Interview – with Michael Gatlin and Sam Babcock of Owl & Whale – Portland, ME

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Flavors Produced to Date

Lemongrass ~ Persimmon ~ Cranberry ~ Cherry ~ Sea Smoke ~ Hot Pepper

New Bitters Flavors coming in 2019 – Orange ~ Blueberry

They also have an interesting selection of Phosphates and Shrubs

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Bitters Hub – What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production?  Is it a natural extension of all the years you’ve been a bartender?

Michael Gatlin – It was for us; Sam Babcock and I had been running bar programs for years. When we first worked together in 2014 and were writing cocktails every day, we wanted to experiment in every facet of the industry, so bitters were a natural extension of what we were doing with infusions and washes.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave inspiration to delve into the now-popular bitters and other products in your line?

MG – I owned a restaurant lounge on The Lower East Side of Manhattan for a dozen plus years. I spent lots of time in the kitchen there and behind the bar. There is a relationship between front of the house and back of the house, especially when and how to use the kitchen. Both Sam and I have dealt with a lot of talented chefs and accumulated a lot of techniques along the way.

BH – Are you and Sam originally from Maine?  If not, how did you end up there?

MG – Sam is from Cape Elizabeth. He spent time in D.C. working for Brian Voltagio and Mike Isabella among others. He moved back here to start a family. I am originally from Tennessee. I spent twenty years in New York City, where my son was born, and within a year I recognized the need for change. So my wife and I moved here five years ago.

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BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything, knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor?

MG – We make everything by hand, which is time consuming. For the first three years we delivered everything by hand as well. Now we have distribution in several states and are constantly looking to expand our brand and our volume.

BH – Managers of restaurants, owners of bars, and hotel F & B directors. How do we open them up to our amazing world of bitters and their usage behind the bar so bartenders eager to experiment (for the betterment of the establishment) don’t have to face such an uphill battle with gaining easier access bringing them in?

It seems like we have to sit them down with an epic presentation of dozens of bitters brands and flavors so they GET IT, otherwise it’s a thousand miles away from their noses and they just don’t understand the complexity they’re missing.

MG – The first step is to convince them not to make their own bitters. The trial and error put into a bitter flavor can take months if not years. I believe in supporting your local bitter maker, and the more esoteric bitter makers. Why should you worry about typhoons in Madagascar affecting the price of vanilla, or an orange blight in Florida causing your bitter orange peel to skyrocket? One of the most famous of all cocktails is the Old Fashioned, which is simply: spirit, sugar, and bitters. With the plethora of flavors available now, you can literally have an old fashioned every day of the year and it always be different.

BH – How do you and Sam go about divvying up the various tasks of the job description when it comes to getting things done so it all comes together?

MG – We flip a lot of coins.

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BH – What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in your city/community in regards to support with your various products? And do you have pretty good reach so far with sales from your online presence?

MG – We prefer to be more personable and sell directly to the consumer. We let local retailers handle our on-line business. Steve at Vena’s House of Fizz, Lonnie at Boston Shaker, we prefer to deliver cases to them and let them sell on line.

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

MG – We usually have our cherry bitters macerate for six months. We produce a Barrel Aged Cherry bitter that continues in oak whisky barrels for another six months – so in total one year.

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

MG – Cluttered.

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

MG – We use local and organic when we can, however lots of bittering agents we use are esoteric and from warmer climates so we order on line as well.

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

MG – Room temp works fine.

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

MG – 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?

MG – We went with a classic dasher – and use a green glass bottle, as no other bitter company had done that yet and we wanted to stand out.

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

MG – We considered hand feel, cost, and amount the average bartender uses in a month. We do 100ml (3.3oz) bottles.

BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters in the state of Maine, or in Portland more specifically? Do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go where you’re at?

MG – Yes. It is a pain in the ass.

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

MG – Like any business, there are regulations, inspections, and fees. If you are serious about starting out in this business the road is long and arduous and be prepared for lots of bureaucratic red tape.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I read Sea Smoke, it made me wonder how that tastes. Can you elaborate on the process and how this idea come about?

MG – When people ask us about Bitters Sam likes say they are like the salt and pepper of the culinary world. So it occurred to me to have a salt and pepper bitter. At the time we were running a now defunct tiki bar and using various saline solutions to counterbalance the sweetness of the tiki drinks. Our favorite was the smoked sea salt, so we turned it into a bitter – as for the pepper, we went with Hot Pepper to give just enough spice to a cocktail without blowing out your palate.

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 bitters releases ?

MG – Our first flavor was Persimmon. We bought a bunch of persimmons and tried to infuse them in scotch, rye, tequila, and they just weren’t working for us – so we made a bitter. That is really the origin of Owl & Whale. The recipe we still use is the one Sam invented on the spot four years ago. Next year we will release an orange bitter and a blueberry bitter – both of those have gone through a dozen iterations to get them where we want them to be.

BH – Shrubs. That Pineapple Rosemary you produce sounds pretty rockin’, and you may be the first to put together that flavor combination for a shrub. What inspired you for this idea?

MG – My son was three at the time and I had him with me at a local coffee shop. He grabbed a scone without asking, so I felt I had to buy it. It was pineapple Rosemary. I thought it must be fate and made it into a shrub and it’s been with us since.

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

MG – I guess I should have read this whole thing before answering questions – yes we have a blueberry bitter, and an orange bitter releasing next year – another one I’m not ready to discuss.

We also are increasing our lines of Acid Phosphates. These phosphates are fun, and the perfect way to acidify a cocktail without using citrus. Currently we are the only company I’m aware of making a blueberry phosphate. We are working on a Ginger and a Cherry as well.

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BH – I love your brand name and logo/label design on your various products? May I ask what the inspiration was? I noticed the logo was created by a person named Bonnie Durham. What is it exactly? The skull of an owl? The overall label design, I like it in the way that it’s both simple and not busy.

MG – We spent more time on the name of our company than our first four products. We had hundreds and hundreds of names. Our name comes from eighteenth century drinking terms. The Owl was the late night drinker, the wise one who people asked questions of, usually the one to close the bars. The Whale was the heavy drinker, the big spender – you always wanted to see the whale come in and buy everyone drinks. And you always wanted to ask The Owl a question if no one else knew the answer.

Bonnie Durham is my wife. She is a talented photographer and illustrator as well as muralist. (She did the interior for Banded Brewing in Biddeford, a local beer company we have collaborated with in the past – bitter infused beer). I told her the name and three drawings later she had the Owl skull with the harpoon through the eyes. She wanted a riff on the old skull and crossbones on poison bottles. It is a very successful logo. We couldn’t be happier with it.

BH – Your logo also looks cool on your hoodie, onesie and T-shirt merch line.

MG –   We always joke that if the bitters and phosphates don’t work out we could just turn Owl and Whale into a clothing line.

BH – Michael and Sam, 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 Owl & Whale and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task masters of your own brand. Cheers!

MG – Thank you. It was a fun experience.

Website – http://www.owlandwhale.com

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Author: Kyle Branche

I am a bartender in Los Angeles

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