Interview – with Michael Fair of Black Ink – Detroit, MI

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Flavors Produced to Date

Orange ~ Smoked Apple Chicory ~ Mint Hibiscus ~ Citrus Twist ~ Vanilla Coffee

Seasonal – Blueberry Vanilla ~ Coconut Raspberry

They also have a 5-bottle core pack available

Founded – September 29th, 2016 the first experimental batch made

Founded – October 22nd, 2016 BIB name was made

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

Michael Fair – After being hired in at the English Inn as a bartender, I became instantly intrigued in the craft. I researched with my mentor, Eric Nelson various fields of wine, beer, and spirits. The field that caught my eye the most, was bitters. Quickly after finding out the history of bitters, I realized that Michigan did not have a brand. This was a big endeavor because I had no connections or mentors in the bitters field. I had to go with what I had in the bartending world. After trying a few experimental batches and messing around with different flavoring agents, I finally felt more confident to follow through. I wanted to be the first bitters company in Michigan and make my mark on the industry.

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

MF – My only experience was working at the English Inn and American Fifth Spirits in the Greater Lansing Area. Those two establishments not only gave me hands-on experience with flavors and cocktail making, but also knowledgeable mentors in their field.

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

MF – I am originally from Troy, Michigan. I moved to East Lansing because I attended Michigan State University. I am currently living in Midland, Michigan. Currently looking into warehouse space in Detroit, Michigan for expansion purposes.

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

MF – The supply and demand are quickly growing, especially with customers from the South East region of Michigan. We have only shipped under 50 orders outside of Michigan. I believe that we can improve with more coverage to all of Michigan, especially the upper region near Traverse City. We are seeking more exposure for our brand to develop more partnerships with other big companies in the cocktail industry.

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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 acceptance bringing them in?

MF – I do agree that it is an ongoing uphill battle and I have been seeing better results that are more indirect. What I mean by that is that I notice that more bars and restaurants are eager to accept our brand when their own customers are knowledgeable about bitters and our product. How have we done it? For example, by selling our bitters to the individual at home bartenders, we have expanded the knowledge to the general public. Those same people have dropped our name, asked for bitters and shown attention to our brand. This has then intrigued bartenders and owners to use more bitters and our brand. Indirectly spiking interest by starting with the customers first.

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?

MF – Currently I work alone on production and sales, but my associate and cousin, Victoria Shappow works on the graphic design and label designs. She was the one who made Black Ink Bitters come to life on the bottle and I am very grateful to have her on my team.

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?

MF –  Tons of support from the community, but we are still working on our reach with our sales online. We currently use Facebook and Instagram to help with broadening our sales and exposure.

BH – What is the longest maceration for any of the bitters flavors you’ve produced to date?  Can you help us understand your production process?

MF –  3 weeks in the longest maceration period and it is identical for all of the flavors. Using a high proof vodka, rum or whiskey, we combine our flavoring agents and bittering agents inside its storage container. We do agitate the container daily to help with flavor absorption. We then filter the batches carefully and then immediately bottle the flavors. Caps and seals are put on promptly and then put into our stock.

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

MF – Currently, a new facility and space we are developing in Detroit is around 5,000 sq. feet. Very simple kitchen set up. Lots of space for cutting, peeling and dry storage area for keeping fresh ingredients.

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

MF – We source directly from Michigan farms. We can get 90% of our ingredients from the area and the rest are specially ordered through Amazon (rare spices or herbs). We are considered Michigan Made and have a strong connection with the regions.

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

MF – Room temperature, dry storage, no sunlight.

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

MF – All of our bottling and labeling is done in-house. Makes everything very easy for production and sales.

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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? I really like that specialty volcanic black Boston round bottle that you use. I think it’s the first time I’ve come across it. Is it glass as well?

MF – We decided on the volcanic black for our branding, but decided eye droppers were more common/preferred among the cocktail community. At-home bartenders wanted precise measurements, but also something cool to add to their at home bar.

BH – How did you determine the best bottle size to use at 1 oz. for your brand?

MF – It is what people wanted. 95% of people on our survey wanted that size. Dash bottles were not popular to our customers.

BH – I love your overall label design. It’s a real beauty, so clean and yet so artful, and seems to go very well with the volcanic black. May I ask what the inspiration was?

MF – I wanted to introduce a dark and modern brand to the state of Michigan. Dark and robust flavors are my specialty when creating flavors. I wanted the brand to have a modern sleek look utilizing black and gold. The Kraken came into play when thinking of “ink” droplets. Black Ink and black bottles went together. I then created the gold Kraken to be the gold trip on our brand.

BH – Are your flavor choices of bitters produced in consideration to work with food and drink in equal footing?

MF – Yes, flavor choices and batches were made to not only push the limits of flavor design but usage in both food and drink.

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BH – What is your relationship with Williams Sonoma?

MF – I currently sell all 5 flavors and seasonal edition inside Williams Sonoma. We are still currently in their Troy location but plan on expanding. Everything depends on sales and exposed to the brand. Williams Sonoma has an interesting relationship with us as well because we plan and work events together. For example, Forbes and Williams Sonoma worked with us to make drinks and sales at the Detroit Cocktail Classic(the biggest cocktail event in Michigan). We love working with them!

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I saw Mint Hibiscus, it made me wonder how that tastes. Can you elaborate on how the process of maceration went with the mint leaves knowing they’re a bit delicate? The reason I ask is there isn’t much attempt out there with other brands to get the mint stable for a bitters. But I don’t know if that’s a problem, or not.

MF – Just like making a mojito or mint drink, you don’t want to destroy/rip the leaves. We can extract more flavor out of the mint by slapping or bruising the leaves before putting them in their batches. With our brand pushing the limits on flavors, I am not surprised that other brands still do not even attempt mint. It is difficult!

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?

MF – The Smoked Apple Chicory went through 7 long trials which totals out to 10 weeks worth of waiting! It is more frustrating because it is time-consuming vs. a money investment.

BH – Where does the smoky aftertaste come from in your orange bitters?

MF – We use smoked chicory root and smoked orange rinds. It is very faint, but it is there. We do not advertise the orange as a smokey flavor, because our smoke lovers lean towards the Smoked Apple Chicory more.

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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 Smoked Apple, 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. What do you think about doing this with bottled spirits?

MF –  Smoked Apple is a great flavor profile in general, and it would be great for a bottled spirit brand to flavor their brand naturally. Quality whiskey companies usually stay away from fruity flavors, but it would definitely be an interesting avenue to explore.

BH – How did you work the chicory and smoke so it wouldn’t completely take over the apple, of which I’m guessing you may want at the forefront on the nose?

MF –  This was a difficult battle! With many batches and trials, it came down to smoking the rinds, the chicory and smoking the container itself. The amount of smoke from the smoking gun and also wood used all came into play. We are very happy with the current flavor profile!

BH – Any other flavors you’re thinking about creating/producing for the future?

MF –  We have created two experimental batches, but not available to the public yet. Smoked Chocolate and another is Maple Nut. We wanted to introduce a sweeter and also a smokier flavor. These would fall under seasonal flavors.

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

MF – Thank you, Kyle! It has been a pleasure. It is an honor to be included!

Website – http://www.blackinkbitters.com

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