Interview – with Mario Castillo, Research Scientist of Token Bitters – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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Flavors Produced to Date

Strathcona Orange ~ Ritchie Cherry ~ Calder Chai ~ Whyte Lavender ~ Garneau Grapefruit ~ Meadowlark Mocha ~ Montreal Maple ~ Saskatoon’s Berry ~ Cloverdale Cedar ~ Stampede Caesar ~ Hawk’s Ridge Hops & Hemp ~ Muskoka Smoke

They also have an original sampler set of 4, a new flavours of Canada sampler set of 4, and an Orange, Spice & Everything Nice set

Founded – 2016

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Bitters Hub – What was it that motivated you, along with Cam, Keenan and Jamie to get started in the world of bitters production?

Mario Castillo – I’ve always been fascinated by the different flavours, textures, and colours in foods and drinks that detonate a series of sensations in your body. And bitters aren’t an exception! Bitters bring food and drinks to a whole new level. Average consumers and bartenders at home don’t get that full experience by mixing rum and coke, and that’s a shame because with a few drops of Ritchie Cherry bitters you can get pretty close to a drink made at a high-end cocktail bar.

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

MC – I’ve been cooking at home since I was a child -and by cooking I mean experimenting in a playful way- so being in the kitchen has been my favorite hobby from childhood. It’s not surprising that I ended up studying 2 additional years of a 4-year bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science in University. I was done with my program but I felt the need to learn more about food engineering, sensory science, consumer science, functional foods and nutraceuticals, and making bitters requires me to utilize the knowledge and skills I obtained in school.

BH – Are you originally from the Edmonton, Alberta area?

MC – I’m originally from Mexico City actually. I was born and raised there and I moved to Edmonton 11 years ago to get married, to have a family, and to study -in that particular order haha- but that’s a whole other story!

BH – Can you tell us a little about your process of maceration?

MC – The maceration process is very straight forward. I steep the desired biomass in high proof ethanol at different temperatures, some of our recipes have a maceration process in cold (between 32-50°F) and others at room temp ( 68-77°F). Temperature plays an important role in our process because it has a significant impact in colour and taste of our bitters as it aids with the selective extraction of tannins, anthocyanins, polyphenols, and terpenes, naturally present in the biomass.

BH – I love how you’ve named all of your bitters flavours after Edmonton neighborhoods and streets as a nod to your great city. Are all of you guy’s idea masters as a collective and who came up with that one?

MC – That was a brilliant idea that Jamie had. We collectively matched the flavour profiles with the neighborhoods’ vibes to represent them accurately.

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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?

MC – The demand is large and growing, however, the nature of bitters in the beverage industry imposes a lot of challenges to meet the demand with the current supply. Cocktail bars, mixologists, and bartenders at home are becoming more popular than ever due to a cocktail ‘renaissance’, but the general consumers don’t know what bitters are or how to use them, hence bitters are not the best sellers in conventional liquor stores which discourages distributors to add bitters to their portfolio. Despite that, our sales continue growing organically, more local businesses are requesting more custom flavors, and the popularity of our craft bitters in international markets keeps on growing and growing.

BH – Do you mainly use organic gentian as your bittering agent, or do you use others as well?

MC – Yes, that’s correct. We use organic gentian root as the main bittering agent in our recipes.

BH – In regards to handling the various tasks of the job when it comes to getting things done so it all comes together, who does what exactly in department?

MC – Keenan steers the ship as our CEO, Cam has taken an advisory position in the company so he is not actively involved in the operations for the moment, Jamie is our business developer/ public relations/ support staff whenever we need him, Richelle is our community manager/sales manager, and I’m the product developer/ head of production/ QA, QC/ and export manager. We have a lot of flexibility and fluidity in the company that allows us to fill in for each other when needed.

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?

MC – That’s a very interesting question! I used to see the city and the community completely different before bitters came into my life. I always loved the city and its people, but I never had the chance to connect with business owners that are known for their contributions to the city and their exceptional products/services. Now I’m connecting with them at a level I never thought would be even possible. For example, since I moved to Edmonton in 2018, I always admired the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald for its beautiful architecture and history. And it was until I joined this project that I had the opportunity to go inside the historical building and get to know the people dedicated to keeping the place running like 100 years ago. It was an incredible experience to go behind the curtain to get all the insights and the inspiration that later translated into a bitter flavour .

-Ohh what a nice transition! I didn’t see that the next question was about the Fairmont hotel-.

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BH – I noticed your brand has partnered with the gorgeous Fairmont Hotel Macdonald located in your area. How many bars and bartenders do they have there? Did the bar staff get into the usage of your bitters in a serious way?

I ask this because the industry as a whole from a standpoint of GM’s, Beverage Managers and Bar Managers in various establishments, especially hotels, bitters brand owners have had a bit of a time convincing the culinary importance and word-of-mouth benefit that can be gained from the bar and staff mastering the practice with having a large array of bitters flavors behind the bar to essentially game-up all cocktails across the board. How is it all working with them so far?

MC – It’s been great! They had been using our bitters in their menu for a while before we started working with them but I didn’t know that. When I met with the general manager and he mentioned that they were using Token Bitters in their bars, it was a no brainer to offer them a custom flavour which then sparked the idea of giving their menu a ‘facelift’ with the new custom flavours. I work directly with their general manager, their bar manager who is also the head bartender, and their other two bartenders. The flavours I made for them were inspired by the history of the building, my admiration for the place, the bartenders’ needs, and the consumers’ experiences.

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

MC – Well, in the beginning we shared the space with Hansen Distillery but as we both grew, the operations got complicated to coordinate in the facility. Then I started experimenting with different extraction technologies at the Bio Processing Innovation Centre (BPIC, a government research center in Edmonton) with small batches before moving into our current facility, the Mercer Warehouse (can find more about the building  here ) The office space is on the second floor and the production area is the basement of the building and has the layout and settings of an industrial kitchen with lots of extraction vessels, beakers, graduated cylinders and jars. The facility is not visually impressive but what goes down in there is for sure!

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

MC – Yes, there are legal requirements and approvals we need to go through to produce bitters. First, we need to obtain a federal and provincial alcohol user’s license that permits us to buy high proof ethanol in bulk, store it, and use it in our production process. Second, the ethanol we purchase with those licenses can only be used in approved formulations. Every single recipe (flavor) must be tested by a government lab to ensure that the ethanol present in our end products is denatured (chemical analysis) and tastes gross enough so people wouldn’t drink it on its own (sensory analysis). This represents a challenge for me in the process of formulation because the bitter must taste strong and bitter by itself, and it must taste great when diluted in drinks.

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

MC – Room temperature is suggested. Even though the temperature during the extraction step varies from recipe to recipe, the product should be stored in a dry, away-from light, space at room temperature. The flavor should continue its maturation with time but it’s very unlikely that you will notice that difference in flavor because you will finish that bottle before it significantly changes in flavor.

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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.?

MC – We test sample bottles that suppliers send us, we pay more attention to functionality rather than looks. For clients in bars and restaurants we use dasher tops since bartenders have a better notion of dashes as a metric unit and can leave bottles uncapped on their counter tops , while for the general consumers we use graduated droppers that make it easier to measure drops or mL when they are following cocktail recipes in a book. The bottle must be amber to filter light that can induce and propagate photo-degradation of sensitive flavor compounds.

BH – How did you determine the best bottle sizes to use for your brand?

MC – We gather feedback from customers. Some people prefer to purchase 4-15 ml bottles of different flavors (sampler sets) over a 100 ml bottle of just one flavor, they want to try as many possible. We also had to switch to 100 ml bottle size because we were getting a lot of suggestions from people who wanted to take bitters in their carry-on bags.

BH – I love your bottle label design and packaging. Such a colorful, yet solid look to them. Who’s in charge of that creative endeavor?

MC – That’s the work of Lauren Berkman, our marketing director on the other side of the company (Token Naturals).

BH – What were the deciding factors in your flavor choices of bitters to produce?

MC – Requests from clients and formula approvals. I have formulations that are not commercialized, and I make for friends and myself.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. I recently received your sample sets, and that Muskoka Smoke is an incredible blend – what is that, like a Charred, Mesquite, Barbeque, Hickory combo? Just amazing!!! I love the woodsy stuff too so, looking to get a bottle of your Cloverdale Cedar as well.

MC – I’m glad to hear that! The first test batch of smoke tasted so much like well-edged whisky and I knew it wouldn’t be approved because it tasted so good, so I had to get creative in extracting all the smoke notes from hickory wood. The wood was treated with heat at different temperatures and times to achieve those rich charred notes that resemble mesquite and other more subtle vanillin notes as well.

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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 bitter’s releases?

MC – Three samples is the most I’ve gone through. Saskatoon berry took me three trials to get the right flavor profile, it was hard to balance the sweetness of the fruit with the spiciness of the caraway seeds and the bitterness of gentian. Some recipes like grapefruit have been the easier ones that get approved with the first trial.

BH – When you retire a flavor, what all goes into the decision-making for that consideration?

MC – Production cost is the bottom line. If the flavor is not selling very well and its production cost is high, the decision is very simple. However, we have retired flavors for other strategic reasons and the decision is hard to make because people constantly ask “Why did you retire that flavor? I loved it”.

BH – Any other flavors you’re thinking about creating/producing down the road?

MC –I just finished the formulation of an umami bitters for our biggest client in Japan, and it was quite a long and challenging process. I’d like to take a break or least not think of creating a new flavor for now. When the time comes, it will happen in the most natural way without even thinking.

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 bitters usage?

MC – The most common question I get from bartenders is “Do you have any flavor like Angostura bitters?”, which is sad for me to hear because that indicates that they learned their cocktails in a very generic way, just memorizing old recipes that call for Angostura bitters. When I get that kind of question, I have to do a little bit of explanation that the cocktail-making process shouldn’t be like that. It should have a base or backbone from which you can build off with different ingredients and techniques, and the bartender’s voice should also be present. Often bitters are the medium for that voice.

I wish that bartenders would approach the cocktail-making process differently, instead of being told what to use and how much to use, they should find those answers on their own by testing and tasting!

BH – Mario, 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 Token and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be a multi-task master of your brand. Cheers!

MC – Thank you, Kyle, for showing your interest in finding out more about the work that goes into making bitters (an ancient practice) in this modern era, and for sharing this interview with your followers.

Website – http://www.tokenbitters.com

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