyers, how little people know about bitters and what they are and how many ways they can be used. We have tried not to pigeonhole ourselves in ONLY the cocktail world. We have partnered up with local pastry chefs to highlight ways to bake and cook with bitters, as well as the holistic benefits of bitters and using them in some of the original nonalcoholic/medicinal methods as well.

BH – It seems like Salt Lake City has the artisan craft in culinary going on in a good way currently, as far as bitters there’s your very cool Honest John brand, and then there’s Bitters Lab and Beehive out of Utah as well. What’s it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in the city?

SL – Yes, Bitters Lab and Beehive are also fantastic local brands and are usually represented alongside our product in local shops. They have both been around for a while and offer unique flavors and delicious product.

Salt Lake City is growing and there are A LOT of makers. You could say the bitters market is pretty saturated in SLC and around the country. I think we all do a good job of differentiating ourselves and offering a good range of flavors and product lines to fit in particular niches.

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BH – The Bodega and The Rest – Are these your speakeasy or craft bars? Are they both in Salt Lake City?

SL – Yes, they are both located here in SLC.

BH – I heard you have a bitters tasting menu whereby guests can experience the flavors in three different ways – 1. Dropper or back of hand. 2. An olfactory experience of rubbing the bitters in your hands. 3. Bitters in sparkling water. And the price includes a classic craft cocktail.

Is that going over well as far as participation and popularity?  I think it’s a cool idea and the first I’ve heard of a brand doing this in their own establishment.

SL – It has been going really well, and is certainly a unique offering in that type of environment. We sell Honest John Bitters downstairs in The Rest, and the tasting has been a really great way to allow guests to try the product and learn about it prior to making a purchase. Again, it is amazing how little people know about bitters and how they are used in cocktails.

BH – From what I understand, you also have a non-alcoholic bitters tasting as well as an alcoholic bitters tasting. How do you have both available?

SL – We do offer a non-alcoholic tasting. The bitters still technically have alcohol in them, like most flavor extracts do, but we allow the guest to order a mocktail, coffee, or tea to taste the bitters in, instead of a classic cocktail. In a city like SLC, where the majority of the population is very conservative, it’s nice and almost necessary to have an offering to those who don’t imbibe.

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

SL – Currently, our longest maceration is 4-5 weeks

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

SL – We currently produce all of the bitters in the commercial kitchen facility in Bodega and The Rest. Everything is bottled and sealed there, and then taken down to the new Honest John Bitters Co. space in U. West to be labeled and shipped.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?  I’ve read that you have your product organic.

SL – We source all of our ingredients from Mountain Rose Herbs in Oregon, and we purchase organic fruits for the fresh peels that are required in recipes.

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

SL – We store all finished product in dark and cool spaces that never exceed 70 degrees, because we bottle our bitters in clear bottles instead of amber glass bottles. Our labeled product is also stored the same way.

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

SL – Yes, all bottling happens in the commercial facility, and the labeling and shipping is out of U. West.

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?

SL – Initially, I wanted to have a bottle that looked like something you’d see in an old apothecary cabinet. Cost restrictions prevented that. The Boston round is by far the most cost effective bottle on the market. When all was said and done, the best bottles for the rest of our packaging. My bartenders at The Rest prefer dasher tops, and aesthetically, I preferred the dropper top on the 0.5oz bottles.

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

SL – We decided to go with the 4oz. and 0.5oz due to what we had previously purchased for use at The Rest. The 4oz. seemed to be the best size for the volume we were using, and the 0.5oz. seems to be a great “non-committal” size for those who wanted to taste and experiment.

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BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters up in Utah? And do you need some special license and/ or certification, how does that all go?

SL – Haha… anything that requires the use of any type of alcohol in Utah is tricky and comes with its own set of hoops to jump through. For Honest John, we are required to have a separate liquor license through the state in which all of the alcohol (we use high proof bourbon and rye, as well as NGS) is required to be purchased through. We have a separate business license and also a license through the Dept. of Agriculture. We also have the necessary liability coverage to produce and sell a product to the public.

BH – Are their costs/fees/expenses involved, and are there regular facility inspections?

SL – Yes, all of the licenses are renewed every year with renewal fees and the facilities are inspected annually.

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? It looks like the Coffee Cherry may be your latest release if I’m not mistaken.

SL – We do have a couple of flavors that we are going to be releasing later on in the year. They will both be Limited Edition flavors (for real this time.. haha) and only 10 gallons of each flavor will be produced for retail. They will only be available online and at The Rest and will not be included in our wholesale catalog. We also anticipate venturing into syrups later this year, and have a really cool product in the works for the holiday season. Stay tuned. 🙂

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BH – What was your debut flavor and when was it released?

SL – We debuted with 5 flavors. We went big! haha

Our core 5 flavors are Orange, Grapefruit, NOLA, Aromatic, and Black Walnut. Black Walnut was initially supposed to be our “seasonal/limited” flavor, but turned into our best seller and still the most popular flavor to date. So, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s delicious and like Coffee + Cherry, made with a high proof bourbon. They are both delicious and perfect for Whiskey based cocktails.

BH –  I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far.  When I saw the name of NOLA, I was curious about what type or variation of flavor profile you would come up with for that. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

SL – NOLA is our take on Peychaud’s. It is our offering of a floral aromatic bitter. NOLA has notes of Orange, Vanilla, Hibiscus, and Anise. It’s amazing used in a Sazerac or as an alternative to a more spicy aromatic bitter like Angostura or our own Aromatic.

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 ?

SL – Well, if it gives you any perspective, initially it took us about 6 months to nail down recipes. We have altered 5 of them over time to increase/decrease bitterness to allow the flavor to really come through in  a cocktail. Bitters can’t be produced overnight, so the process of recipe creation is time consuming, and sometimes you’ll make a batch that just doesn’t turn out.

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BH – I’ve gathered that you’re a New Yorker as well, but live in Utah.

I’m from upstate New York, by way of Sackets Harbor – Watertown (off the edge of Lake Ontario), about 70 miles upstate from Syracuse.

What do you do when you go back East, and how long do you usually stay?

SL – I am a New Yorker! Not from there originally, but I do believe I lived there long enough to officially call myself one. 😉

Since Honest John and U. West launched, I have only been back East a couple of times. Life and work responsibilities have kept me out West and diligently working and focused in Utah. Back when I had more free time, I’d try to go back for a week at a time. New York became vacation and free time and Utah became work and responsibility.

BH – I like your brand name and logo/label design? May I ask what the inspiration was?

SL – The name and logo design plays off of the history of bitters and its journey from being a “medicinal digestif” to a “cure-all elixir,” and the interaction and sales pitch between the duplicitous “snake oil salesman” and the gullible “honest john,” who is far too trusting and believes the product will cure all of his ailments, not just help aid in his digestion. The hand with the crossed fingers that substitutes the “o” in Honest, represents the salesman with fingers crossed “telling the truth.”

BH – Sara, 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 Honest John and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand. Cheers!

SL – Thank you so much for including us! We are honored to be a part of your highlighted selection.

Website – http://www.honestjohnbitters.com

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