Interview – with Cindy Capparelli of Portland Bitters Project – Portland, OR

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Flavors Produced to Date

Super Spice ~ Pitch Dark Cacao ~ Rose ~ Woodland ~ Aromatic ~ Orange ~ Lavender

They also have a mini 3-bottle gift box available

Founded – Autumn 2013

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

Cindy Capparelli – I’ve always enjoyed making things, and particularly those made from plants. I got into craft cocktails, was making my own and looked into how these mysterious bitters were made. It was right up my alley – I started tinkering and really enjoyed it. I have a background in herbalism, botany and cooking, so this gave me a way to push the edge with flavor and test that knowledge in a way I hadn’t.

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

CC – I’ve been cooking since I was a kid – it was the way my mom and I spent time together. In school I studied abroad every chance I could wrangle and took cooking courses in Europe. In my 20’s, I worked in flowers, made art, managed a cafe, and eventually got a degree in horticulture and landscape design. I spent years as a full-time designer, so I really had to know my plants.

BH – Are you originally from Portland?  If not, how did you end up there?

CC – Nope. I’m an East Coast woman. Born and raised in upstate NY. I went to school on the North Shore of Boston, and when I graduated I wanted to see what the West was like. Portland had the most of what I wanted, so I moved here and it went pretty well.

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?

CC – It’s great. There are some bottlenecks in our process that we’ve come a long way with in 2018. This year is about refining that work flow and figuring out what we can outsource without compromising integrity.

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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?

CC – It’s about education, right? I try to get people to understand that good bitters are a really simple way to elevate your cocktail game. They’re even easier than citrus. Maybe craft bitters cost more and the time savings of a simple way to add flavor and create balance is the real value proposition. (I won’t dive into the power of bitters in the kitchen – though it’s relevant, too.) That’s where the consumer side comes in. I spend a lot of time teaching classes, giving people the knowledge to drink better at home, and that trains a palate to expect better when someone else is making the drinks.  

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?

CC – The magic question. I have some part-time help, mainly with sales and marketing. This is part of the 2019 goals of making a more efficient process, taking me out of it a bit more, so I can do what I really love which is formulating and teaching.

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?

CC –  They’re well received. There are still those unfamiliar, so there can always be more outreach, and as an introvert I constantly work to push myself in that regard. Yes, online presence is good. We sell a lot to both coasts, to Chicago, and we’re gaining ground in the Midwest. I recently did a wholesale show in Atlanta, GA where we got to introduce the bitters to a wider audience.

BH – What is the longest maceration for any of the bitters flavors you’ve produced to date? On your site, it’s mentioned that you mingle for up to 10 days, while most other brands are 3-4 weeks. Can you help us understand your production process?

CC – After 10 days, you don’t see a lot of change in most tinctures. Some you run the risk of over-extraction, and then you’re getting flavors you don’t want in there. Our proportion of herb-to-alcohol may be higher than other brands, so maybe they need a longer steep to see the results they want. We also macerate everything individually so we can control for variance in the raw materials.

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

CC – It’s addition to a kitchen we gutted and rebuilt last year. We did the work ourselves so it could be just right.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?  Is it pretty much all organic?

CC –  Yes. The supplier I’ve had the best luck with and the longest relationship is Mountain Rose in Eugene, OR.

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

CC – We store mostly underground in the Bitters Bunker as that buffers temperature swings and gives the most consistent conditions year-round.

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

CC – 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?

CC – I hate woozy tops and their lack of precision. Droppers make it easy to drop or dash. I’ve been talking with a company that claims a calibrated dasher top that’s consistent no matter the fill level of the bottle – stay tuned on that. The amber Boston round was chosen for its protective qualities against UV degradation.

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

CC – That’s market response. We want to provide various sizes to allow for different points of entry.

BH – Does/Can the use of cane spirits and raw sugar make the bitters too much on the sweet side where it’s a bother to those who may be opposed to it, or is this just not properly understood?

CC – Over-proof cane spirits are sweeter … than other alcohols at 190 proof. I perceive it not as sweetness, but as a rounder mouthfeel that lacks the harshness of, say, a wheat spirit. This complements our formulae and has the added benefit of not setting off so many allergies/sensitivities. Most bitters include a small amount of sugar and raw sugar echos that rounder flavor whereas white sugar tastes washed-out.  

BH – Are bitters in general, gluten-free and grain free, or does your process result in such, say from the use of your non-GMO cane spirits?

CC – It’s our base spirit and our choice of sugar. Many bitters are made from either wheat spirit or corn spirit, and people with grain issues can react to them.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I saw Super Spice, it made me wonder how that tastes. Can you elaborate on the process and how this idea come about and a little more of the flavor profile beyond the base of Fenugreek?

CC – Super Spice developed from a collaboration with another food business and we were going for a bitters that would add a warm, spicy goodness to cocktails and also come through in intensely flavored NA drinks like hot chocolate. It started as classic holiday spices and I took it in the direction of tiki flavors with an extra helping of clove and orange.

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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 bitters releases ?

CC – The flagship Aromatic was in the 30’s. The Woodland I nailed in two.

BH – What does therapeutic-grade botanicals mean exactly?

CC –  They’re the same level of quality as those used by practitioners of herbal and Traditional Chinese Medicine. They’re a particular lot.  

BH – Do you find that floral bitters like Lavender either need or best to be nuanced with something else in its flavor profile so it’s not so BAM on the nose?

CC – I do. Thanks to the success of the body care industry, scents like lavender and rose are linked to soaps and lotions. A little balance with savory goes a long way to making people reframe these flowers as flavors.

BH – I’ve hinted to Beam Suntory over the years when asked about new flavor ideas, for them to consider creating a special or limited edition whiskey with say, your Woodland bitters, or Charred Cedar with Cherry, or Toasted Oak and Orange, or a host of other possible bitters flavors. And they’ve yet to explore the potential. Yet, I’ve read where you’re now working with Widmer Innovation Brewing to do this very thing with beer. How’s that going, and what do you think about doing the same with bottled spirits?

CC –  Yes! It was so fun and the beer is now GONE. It went out in kegs and it was all drunk through in less than 6 weeks. It was a super interesting process: we brewed a strong ale together, then put most of it in rye barrels and added dark cherry, bitter orange peel, and my bitter botanical blend to individual barrels. We let it sit a few months and then blended the results into the Manhattan of Beers – PDX Bitters Takes Manhattan. It was smooth drinking and got a lot of love. I look forward to making a spirit ready-to-drink and any distilleries who want to work on one should hit me up.  

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BH – In the spirit of collaboration, here’s a custom flavor combo of a bitters that I’d like to see together – Orange, Mint, and Cinnamon, from high to low in that order. And with fresh mint, not peppermint. This idea came from the fact that I have a toothpaste with these three exact flavors from a brand called Jason Nutrismile. It’s my favorite toothpaste. I thought “Wow, this would be a great bitters”. What do you think?

CC – Haha, as soon as I read ‘Orange-Mint-Cinnamon’ I thought ‘toothpaste.’ How funny. I’m always wary of orange + mint because of the whole toothpaste-and-mimosas clash. If it was made with a gentle hand it might work. Maybe some coriander?

BH – I like the solid color simplicity of your label design. May I ask what the inspiration was?

CC – I didn’t want to make another bitters with old-timey branding. I went to art school, and clean design appeals to me – who said “good design is when there’s nothing left to take away?” As for the bright colors, I want the product to be recognizable from across the room or the bar or the shop.

BH – You mention Proof*Reader on your website. What is that?

CC – They are the bar of the Portland Downtown Marriott. I make a custom bitters for their signature Old Fashioned that they sell something like half a million dollars worth of a year.  

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

CC – Thanks to you, Kyle! Keep working on Beam Suntory for me. Hopefully we’ll meet one day and have a real shot at collaboration.

Website – http://www.portlandbittersproject.com

 

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