Interview – with Phaedra Achor of Monarch Bitters – Petaluma, CA

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Flavors Produced to Date

Citrus Basil ~ Cherry Vanilla ~ Rose Petal ~ Wormwood ~ Cayenne Ginger ~ Aromatic ~ Orange ~ Celery Horseradish ~ Lavender ~ Bacon Tobacco ~ Honey Aromatic ~ Honey Lavender ~ Smoked Salt & Pepper ~ California Bay Laurel

They also have 2-bottle, 3-bottle and 4-bottle Gift Boxes available

They also have an interesting selection of Flavored Syrup combinations

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

Phaedra Achor – Back in 2015 I decided to host a summer cocktail party.  I planned ahead and wanted to offer a unique experience.  I researched forgotten pre and post prohibition cocktails and ended up selecting 5 with interesting names and hysterical stories behind them.  All 5 cocktails called for bitters.  Being the inquisitive person that I am I researched bitters.  I wasn’t clear what, exactly, bitters were.  It didn’t take me long to convince myself that I could make my own bitters for my cocktail party.  Due to my culinary background and knowledge of plant ingredients, where to source them and a deep desire to make everything by hand. I formulated 5 recipes.  I purchased ingredients and crafted a bitter for each cocktail I served.  The party was a hit!  At one point I walked in from my backyard and a woman I didn’t know (had come as a guest of a guest) was standing at my bar with the tincture bottles in her nose.  She asked me where the bitters came from.  I told her I made them for the party and her mouth about hit the floor, she couldn’t believe I had made them just for that party.  She told me she was a bartender and that I should go speak to the owner of where she worked to see if he would buy them from me, she felt they were far superior then what they were using.  I never did that but this stranger-bartender-angel planted a seed.  Shortly after that conversation she left the party and I have never seen her again, I don’t even remember her name.  I need to find her, thank her and offer her a lifetime supply of bitters.  Unbeknownst to her she and our 45 second conversation transformed my life.  Through her suggestion my company was born (after many months of research, exploration into the world of bitters and the alcohol industry).  There wasn’t anyone in Sonoma County making bitters at the time, it was an interesting and unique niche.  Coupled with the cocktail renaissance happening across the globe I felt the timing was right to give it a go.

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?

PA – I have a lifetime love of cooking, blending flavor, exploring flavor chemistry, etc.  I grew up cooking with my mother, although never professionally trained, she is a wonderful cook and taught me everything I know about flavor, cooking with heart and love, the gesture of sharing that with others and the importance of nourishment and joy in consumption.  I owned my own restaurant many years ago, a wine bar restaurant, where I developed my palate further.  My background made it easy for me to explore bitters making.  However, roots, barks and extracting I was less familiar with but eager to learn more about.  I have come to realize and feel comfortable owning that I have flavor wisdom.  I have tried my best to translate this to bitter and syrup crafting.

BH – Are you originally from Petaluma in Sonoma County?  If not, how did you end up there?

PA – I was born in Palo Alto but moved to Petaluma by pre-school age.  I lived in Petaluma through second grade and then moved a couple of times until landing in Bernal Heights, San Francisco for a few years.  We moved back to Petaluma the summer before eighth grade and I graduated from Petaluma High School 5 years later.  I moved for college but returned in 1996 and haven’t left since.  I’m convinced Petaluma is a magic bubble; it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth with the most incredible community I have ever experienced.

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?

PA – Growing a successful business and residing in the development phase for some time creates a constant struggle to maintain a consistent supply and demand balance.  With increased order sizes and frequent new accounts there is constant change which makes nailing down a solid production schedule challenging.  Over the past year and a half I have had to back order only a couple of times but each was a learning lesson.  My biggest epiphany has been to stop underestimating people wanting my product!  As a result I have increased batch sizes and the beautiful thing is that every time I scale up the demand increases.  This year I am making some capital improvements to create more efficient processes which will help supply greatly and hopefully ease the struggle for balance.  However, as long as I am in the development and growth stage I anticipate supply and demand to be a constant dance.  My goal is to eventually share my brand far and wide while still maintaining the artisanal, small batch feel, taste and quality.  I can’t foresee my hands leaving the batches, remaining close to production regardless of growth is important to me.

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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?

PA –  Whenever I have a tasting the response to my products is very positive!  Getting in front of them is the challenge.  Many don’t accept walk-ins and getting a call or email back for an appointment is rare.  The tasting is just one part, rarely do they order on the spot and rarely will they order to just bring in new flavors.  I find many want to craft cocktails with a specific bitter or syrup in mind which narrows the chances of them using the products even more.  In addition, I find that each city has its own micro-culture and getting my finger on the pulse of how each works is difficult, I have never been in sales before.  Where I live, Sonoma County, industry folks are open to walk in’s and excited to learn about local products they can use.  San Francisco and Oakland (nearest large cities) are completely different.  I think in large cities with higher volume establishments, product they have easy access to through their distributor’s works for them which makes it harder for small producers like myself who also self-distribute.  I find larger city programs have different values, generally speaking.  The way business is done now makes effective market visits to on-premise accounts hard.  I, too, would love to know how to open them up more and have them eager to meet and experiment.  What I have found to be the best method for getting my foot in the door is the power of suggestion; word of mouth from other industry people.  High regards with a well-connected industry person who will talk-up, recommend or make an introduction can help.  But that only works within a certain radius.  If I could make a wish it would be for a shift in the way bar managers and program directors do business and their responsiveness to and interest in working with craft producers, especially those who self-distribute and hit the pavement themselves.  There are such incredible high quality, craft products on the market.  One would think managers and directors would want to explore and include these products for the betterment of their establishments but alas, an uphill battle remains.

BH – How do you go about handling the various tasks of the job description when it comes to getting things done so it all comes together?  Do you have help?

PA –  I am a one-woman-show, I do it all.  How I go about it is a mystery.  I just do.  I think I am a stellar multi-tasker, thank goodness!  And I have an entrepreneurial spirit and am very determined.  I believe those characteristics aid me greatly in handling every role in a bitter and syrup company.  I do production, bottling, labeling, packaging, I hand write flavors on all labels and boxes, hand stamp each box with a wax seal, handle purchasing, sales, distribution, bookkeeping, marketing, consumer and trade events, etc. I have occasional help from a family member or friend here or there but it really is just me.  This is by no means an ideal business model and certainly not a sustainable one but it is what I have done to get it off the ground solely, with my own savings and two hands.  I have definitely created a method to my madness but am excited for more streamlined processes and help in 2019.  I am happy to share that I have graduated to a level to be able to afford the next stage in development.

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?

PA – The Petaluma and larger Sonoma County community is magic.  I have received an overwhelmingly positive response to my products.  The community where I am from is generally very supportive of one another and local businesses, people genuinely want to help others and see them happy and successful.  The community is full of entrepreneurs, many artisans and craft producers of all kinds, the farm-to-table, know your farmer and producer way of life is prominent and people love high quality, organic and locally made products.  I don’t think I could have chosen a more fitting product to produce in Sonoma County, it fits in every way.  And I honestly don’t know if I would have been so successful in such a short amount of time if I tried launching in any other place.  Consumers, business owners and industry folks are very supportive and love what I am doing. For example, last September Monarch won #2 Peoples’ Choice Award for Top 10 Best Craft Mixer in USA Today’s national competition.  I was up against some large, well-known companies with national distribution, how could I compete?  It was my community that stepped up and voted little Monarch to #2 in the nation!  I was getting messages from strangers and people stopping me on the street saying they were voting for me.  THAT is an example of the power of community where I am from.  I am incredibly grateful for my community and owe a large part of my success to them.

The majority of my online sales are out of state which I am so excited about!  I love that people far away can access my products and are seeking them out!  I wish I could hear every story of how each person found Monarch, I so appreciate the connections my products are creating.

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

PA – I am currently macerating some bitters that are going on 13 months, these are experimental recipes.  The flavors I produce and currently distribute macerate for 3-4 weeks.

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

PA – I produce in a CA State and County Health Department approved kitchen with annual inspections.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?  How far is it that you go to forage out in the fields and hills of Sonoma?

PA – The predominate source of my ingredients is from herb companies that sell organic and wild harvested botanicals.  I also grow some ingredients as well as forage for some.  My majority of my foraging comes from west Sonoma County and the Sonoma Coast, 30-45 minute drive from Petaluma is the furthest I travel to forage.  Different locations and seasons offer different options, all exquisite in their own right.  Foraging for wildflowers was the inspiration for my Wildflower Syrup, a beautifully unique flavor that combines floral and herbal notes; a Sonoma Coast wildflower terroir syrup.

BH – You’ve located some interesting tropical flavors growing out in the wild of the countryside, like pineapple guava and Kousa Dogwood tree fruit. Is there something about the Petaluma area and climate that produces these interesting edibles?

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PA –  We have a temperate climate in Sonoma County, pineapple guava and Kousa Dogwood happen to thrive here which is similar to the native climates of both plants.  Finding them here seems odd due to the tropical flavors that both embody.  They are unique flavors for temperate climate fruits.

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

PA – I macerate in glass or stainless steel, my product never touches plastic.  After filtration my products are bottled straight into glass.  Ambient temperature is best for maceration and storage but being in a commercial kitchen/warehouse building the temperature can fluctuate in summer and winter.  Bitters are stable and I have not noticed the fluctuation cause any difference in the maceration process or finished product.  Once the bitters and syrups are packaged and cased the boxes act as sufficient insulators to maintain adequate storage temperatures while in house, which isn’t for long.

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

PA – Yes, everything is in-house and by hand.

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.?

PA – Initially I envisioned a beautiful, unique glass bottle unlike anything on the market.  I did a lot of research and found some incredible options.  But with my production levels so low it did not make financial sense to package so uniquely with the glass I desired to use.  I reluctantly chose the Boston round, reluctant because it isn’t unique.  And I chose amber because it was the most appropriate color to match with my branding.  However, the amber Boston round with dropper top is the typical tincture/elixir bottle and I like my product being associated that way.  How I set myself apart is packaging in a tube box with a wax seal closure.  I was able to reconcile the lower cost and simplicity of the bottle with a unique outer package.  I am happy with the outcome.

I am not a fan of the dasher top, I find it messy and inaccurate.  I chose the dropper top because of the accuracy of measured use.  Bartenders can also use drops for esthetics, not possible with the dasher.  And although my bitters are not categorized as a dietary supplement or true herbal medicine, I wanted the traditional medicinal feel when using them.  There is something mystical about dropping a few drops of a magical herbal extract that happens to change everything, into a drink.  The drops are slow and deliberate as is how many drops are used.  I wanted the user to have the feeling of having a hand in creating a delicious potion. It only seems fitting that the dropper be used to match that experience.

BH – How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz., 2oz., 3oz., 4oz.?

PA – I chose 2oz for retail, it is plenty to last a decent amount of time but not too long and it also makes for a reasonable price point.  I offer 4oz for on-premise accounts, bars tend to need more volume.  I offer 1oz bottles in a 4-flavor sampler set.

BH – You were listed at #6 of the top Sonoma County businesses by Press Democrat recently. That recognition must feel pretty good. Was it tough to get noticed initially?

PA – Seeing that blew my mind, I was stunned not only to be listed in the first place but to be listed as #6 and next to some large, well known and respected companies.  It felt amazing and surreal.  The gratitude I feel for recognition of my craft brings me to tears, literally.  It is quite something to create a product out of thin air and have it become loved, shared and acknowledged publicly.

My business has only been public less than 2 years.  About 1 year in a local magazine published an article which was amazing.  I had been in business just a year and a half when I received the national nomination and award I mentioned.  I feel that a lot has happened in a short amount of time and I was noticed pretty early on.  I am so appreciative of the response and media exposure I have received.

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BH – Your bitters classes also started up this year. How’s that going so far?

PA – The response has been amazing!  Classes are selling out and I get messages from folks wanting to know when the next one is.  I couldn’t have imagined a better response.  People are eager to learn about home bartending and bitters.  I get people asking me all the time about how to use bitters.  People are intrigued by them, want to use them but don’t understand them and are intimidated by them.  In addition, many people want to make delicious cocktails at home and craft them with bitters but just don’t trust in their abilities.  The class I have started teaches a little history, basic cocktail composition, the experience of crafting personal cocktails, bitters history use and making custom bitters.  It’s a lot of fun!  I would also love to explore offering a class to teach how to use bitters in cooking and baking, sky is the limit with bitters and my syrups!

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with. When I saw Bacon Tobacco, it made me wonder how that tastes. Can you elaborate on the process and how this idea came about?

PA – Bacon Tobacco…always the conversation piece.  The idea came about when wanting to create a gentlemen’s bitter; what would gentlemen like to use in their whiskey drinks in their smoke rooms while conversing with gentlemen friends.  Bacon tobacco came to mind and never left.  I use rendered bacon grease which is filtered before bottling.  There is residual oil after filtering, more in the summer and less in the winter due to kitchen temps.  It has a subtle oiliness on the palate, unlike my other bitters. Initially I used true tobacco, with very careful attention to quantity after much research on extracting tobacco.   However, even with my lengthy and well-articulated responses to the concern over extracted tobacco I decided to eliminate the tobacco and replace it with Lapsang tea instead to ease the concern.  Lapsing Souchong tea is a black, smoked Chinese tea and imparts a dark, bitter and smoky quality to the bitter.  I kept the name because of the novelty of it, people really enjoy it.  I find the flavor of the bitter to be rather “pretty” despite its name.  And boy what it does to dark spirits!  I feel comfortable saying that is definitely gives a depth and complexity to cocktails.

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 ?

PA – Of the bitters on the market I would say they have, on average, been through 2-4 recipe revisions.  However, my rose petal bitter and cherry vanilla bitter, 2 of my best sellers, I nailed on the first try.  As I mentioned, I have a long history of creating flavor and feel I have done a pretty good job with creating good recipes from the beginning, recipes that have needed little changes.

BH – Syrups. That Pistachio Cherry you produce sounds pretty awesome, and you may be the first to put together that flavor combination for a syrup. What inspired you for this idea?

PA – A few months back I was contacted by Napa Valley Distillery, an account of mine.  I was told that they love my products and found that my bitters were at the top of their flavor categories.  They asked if I would be willing to make new bitter and syrup flavors that did not exist on the market and would fill flavor holes they saw that existed across the board.  This was a wonderful surprise to hear about my products and what they were asking of me was a tremendous honor.  I went over for a meeting and many flavors were discussed from smoked variations, fruits and florals, tea variations, honey, nut flavors, etc. etc.  I made many bitters and syrups in response.  When I took my samples back to them they selected 6 new products; 2 bitters, 3 syrups and a smoked olive brine.  The Pistachio Cherry was one of the syrups they chose.  I had also made a spumoni bitter and syrup, both were amazing and as I was making them I decided to make a variation by removing the chocolate and just go with pistachio and cherry… it is damn delicious and has proved a great idea.  My new products were released just before the holidays and the Pistachio Cherry was very popular.  The other syrups they selected are the Smoked Maple Pecan and Cardamom Clove.  My new bitters that have just been released from this collaboration are the Honey Aromatic and Smoked Salt and Pepper.

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BH – Why did you decide to create a couple new Honey versions of the Aromatic and the Lavender?

PA –  Again, the honey variations came from the discussion with Napa Valley Distillery.  I tried some recipes with different florals to create a honey tone but I wasn’t crazy about them, I felt they were lacking.  So I took some local honey and blended it with my aromatic bitters and I thought the flavor combination was lovely and different.  In discussing this flavor, and my other flavors, with a customer he said his wife would love a honey lavender so I made him one to give to his wife.  The flavor combination is beautiful!  After sharing them with NVD I started sharing them with some bartenders and the response was amazing, they are keepers!  There are many aromatic and lavender bitters on the market however there aren’t honey variations of bitters on the market.  My hope is by creating honey variations of 2 common flavors I am setting mine apart and allowing a delicious differentiation.

Shortly after making the honey aromatic I was told it would be used in a cocktail that was going to be on the cover of Edible Marin and Wine County magazine’s winter issue.  That flavor was released to market a week before the publication.  Sharing my new flavors has been wonderful!

BH – What were your debut flavor(s), and what year did you get it all going, was it 2015 or 2017?

PA – I have had a dozen bitter flavors since I went public but I felt that was too many to lineup for accounts to taste.  So I listed 6 on my sell sheet; Orange, Rose Petal, Cayenne Ginger, Cherry Vanilla, Citrus Basil and Wormwood (have recently removed with the addition of the new flavors).  I always started with these but let folks know that I had others if they wished to try them, most did.  After several months I added all to my sell sheet and I line them all up for tastings.  Taste is so subjective and I have found that on-premise flavor interest often differs from off-premise.  I have a broad spectrum of flavors with varying degrees of bitterness and I introduce them all.

I first started making bitters in 2015. That was when the seed was planted so I use 2015 as my established date.  I publicly launched Monarch in spring of 2017.

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BH – I love your logo/label design on your various products. May I ask what the inspiration was?  And that looks like you on the label, is that true?

PA –  I wanted a classic art nouveau style, Mucha-esque.  Mucha’s art was inspired by the natural environment as are my bitters and syrups.  His art was popular during the birth of bitters, I wanted to capture that time in my design.

Yes, that is me on my label.  I first though of using my daughter’s face but realized that wouldn’t be appropriate for a product predominately used in the alcohol industry.  I considered my grandmother next but after lengthy discussions with family and friends I was convinced that if I was going to have a woman’s face on my product it should be my own.

BH – Why the brand name of Monarch?

PA – Coming up with a name is hard!  It was a family endeavor, many ideas flew around for many weeks.  I shared the feelings and thoughts I had around what I wanted my brand to portray. I wanted the symbolism of transformation as well as the power and beauty of nature.  I also wanted to emphasize my personal hand in plant alchemy.  My partner suggested Monarch one evening and I felt it immediately. That was it!  The woman is wearing a flower crown, a monarch of nature, with a purposeful expression.  The monarch butterfly, which I deeply admire, symbolizes metamorphosis, what I felt I experienced in launching my business.

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

PA –  Thank you so much for including me in your interviews.  I love Bitter Hub and think it’s a wonderful place for bitter lovers to learn more about bitters brands, where to purchase and producers from all over.  It is an honor to be included!  Cheers to sharing stories and our beautiful craft!

Website – http://www.monarchbitters.com

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