Interview – with Tobin Ludwig of Hella Bitters – Long Island City, NY

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Founders – Tobin Ludwig – Jomaree Pinkard – Eddie Simeon

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Flavors Produced to Date

Aromatic ~ Citrus ~ Orange ~ Ginger ~  Smoked Chili

Limited Edition Founders Collection –

Apple Blossom ~ Eucalyptus ~ Mexican Chocolate

They also have a 5-flavor variety mini-pack and a 2-bottle sample pack

They also have Syrups, Mixers, and DIY Kits

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

Tobin Ludwig – Simply a hobby. We were making bitters by the Mason jar to gift to friends. After a little Kickstarter we realized we struck a chord and started making bigger batches 5 gallons at a time.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave inspiration to delve into this product?  Have you guys worked bars before?

TL – I started cooking at home before 10 and started in hospitality when I was 12. I got my first kitchen job when I was 14 but ended up liking FOH more. Eventually ended up in New York where I spent nearly 10 years working in some of the best restaurant and bars in NY. I spent the last 5 years of my hospitality career behind the stick. At points all three of us have been behind the bar but I’m the only one that made a career out of it.

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

TL – Every year we’ve made a bigger batch than the previous one, so we grow as the category continues to grow. Awareness has increased substantially since our first batch and that’s benefitted all of us. The biggest challenge for the category will always be velocity so we’re looking at ways to solve for that.

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 ?

TL – Small batch has been synonymous with craft and is ultimately very vague terminology because it’s so relative to one’s production. Due to the category there will always be limitations on how much can be produced but for a small brand like ours we’ve really focused on scaling to meet growing demand. This year we’ll produce about 10,000 gallons and we feel like we’ve just scraped the surface of what’s possible.

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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?

TL – As a bartender, we are creatures of habit. We’re exposed to lots of new products on a weekly basis, it takes something really unique and special to get us to veer away from something known to be tried and true. That is to say, there is a difference between appreciating and liking our products, and putting it on the menu in place of something more familiar. We’re really proud of the feedback we get from the professional community – our products reflect great ingredients and hard work and you can taste it. Every bar program is different, some rely heavily on a variety of bitters, while others just stick to the basics. We make flavors that are at home in both.

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?

TL – Absolutely. It’s why we spend so much time in market going door to door to connect directly with the decision makers and tell them our story. We also have about 15 brand ambassadors on our team that are advocates and educators for the brand. They make account visits and do staff training when we can’t make it in. It’s a huge value add.

BH – With Long Island City being the westernmost neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens, noted for its ongoing residential growth and gentrification, its waterfront parks, and thriving arts community, have they also embraced the culinary craft of your hometown bitters brand in a good way?

TL – We are proud to call NYC our home and have a lot of local support – in Long Island City, which is a great neighborhood to be based in, we have a few great accounts that are really behind us, but the neighborhood is growing quickly and we know more great bars and restaurants are on the way, which means new hyper local opportunities for us.

BH – What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in your neck of the woods on Borden Ave?

TL – Borden Ave is one the last industrial bastions within a stone’s throw to Manhattan. Where we go to work every day, it’s gritty. It’s become an important part of our story and we’re proud of our hood; it’s let us grow in ways other parts of NYC may not have. Not to mention Jomaree grew up in Astoria, just a couple miles down the road, so it’s kind of full circle for the brand.

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

TL – We’ve found 30 days offers us effective extraction and creates a desired profile. However post extraction we are doing 6 month, 1 year, 2 year and 3 year barrel aged in once used Whiskey barrels. It’s an exciting collaboration so stay tuned for more on that.

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

TL – It’s a large multi-purpose facility, where we produce all of our products including the full line of cocktail mixes and syrups. We have room to grow there and it’s close home base.

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

TL – As we’ve grown we’ve found purveyors and suppliers of our ingredients who we’ve come to really trust. For instance we rely on a great NYC based spice purveyor, Brooklyn Spice Co. for almost all of our botanicals. I know we can always count on the quality of the spices and bittering agents we get from them. We take our ingredients very seriously and building relationships with suppliers is an important, ongoing part of our business.

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

TL – All of our products do fine in ambient temperature. The warehouse is always within a 10 degree range 65-75 and that’s just fine. There’s also no direct sunlight, which is good.

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

TL – Our entire process schedule happens under one roof, yes.

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?

TL – We leaned in to the standard woozy bottle with standard orifice reducer for our bitters early on because we wanted the packaging to feel approachable to a consumer that didn’t know anything about bitters.  The woozy, which is a standard hot sauce bottle is familiar and unintimidating. Plus as a bartender I find the woozy with dasher a faster delivery system during service.

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

TL – We have two sizes of bitters – 50 ML (1.7 fl oz) and 5 fl oz. The smaller size is great for newbies. The 5 oz. is a standard bearer for behind the bar. These two sizes service the vast majority of our needs, both for on-premise and retail.

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

TL – Bitters manufacture is governed on the federal level through the TTB and yes the approval process is thoughtful and thorough. State by state you’ll need a production facility that is FDA and/or USDA certified, that requires annual inspections – which you want anyways. It’s important our food and drink is produced in regulated facilities that are safe, audited and meet high standards for cleanliness.

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

TL – Yes, yes and yes. The bigger / more complex the production systems the more expensive and complex to manage, in every sense.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. 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? Your limited edition flavors of apple blossom, eucalyptus, and Mexican chocolate sound incredible. When I saw the flavor of eucalyptus, I was curious about what profile you would come up with to balance that out. I love woodsy bitters. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

TL – We have a couple exciting collaborations on the horizon but I can’t share anything there yet. In terms of The Founders Collection series those flavors were inspired conversations I had with some of the country’s best bar operators. Eucalyptus is a flavor profile we’ve always had an affinity for and since the brand is tightly linked to northern California, co-founder Eddie Simeon’s birthplace, the profile is an homage to that beautiful part of the country. The Eucalyptus plays particularly well with Gin and we have a Martini and Negroni variation that call for it, and they’re excellent.

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

TL – Aromatic and Citrus were launched in 2011.

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 ?

TL – Every formula goes through at least 6 iterations before being scaled to commercialize. A recent formula for a new product launching next year went through nearly 50 formulations before we landed on the right one.

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BH – How are the sales or popularity of your syrups, mixers, and DIY Kits going?

TL – Every product in our catalog has its place and intended customer. The Syrups are more niche and focused on the aficionado, the kits are great for our premium lifestyle retailers like Neiman Marcus and the mixers are bringing the Hella brand into tens of thousands of homes that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to our products. For instance our Bloody Mary is in every Delta Sky Club and our Margarita is on every Delta jet.

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

TL – Thanks! The design was meant to feel both contemporary and timeless simultaneously. We were fortunate enough to work with some very talented designers in creating it. As for Hella, that word embodies our commitment to bold flavor and real ingredients.

Kyle – Tobin, 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 Hella and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand. Cheers!

Tobin – Kyle, thanks so much for the opportunity and for creating a platform for bitters makers and cocktail brands like Hella Cocktail Company to come together and share with such a great community.

Website – http://www.hellabitters.com

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