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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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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Interview – with Herbalist, Jennifer May of Sage Moon Apothecary – Seal Harbor, ME

Sage Moon LOGO

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Flavors Produced to Date

Chamomile Blood Orange ~ Golden Root ~ Lavender Vanilla ~ Sunshine  

Elderberry Orange ~ Hangover ~ Lilac Lemon ~ Coffee ~ Cardamom Rose

They also have an interesting selection of Tinctures, Elixirs, Syrups, Electuaries, Teas, Artisan Cocoas, Oils, and much more

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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 everything else that you produce today?

Jennifer May – I was drawn to bitters as an extension of my work as an herbalist.  It initially began as a way to support the body’s digestive system and to help support the body in functioning optimally.  Bitters, when used approximately 15 minutes before a meal, help stimulate the digestive process, which may result in more complete and thorough digestion.  When our digestion is functioning well, we take in more nutrients, thus open the doors to greater health potential. I like bitters for the same reason I like adaptogenic herbs.  They aren’t necessarily “DOING” anything to the body, but are helping the body do it’s work better.

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

JM – I have been working in the field of herbal medicine for over 20 years now and in the field of intuitive energy healing for ten years.  I have virtually no culinary experience, which sounds funny given some of the amazing things I can create. I have a vast knowledge of herbs, started with a basic bitters recipe, and then draw upon other herbs and their properties (both physical and energetic) to invoke what I want to see in a bitters formula.  The results have been pretty amazing.

BH – Are you originally from the East Coast of Maine? What led you back there after your studies on the West Coast at the School of Herbology in Santa Cruz, CA?

JM – I was born and raised in San Jose, California.  I moved to Maine, on an intuitive whim, in 2005, which surprised everyone I knew.  I was drawn to Maine, without any logical reasons. I didn’t really know anyone here. I had never even visited Maine. I just knew it was the place for me and it turned out that there was so much here for me to discover – paths that expanded my  healing work, my current life partner, many supportive friends and community members. You could say I heard the call of my tribe and followed it.

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?

JM – I think it is going well and the demand has been increasing since opening my brick and mortar shop.  Many people visit me looking for different ways to improve their health. One of the things I recommend to most people are to incorporate bitters into their routines.  Having a brick and mortar allows me to explain the reasons for this, how bitters work, why they are a benefit, and also how I make them, which I feel is a very interesting process.  

BH – You’ve been doing this amazing medicinal practice in your herbal career for 20 years that includes energy work, healing arts, sound therapy, and homeopathy. Did your path start at the school in Santa Cruz or was it maybe earlier in your life?

JM – My path probably started very early on in life, but it wasn’t until a little over 20 years ago, when I fell extremely ill that I allowed these doorways to open. I had to quit my job at a major computer company in Palo Alto, California because I became very sick. I was literally in bed for a year, extremely ill, and none of the 12 doctors and many tests and procedures I had could come up with any answers. The 13th doctor I had seen, an endocrinologist, finally did the right tests and discovered I had an autoimmune thyroid condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  I was put on a thyroid medication and told I would need to be on it the rest of my life. This didn’t sit well with me. I felt that my body didn’t have this before, so there had to be a way to reverse this pattern. I started seeking the help of an acupuncturist for my migraines. I then started exploring the field of herbal medicine, and began using an herb called milk thistle, which is a liver tonic.  I knew virtually NOTHING about herbal medicine at the time, but for some reason, felt very strongly that if I supported my liver, and relieved some of the pressure that might be on it, that it would free up some of the energy and efforts my body was putting there and allow it to be directed to other areas it needed to heal. I was apparently correct in my assumption, and after three months on milk thistle, all of my labs were normal. Antibodies were gone (and remain so to this day) and I gradually began to regain my health. Shortly after I began to study Herbal Medicine both Eastern and Western. It was when I moved to Maine and was drawn into the field of energy healing (which I previously had felt was bogus fluff), that I experienced real true and lasting healing. It was so huge that I knew that I had to study this and make it available to others. I did a three year apprenticeship in a healing modality called Presence in Healing, which is a form of intuitive energy healing.  After this I studied at a distant homeopathic college for several years, adding this to my symphony of healing arts. I’ve also studied a variety of other healing modalities such as Reiki, Craniosacral work, gemstone and harmonic sound therapy and incorporate all of the knowledge I have acquired over the past twenty years into my work. It’s a very interesting and unique composition. I am incredibly grateful that I became so ill all those years ago. If that hadn’t happened, I might not be doing what I am doing today.

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BH – I know your market demographic probably isn’t much in the direction of bartenders, mixology, or culinary, but have bartenders reached out to you about your bitters?

JM – I’ll admit, I am rather selective about where my products go with regards to something like being used by others to make other things. I have had a few bartenders and restaurant owners reach out to me.   I finally connected with a wonderful microbrewery here, Fogtown, in Ellsworth, Maine. They hold similar values in that they want to support local and locally made products, and support their community. They create and serve amazing beer, because that is their main focus, and in doing so they support local growers and farmers sourcing their ingredients from them as much as possible.  They hold open mic nights, and have music events, and food trucks that all help to really support connection and community above anything else. I liked that very much. As a result of that connection, Fogtown carries my Botanical Sodas as a healthful, non-alcoholic offering for their customers. My Botanical Sodas, bring together my artisan syrups (sourced from locally grown ingredients), raw apple cider vinegar, and my bitters which are then added to a keg, which is then carbonated, and the result is a delicious herbal soda, with health benefits.  It’s been a great connection and one I am very happy with. It helps get people exposed to the idea that bitters are not just for cocktails and herbal medicine doesn’t have to always feel like medicine.

BH – Okay, help me out here, where you live and have your shop at, is it the village of Seal Harbor in the town of Ellsworth on the Mount Desert Island?

JM – I live in Seal Harbor, a small village, on Mount Desert Island, in Maine.  I worked out of my home here for quite a few years, selling my products at markets that I organized and holistic wellness clinics, which I also organized, as well as at several shops on the island. In June of 2018, I opened my brick and mortar shop, Sage Moon Apothecary & Curiosities, which is in the town of Ellsworth.  I still maintain my main office and shipping area in Seal Harbor.

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

JM –  I have a fantastic reach with my online presence and feel very fortunate for that.  I think it was helpful that I started with an online business, which allowed me to reach individuals across the country with my  herbal medicine creations. I was chugging along slowly building my business, and in February of 2015, I was tagged in a Facebook post about turmeric.  I responded with information on the proper way to source and use turmeric and then I did something I never did. I tagged my website, specifically one of my products, Golden Milk Electuary.  I sold $2000 of that product literally overnight. Within 2 weeks, I had sold $10,000 of this one product. The next month the same thing happened. It has tapered down since then, but remains steady with many repeat customers and new ones almost daily.  The success and popularity of this one product, which is anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, and liver supporting, is what allowed me to expand my product line to include bitters and many other wonderful creations. It’s what helped build my business.

I mentioned that I held markets and wellness clinics. I run an organization called Village Health & Wellness which is sort of a web of people doing amazing work in the fields of holistic wellness, allopathic health care, art, crafts, music, and the culinary field, who all come together with the intention of helping foster vibrancy in our communities.  The events I held through this organization helped me get my products out to people in my community and has formed many wonderful connections. So yes, I have had an excellent response from my community here which has been incredibly supportive. Now that I also have a brick and mortar, which has been incredibly well received locally, that support has expanded.  

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

JM – The longest process so far has probably been about 8 weeks.  The process is fairly involved and requires diligent attention from me.   I will put up my main blend which usually has a bitter herb base of either gentian, dandelion root, or wild cherry bark along with the other main herbs to be included.  After a couple of weeks, I will add other herbs, usually the ones to bring some spice and sweetness, such as cardamom, clove, cinnamon. I will then begin checking weekly and deciding what to add next, which will often be a fruit such as raisins, figs, or dates and perhaps a “sweeter” herb such as some licorice root.  The last thing I will add will be the heavier floral notes such as lavender or rose. I learned by trial and error that if you add everything at the beginning, the end result is very different, and some things like clove or flowers can overpower. As most people probably are aware, bitters tend to mellow over time. So what I create will “age” and mellow as it sits on the shelf.  I tend to get very excited when I create a new blend and want to get it on the shelf and available to people. And I’m learning that with bitters, sometimes patience is needed.

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

JM – I have a kitchen facility within my apothecary shop. It is set up the way many commercial kitchens would be set up, minus the stove.  I have floor to ceiling shelves that hold many glass jars filled with herbs, old antique dental cabinets that house my essential oils and bottles of tinctures.  Everything is pretty much set up to have a very old world, Victorian/antique feel to it. It’s very atmospheric. And I adhere to the necessary requirements to produce products like this in Maine….such as a two bay sink, a stainless sterilizable work table, induction burners, bleach for sterilizing, ingredients at least 18 inches off of the floor, etc.  

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

JM – I always try and obtain locally grown ingredients first.  It may be that a bitters formula only contains one locally grown herb, and I feel very strongly that it does. There is a certain magic about Maine, that I feel is energetically infused into the things I create using locally grown herbs.  If I can’t find something grown locally, I will source first from local resources, such as health food stores or other small businesses. After I have searched these areas, I fill in the rest with herbs from reputable herb suppliers.

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

JM –  My bitters are all stored in an antique hutch that is kept cool-ish and away from direct light. Bitters are stored at the same temperatures as my herbal tinctures, and this has worked well for me.  I recommend people store them in a cool place out of direct light.

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

JM – Yes. All of everything is done in house, by me.  I had an intern that was with me for the summer that would help with some of the labeling, but for the most part I do everything from sourcing ingredients and supplies, making the products, designing and printing labels, labeling, filling, listing on my website, and social media marketing. It’s a lot.  AND I never want to grow so big that I am not the one making my products. It’s very important to me that I am the one creating them, because it’s what I love about this work.

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?

JM – By A lot of trial and error!  I originally started with 2 ounce Boston round dropper bottles, most of the time amber ones.  What I found was that because bitters are primarily alcohol based, that some evaporation would occur through the rubber tops on dropper bottles. I would check the bottles periodically and notice that they were a little lower in volume.  Also, bitters should last indefinitely and shift and change as time goes by, often resulting in more richness and texture. Dropper tops, after some time has gone by, can impart a “rubber” flavor into the bitters, which pretty much destroys the elegant flavor layers.  I have since began shifting to a dasher top bottle, which prevents the evaporation from occurring and prevents any possibility of “rubber” taste. I have also switched to clear bottles because the colors of the bitters I make are so beautiful that I want them to be seen.  

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

JM – I use two ounce bottles for my bitters.  It just seemed like the right size to go with.  1 ounce is great for tinctures which might be use for a short period of time. Bitters are something that I feel everyone should use on a regular basis and 2 ounce seems to give you enough to last a while and not feel overwhelming like a large 4 ounce bottle might. Plus being smaller, keeps them affordable and within most people’s financial means.

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

JM – I don’t believe there are specifically with bitters, and honestly I have avoided opening that can of worms yet.  All of my products are made as herbal medicines or natural skincare products.  If they were made and marketed as food and beverages, I would run into some legal things that would need to address. Herbal Medicines do not have state laws (at least in Maine) around them – really only in the field of acupuncturists using herbal medicines.  They fall into an interesting category of if they are considered foods, they require a commercially licensed kitchen……..if they are considered supplements, they fall into a whole different category which requires specific nutritional labeling.  Mine are somewhere in between.

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

JM – I rent a facility that houses my apothecary, shop, and wellness space, so yes there are the usual expenses of rent and utilities. I often use a licensed kitchen to make any consumable products at, which I typically barter for the use of.   Once I license my kitchen, which I plan on doing this year, I expect there will be facility inspections. However because I am not preparing food, the licensing requirements are different than those of a restaurant.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I read Sunshine, it made me wonder how that tastes. Can you elaborate on the process and how this idea came about?  I noticed that you used Thompson raisins in the recipe, is that for sweetness?

JM – My favorite bitters blend that I have made to date is the Sunshine Bitters.  This was the first blend I made and it took quite a bit of trial and error to come up with it. It is also the only blend that I continue to reproduce.  I had come across a recipe that used calendula and gentian root. This intrigued me. I decided to add chamomile which is also a wonderful digestive herb and a very sunshiney flower.  The cardamom, fennel, and dandelion root were brought in to also add digestive support. I had a pretty good flavor to the bitters but I felt it was lacking texture and richness. I find the best bitters are ones that you can notice the individual flavor notes, but each is subtle enough to blend in with the others. There is a sort of texture to it.  This texture ends up being enhanced by dried fruits such as Conadria Figs and Thompson Raisins. They impart a slightly sweet richness and texture but are not overpowering such as something like honey might be. The end result is this beautiful Sunshine Bitters that also carries antibacterial and antiviral properties as well as some lovely energetics that help to lift the spirit and emotional bodies.  

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 ?

JM – I have had some blends, such as my Cardamom Rose that I did one batch of and it came out perfect. It was a simpler formula than that of the Sunshine, which took about three rounds to perfect.  There are some, like the Lavender Vanilla that I made only once. They came out lovely, but they weren’t spectacular enough to create again.

BH – Why is Cardamom so popular to use?  It seems like many bitters brands have that either in their flavor lineup or as an ingredient in a bitters.

JM – I think primarily for it’s flavor, which is rich, spicy, and exotic. It lends a nice texture that isn’t overpowering when used appropriately in bitters.  Cardamom also has some wonderful health benefits such as supporting healthy digestion (which is a bonus to enhance the already digestive supporting qualities of bitters), it is antibacterial, and anti inflammatory. It also is said to have cancer-fighting properties.  Something that many people don’t know is that cardamom is an alkalizer. This means that it may help reduce things like the effects of hangovers. When used in coffee, it can help reduce it’s acid qualities and may neutralize the effects of caffeine on the body.

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BH – Switchels vs. Shrubs. Is there a difference, or only in name?

JM – Technically they are different.  A shrub is typically a preservation of fruit in vinegar, while a switchel is a beverage.  I tend to refer to things such as Elderberry Sodas as shrubs, because it does contain the berries (fruits), and things like my Turmeric-Ginger vinegar infusions, switchels.  I recently started calling most of them Botanical Soda Concentrates, to clear the confusion.

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? I noticed that some of your previous flavors are either retired now or seasonal.

JM – I don’t have any specific bitter blends coming up and tend to go with what I am drawn to in the moment.  I love to do seasonal blends based on what is available locally from season to season. I would like to create a blend that serves as a potent antiviral for cold and flu season.  I used to have an Elderberry Orange Bitters blend, which was amazing. I would like to use that as the base formula and bring in other herbs such as cat’s claw bark and other antivirals.  I would also love to create a CBD bitters formula bringing in a high CBD Cannabis strain. This isn’t something I could sell in my apothecary, but something I think would be interesting to explore.

BH – What was your debut bitters flavor and when was it released?

JM –  My debut flavor was my Sunshine Bitters, which was released in 2016.  It is my favorite to date and the one I continue to recreate and keep in stock.  

BH – – I love your brand name and logo/label design on your various products? May I ask what the inspiration was?

JM –  Thank you!  Sage Moon started years ago as a small business, Sage Moon Handcrafts, where I created and sold fiber art clothing and sculptural pieces.  Later, when I started doing my intuitive energetic bodywork, I kept the Sage Moon and called myself Sage Moon Harmonics. It just seemed right that my apothecary should also keep the Sage Moon name, hence Sage Moon Apothecary took form.  

With regards to the labels, I wanted them to invoke the feeling of “old world”.  I wanted them to feel like the medicines of yesteryears. I also found that using a black and white laser printer was much more economical than the ink jet I had been using. So, at least in part, my resulting logo/labels were utilitarian.  I had to find a way to create an attractive label using only gray scale, so I reached to the Victorian flora art. This has worked well at encompassing the feeling that I was trying to create and also to be something I could afford doing myself.

BH – Jennifer, 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 Sage Moon Apothecary and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brandCheers!

JM –  Thank you, Kyle,  for giving me this opportunity. I love talking about the things I create, my favorite being bitters!  I am always happy to answer questions, offer support or guidance with regards to medicine making (including bitters), product selection, and just overall choices that may lead to greater health and wellness.  I can be contacted via email to sagemoonapothecarymaine@gmail.com, through my website at www.sagemoonapothecary.net, or for those in or visiting Maine, at my shop on Main Street in Downtown Ellsworth.

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Interview – with Tobin Ludwig of Hella Bitters – Long Island City, NY

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Founders – Tobin Ludwig – Jomaree Pinkard – Eddie Simeon

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Flavors Produced to Date

Aromatic ~ Citrus ~ Orange ~ Ginger ~  Smoked Chili

Limited Edition Founders Collection –

Apple Blossom ~ Eucalyptus ~ Mexican Chocolate

They also have a 5-flavor variety mini-pack and a 2-bottle sample pack

They also have Syrups, Mixers, and DIY Kits

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

Tobin Ludwig – Simply a hobby. We were making bitters by the Mason jar to gift to friends. After a little Kickstarter we realized we struck a chord and started making bigger batches 5 gallons at a time.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave inspiration to delve into this product?  Have you guys worked bars before?

TL – I started cooking at home before 10 and started in hospitality when I was 12. I got my first kitchen job when I was 14 but ended up liking FOH more. Eventually ended up in New York where I spent nearly 10 years working in some of the best restaurant and bars in NY. I spent the last 5 years of my hospitality career behind the stick. At points all three of us have been behind the bar but I’m the only one that made a career out of it.

BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

TL – Every year we’ve made a bigger batch than the previous one, so we grow as the category continues to grow. Awareness has increased substantially since our first batch and that’s benefitted all of us. The biggest challenge for the category will always be velocity so we’re looking at ways to solve for that.

BH –  Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there ?

TL – Small batch has been synonymous with craft and is ultimately very vague terminology because it’s so relative to one’s production. Due to the category there will always be limitations on how much can be produced but for a small brand like ours we’ve really focused on scaling to meet growing demand. This year we’ll produce about 10,000 gallons and we feel like we’ve just scraped the surface of what’s possible.

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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 a wider range of bitters usage?

TL – As a bartender, we are creatures of habit. We’re exposed to lots of new products on a weekly basis, it takes something really unique and special to get us to veer away from something known to be tried and true. That is to say, there is a difference between appreciating and liking our products, and putting it on the menu in place of something more familiar. We’re really proud of the feedback we get from the professional community – our products reflect great ingredients and hard work and you can taste it. Every bar program is different, some rely heavily on a variety of bitters, while others just stick to the basics. We make flavors that are at home in both.

BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

TL – Absolutely. It’s why we spend so much time in market going door to door to connect directly with the decision makers and tell them our story. We also have about 15 brand ambassadors on our team that are advocates and educators for the brand. They make account visits and do staff training when we can’t make it in. It’s a huge value add.

BH – With Long Island City being the westernmost neighborhood of the New York City borough of Queens, noted for its ongoing residential growth and gentrification, its waterfront parks, and thriving arts community, have they also embraced the culinary craft of your hometown bitters brand in a good way?

TL – We are proud to call NYC our home and have a lot of local support – in Long Island City, which is a great neighborhood to be based in, we have a few great accounts that are really behind us, but the neighborhood is growing quickly and we know more great bars and restaurants are on the way, which means new hyper local opportunities for us.

BH – What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in your neck of the woods on Borden Ave?

TL – Borden Ave is one the last industrial bastions within a stone’s throw to Manhattan. Where we go to work every day, it’s gritty. It’s become an important part of our story and we’re proud of our hood; it’s let us grow in ways other parts of NYC may not have. Not to mention Jomaree grew up in Astoria, just a couple miles down the road, so it’s kind of full circle for the brand.

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

TL – We’ve found 30 days offers us effective extraction and creates a desired profile. However post extraction we are doing 6 month, 1 year, 2 year and 3 year barrel aged in once used Whiskey barrels. It’s an exciting collaboration so stay tuned for more on that.

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

TL – It’s a large multi-purpose facility, where we produce all of our products including the full line of cocktail mixes and syrups. We have room to grow there and it’s close home base.

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

TL – As we’ve grown we’ve found purveyors and suppliers of our ingredients who we’ve come to really trust. For instance we rely on a great NYC based spice purveyor, Brooklyn Spice Co. for almost all of our botanicals. I know we can always count on the quality of the spices and bittering agents we get from them. We take our ingredients very seriously and building relationships with suppliers is an important, ongoing part of our business.

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

TL – All of our products do fine in ambient temperature. The warehouse is always within a 10 degree range 65-75 and that’s just fine. There’s also no direct sunlight, which is good.

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

TL – Our entire process schedule happens under one roof, 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?

TL – We leaned in to the standard woozy bottle with standard orifice reducer for our bitters early on because we wanted the packaging to feel approachable to a consumer that didn’t know anything about bitters.  The woozy, which is a standard hot sauce bottle is familiar and unintimidating. Plus as a bartender I find the woozy with dasher a faster delivery system during service.

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

TL – We have two sizes of bitters – 50 ML (1.7 fl oz) and 5 fl oz. The smaller size is great for newbies. The 5 oz. is a standard bearer for behind the bar. These two sizes service the vast majority of our needs, both for on-premise and retail.

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

TL – Bitters manufacture is governed on the federal level through the TTB and yes the approval process is thoughtful and thorough. State by state you’ll need a production facility that is FDA and/or USDA certified, that requires annual inspections – which you want anyways. It’s important our food and drink is produced in regulated facilities that are safe, audited and meet high standards for cleanliness.

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

TL – Yes, yes and yes. The bigger / more complex the production systems the more expensive and complex to manage, in every sense.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. Do you have any new flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point? Your limited edition flavors of apple blossom, eucalyptus, and Mexican chocolate sound incredible. When I saw the flavor of eucalyptus, I was curious about what profile you would come up with to balance that out. I love woodsy bitters. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

TL – We have a couple exciting collaborations on the horizon but I can’t share anything there yet. In terms of The Founders Collection series those flavors were inspired conversations I had with some of the country’s best bar operators. Eucalyptus is a flavor profile we’ve always had an affinity for and since the brand is tightly linked to northern California, co-founder Eddie Simeon’s birthplace, the profile is an homage to that beautiful part of the country. The Eucalyptus plays particularly well with Gin and we have a Martini and Negroni variation that call for it, and they’re excellent.

BH – What was your debut flavor and when was it released?

TL – Aromatic and Citrus were launched in 2011.

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 releases ?

TL – Every formula goes through at least 6 iterations before being scaled to commercialize. A recent formula for a new product launching next year went through nearly 50 formulations before we landed on the right one.

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BH – How are the sales or popularity of your syrups, mixers, and DIY Kits going?

TL – Every product in our catalog has its place and intended customer. The Syrups are more niche and focused on the aficionado, the kits are great for our premium lifestyle retailers like Neiman Marcus and the mixers are bringing the Hella brand into tens of thousands of homes that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to our products. For instance our Bloody Mary is in every Delta Sky Club and our Margarita is on every Delta jet.

BH – I like your brand name and logo/label design on your bitters bottles? May I ask what the inspiration was?

TL – Thanks! The design was meant to feel both contemporary and timeless simultaneously. We were fortunate enough to work with some very talented designers in creating it. As for Hella, that word embodies our commitment to bold flavor and real ingredients.

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

Tobin – Kyle, thanks so much for the opportunity and for creating a platform for bitters makers and cocktail brands like Hella Cocktail Company to come together and share with such a great community.

Website – http://www.hellabitters.com

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Interview – with Kate & Jessie Poole of E. Smith Mercantile – Seattle, WA

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Flavors Produced to Date

Cardamom ~ Grapefruit ~ Lavender ~Smoke ~ Spiced Chocolate

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

Kate – I learned how to make plant extracts years ago in the early 1980’s. Alcohol extractions are a great way to obtain flavors to preserve the taste. Using extractions of herbs is a really beautiful, really old way to take in the medicinal qualities of the plants. The alcohol extracts almost all of the plant’s properties and the extracts are very concentrated tonics.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product?  You’ve tended bar for some years, right?

Kate – I have been an herbalist literally all my life. I was picking fresh herbs when I was just a child and somehow I knew how to use them. By the time I was in high school, I was studying in earnest. I raised my family on herbal medicines and avoided the whole western medicine model. I learned how to garden from a great aunt, who used organic farming methods: deep digging the soil, composting, crop rotations… Growing, harvesting, drying or tincturing fresh herbs, for their medicinal uses has been a lifelong occupation.

Jessie – We were a unique business model in that we had a clear brand concept and visual identity rooted in a family history of makers, builders and healers that have been in the “old west” of the US for many generations. However, we had limited industry experience, never having worked on the management side of things. Our education and experience came from the side of the consumer, so where that really supports a customer-service-centric business, there has been a learning curve on everything else.  I had been bartending in a next-level home bartender way before we opened E. Smith, and have always done recipe development finding ways to combine unusual ingredients in beautiful ways.

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BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

Jessie – I’m sure you hear all of the time what a competitive market it is right now! We find our niche is for people that are attracted to a unique flavor profile first, a higher quality of ingredients next and then really loyal to a family owned and operated small business above all.

BH –  Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there ?

Jessie – We’re definitely a boutique brand. Our experience has been that most bars of a good caliber primarily stick to the standard classics for bitters (Angostura, Regan’s orange & Peychaud’s) and/or are making their own. I find the most room for improvement in the market is with home bartenders.

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 a wider range of bitters usage?

Jessie – See above, haha.

BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

Jessie – Of course! We work with a local distributor in Seattle and love to make visits to bars using our product to help educate how to make the most of them.

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BH – It seems like Seattle has the craft in culinary going on in a good way currently. What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in the heart of the city’s historic Pioneer Square ?

Kate – Seattle does indeed have a very innovative and creative culinary story. Part of the reason is, we have access to some of the most abundant, fresh, and interesting ingredients. Seattlites are connoisseurs who enjoy indulging in new and creative cocktails and cuisine. To be competitive in the industry, makers need to be offering something exciting and interesting to their guests. Pioneer Square still has a ways to go to be a great draw for innovative cocktails and food. Most of the people come there for work, go back to their hoods for food and drinks. The crowds who fill the streets up for game days are heading to the stadiums for their indulgences.

BH – Though you recently closed your Brick and Mortar shop on June 20th after five years in business, you sold many different products, not only bitters, but salts, spiced sugar pecans, spicy burnt sugar popcorn, cards, books, jewelry, clothing, teas, coffees, gift items, antiques. You still have an online presence and your wholesale business growing with your products. How do you think this transition will work out for you ?

Jessie – Only time will tell, but we’re excited to have some time to focus on tightening our story and creating new ways to share our products with the people!

BH – And by the way, the drinks and eats you had available in your shop/restaurant were two of the most super creative menus I’ve ever seen. I’ll bet your customers will miss that.

Kate – We had a lot of sad customers, who will miss us for sure. So many said, “we are so excited to see what you will do next.”

Jessie – Thank you so much! The most consistent feedback we got from our employees was that they appreciated the creative freedom. It truly was a group effort, but we prided ourselves for pushing the envelope and really creating newness each season.

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BH – The Heritage Room in your shop looked like a real nice space for classes, weddings, events and celebrations. Was that put to some good use ?

Jessie – Not as much as it could have!

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

Kate – We macerate our herbs for a full moon cycle, around 28 days.

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

Kate – We make all of our bitters in our commissary kitchen. Knowing we were closing the business, we made enough to get us through several months of sales. We will be looking for a new location to continue making our bitters in the next few months.

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

Kate – We purchase organically grown ingredients from a bulk supplier. We also wildcraft some the seasonal ingredients on our own.

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

Kate – Our bitters are made in large glass (not plastic!) jars. The herbs are weighted out (for a consistent product), and shaken daily. We keep a calendar to keep track of the maceration time. Each batch is then pressed and filtered in fine cloth, and then bottled. We use brown bottles to protect the extractions from the sun.

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

Kate – We have a small bottling machine that mostly helps with consistent quantity, and yes, every label is put on 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?

Jessie – We buy our bottles from a local bottle source so we were limited in what was available. Especially as a start-up without a budget to explore custom bottle options… We do use an amber glass that helps protect the more delicate plant extracts from sun damage.

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

Jessie – After some market research we determined the 2oz. bottle was most common. We’ve talked a lot about offering a larger size for bar use.

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

Jessie – Nothing that’s ready for market, but we’d like to be able to offer a limited edition/seasonal collection just with wild crafted herbs.

BH – What was your debut flavor and when was it released?

Jessie – Smoke is our signature flavor and the first we released along with lavender, cardamom grapefruit, and BBQ (which we evolved into spiced chocolate). All on the shelves in our first year of business in 2013.

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BH –   I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far.  When I saw the flavor name of SMOKE, I was curious about what type or profile you would come up with for that. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

Jessie – One of the first cocktails on our menu was the Miner’s Campfire. Designed because of mom’s go-to cocktail, a tequila grapefruit, but with a smoke twist since it’s our signature. We developed the bitters as a necessary component to our “new classic” cocktail.

1 oz tequila

1 oz blended scotch

1 oz grapefruit

½ oz honey

1 dropper smoke bitters

light shake and dump into a smoke salt rimmed glass

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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 releases ?

Kate– Because I have been extracting herbs for so long, there honestly wasn’t much trial and error. I have a very sensitive palate and sense of smell, which really helps when it comes to creating new formulations. After the first batch, a few of them needed slight adjustments.  

BH – I like your brand name and logo/label design on your bitters bottles? May I ask what the inspiration was?

Jessie –   We wanted a look and feel that matched our heritage/early Americana vibe but would still be equally at home in a more modern aesthetic. My friend Chas (chaschasdesign.com) helped design them.

BH – Jessie and Kate, 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 E. Smith Mercantile and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand. Cheers!

Jessie & Kate –  Thank YOU for sharing!!

Website – http://www.esmithmercantile.com

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E. Smith Mercantile in Seattle, WA

Interview – with Sara Lund of Honest John – Salt Lake City, UT

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Flavors Produced to Date

Aromatic ~ Grapefruit ~ Nola ~ Orange ~ Black Walnut ~ Sarsaparilla ~ 

Lemongrass Cardamom ~ Coffee Cherry / Seasonal – Celery Shishito

They also have a 3-bottle mini gift set – Orange ~ NOLA ~ Aromatic

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

Sara Lund – Honest John Bitters Co. was a bi-product of my Bar Manager, Executive Chef, and myself wanting to create interesting flavors for our own use in The Rest’s cocktail menu. Flavors that we couldn’t find anywhere on the market. We started making very small batches of unique flavors to be used exclusively in our seasonal menus. Once this process started, I personally became very interested in the ingredients that they were made with and the history of bitters themselves. I decided to start pursuing the opportunity of actually branding, bottling and selling the bitters, and launched Honest John Bitters Co. as a sister company of The Rest in October of 2016.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product?

SL – I have owned and operated a cocktail bar and restaurant called Bodega + The Rest for about 6 years. I have a very talented Exec. Chef (also a partner in Honest John) and Bar Manager that assist in recipe development for both the bitters and the bar program at The Rest.

BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

SL – So far (knock on wood), we have been able to keep up with the demands for the product. What has been ironic, is that our most popular and best-selling flavors have been those that were initially intended to be “limited” or only offered for a 90 day period. We have had to change gears quite a few times to continue to supply the most popular flavors.

BH –  Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there ?

SL – Honest John grew much faster than I had anticipated. We launched in October of 2016, and within 90 days of launching, had to go through an entire repackaging phase to keep costs down and supply the amount of product that was being requested. We spent our first year with a distributor, and decided that was not the best fit for the company and the level of involvement we wanted to have with our wholesale accounts. We spent that first year getting things in order so that we could offer our own wholesale program, and are now in a position to do that. Any growth in the near future will include expanding the product line (i.e. syrups, shrubs, cocktail tools) not necessarily the volume.

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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 a wider range of bitters usage?

SL – Well, haha… I’m fortunate enough to also be in a position where a professional bartender is a part of almost every decision we make in regards to the bitters products and flavor and recipe development. The Rest is a perfect vessel to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t. I believe that most craft cocktail bartenders would use the best product out there in all of their menus, if they were the ones making the decision about what could and couldn’t be brought in. Unfortunately, most of them have restrictions due to cost and keeping margins on cocktails high enough to turn a profit. I see both sides being a bar owner and the owner of what is considered a “high end” bitters product due to the price point that Honest John retails for.

BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

SL – I think about this all of the time, and we have spent a lot of time seeking out these individuals and offering more education on our product. It has been mind boggling to me as we have started running our own wholesale program with Honest John and have had more direct contact with the buyers, how little people know about bitters and what they are and how many ways they can be used. We have tried not to pigeonhole ourselves in ONLY the cocktail world. We have partnered up with local pastry chefs to highlight ways to bake and cook with bitters, as well as the holistic benefits of bitters and using them in some of the original nonalcoholic/medicinal methods as well.

BH – It seems like Salt Lake City has the artisan craft in culinary going on in a good way currently, as far as bitters there’s your very cool Honest John brand, and then there’s Bitters Lab and Beehive out of Utah as well. What’s it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in the city?

SL – Yes, Bitters Lab and Beehive are also fantastic local brands and are usually represented alongside our product in local shops. They have both been around for a while and offer unique flavors and delicious product.

Salt Lake City is growing and there are A LOT of makers. You could say the bitters market is pretty saturated in SLC and around the country. I think we all do a good job of differentiating ourselves and offering a good range of flavors and product lines to fit in particular niches.

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BH – The Bodega and The Rest – Are these your speakeasy or craft bars? Are they both in Salt Lake City?

SL – Yes, they are both located here in SLC.

BH – I heard you have a bitters tasting menu whereby guests can experience the flavors in three different ways – 1. Dropper or back of hand. 2. An olfactory experience of rubbing the bitters in your hands. 3. Bitters in sparkling water. And the price includes a classic craft cocktail.

Is that going over well as far as participation and popularity?  I think it’s a cool idea and the first I’ve heard of a brand doing this in their own establishment.

SL – It has been going really well, and is certainly a unique offering in that type of environment. We sell Honest John Bitters downstairs in The Rest, and the tasting has been a really great way to allow guests to try the product and learn about it prior to making a purchase. Again, it is amazing how little people know about bitters and how they are used in cocktails.

BH – From what I understand, you also have a non-alcoholic bitters tasting as well as an alcoholic bitters tasting. How do you have both available?

SL – We do offer a non-alcoholic tasting. The bitters still technically have alcohol in them, like most flavor extracts do, but we allow the guest to order a mocktail, coffee, or tea to taste the bitters in, instead of a classic cocktail. In a city like SLC, where the majority of the population is very conservative, it’s nice and almost necessary to have an offering to those who don’t imbibe.

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

SL – Currently, our longest maceration is 4-5 weeks

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

SL – We currently produce all of the bitters in the commercial kitchen facility in Bodega and The Rest. Everything is bottled and sealed there, and then taken down to the new Honest John Bitters Co. space in U. West to be labeled and shipped.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?  I’ve read that you have your product organic.

SL – We source all of our ingredients from Mountain Rose Herbs in Oregon, and we purchase organic fruits for the fresh peels that are required in recipes.

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

SL – We store all finished product in dark and cool spaces that never exceed 70 degrees, because we bottle our bitters in clear bottles instead of amber glass bottles. Our labeled product is also stored the same way.

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

SL – Yes, all bottling happens in the commercial facility, and the labeling and shipping is out of U. West.

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?

SL – Initially, I wanted to have a bottle that looked like something you’d see in an old apothecary cabinet. Cost restrictions prevented that. The Boston round is by far the most cost effective bottle on the market. When all was said and done, the best bottles for the rest of our packaging. My bartenders at The Rest prefer dasher tops, and aesthetically, I preferred the dropper top on the 0.5oz bottles.

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

SL – We decided to go with the 4oz. and 0.5oz due to what we had previously purchased for use at The Rest. The 4oz. seemed to be the best size for the volume we were using, and the 0.5oz. seems to be a great “non-committal” size for those who wanted to taste and experiment.

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

SL – Haha… anything that requires the use of any type of alcohol in Utah is tricky and comes with its own set of hoops to jump through. For Honest John, we are required to have a separate liquor license through the state in which all of the alcohol (we use high proof bourbon and rye, as well as NGS) is required to be purchased through. We have a separate business license and also a license through the Dept. of Agriculture. We also have the necessary liability coverage to produce and sell a product to the public.

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

SL – Yes, all of the licenses are renewed every year with renewal fees and the facilities are inspected annually.

BH – Do you have any new flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point? It looks like the Coffee Cherry may be your latest release if I’m not mistaken.

SL – We do have a couple of flavors that we are going to be releasing later on in the year. They will both be Limited Edition flavors (for real this time.. haha) and only 10 gallons of each flavor will be produced for retail. They will only be available online and at The Rest and will not be included in our wholesale catalog. We also anticipate venturing into syrups later this year, and have a really cool product in the works for the holiday season. Stay tuned. 🙂

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BH – What was your debut flavor and when was it released?

SL – We debuted with 5 flavors. We went big! haha

Our core 5 flavors are Orange, Grapefruit, NOLA, Aromatic, and Black Walnut. Black Walnut was initially supposed to be our “seasonal/limited” flavor, but turned into our best seller and still the most popular flavor to date. So, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s delicious and like Coffee + Cherry, made with a high proof bourbon. They are both delicious and perfect for Whiskey based cocktails.

BH –  I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far.  When I saw the name of NOLA, I was curious about what type or variation of flavor profile you would come up with for that. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

SL – NOLA is our take on Peychaud’s. It is our offering of a floral aromatic bitter. NOLA has notes of Orange, Vanilla, Hibiscus, and Anise. It’s amazing used in a Sazerac or as an alternative to a more spicy aromatic bitter like Angostura or our own Aromatic.

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 releases ?

SL – Well, if it gives you any perspective, initially it took us about 6 months to nail down recipes. We have altered 5 of them over time to increase/decrease bitterness to allow the flavor to really come through in  a cocktail. Bitters can’t be produced overnight, so the process of recipe creation is time consuming, and sometimes you’ll make a batch that just doesn’t turn out.

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BH – I’ve gathered that you’re a New Yorker as well, but live in Utah.

I’m from upstate New York, by way of Sackets Harbor – Watertown (off the edge of Lake Ontario), about 70 miles upstate from Syracuse.

What do you do when you go back East, and how long do you usually stay?

SL – I am a New Yorker! Not from there originally, but I do believe I lived there long enough to officially call myself one. 😉

Since Honest John and U. West launched, I have only been back East a couple of times. Life and work responsibilities have kept me out West and diligently working and focused in Utah. Back when I had more free time, I’d try to go back for a week at a time. New York became vacation and free time and Utah became work and responsibility.

BH – I like your brand name and logo/label design? May I ask what the inspiration was?

SL – The name and logo design plays off of the history of bitters and its journey from being a “medicinal digestif” to a “cure-all elixir,” and the interaction and sales pitch between the duplicitous “snake oil salesman” and the gullible “honest john,” who is far too trusting and believes the product will cure all of his ailments, not just help aid in his digestion. The hand with the crossed fingers that substitutes the “o” in Honest, represents the salesman with fingers crossed “telling the truth.”

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

SL – Thank you so much for including us! We are honored to be a part of your highlighted selection.

Website – http://www.honestjohnbitters.com

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Interview – with Ben Leggett of Elemental Distillers – Marlborough District, New Zealand

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Flavors Produced to Date

Coffee & Pimento‘the mature digestif’ – medium roasted coffee beans from the highlands of Ethiopia, enhanced with a touch of blackstrap molasses and spicy pimento.

Grapefruit & Hops‘the citrus refresher’ – macerated with zest from ripe Gisborne grapefruit and organic Motueka hops from Nelson.

Blackberry & Balsamic‘the rich berry’ – An aromatic bitter essence created in the tradition of old English ‘shrub’ cordials. A perfect marriage of house dried Karaka blackberries and tart pomegranate balsamic vinegar lifted with pink pepper.

 

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

Ben Leggett  – It was two-fold. One; I was coming to the end of my professional bartending career and was already a fan of the world of bitters, and two; I had already committed to the dream of one day owning and operating my own craft distillery, the bitters was a good place to trial creating my own brand/product. And so I launched a single batch range of three flavours called Regency Bitters out of the kitchen of the bar I was running at the time. The lessons learnt during this trial were vital in developing Elemental Bitters later.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product? I’ve read that you’ve put in 13 years prepping luxury spirit brands in the UK as a brand ambassador. I’ve heard stories about that job from other ambassadors having to be on both the day and night of long hours. Is it true at being quite the burn where it and the business travel aspect takes its toll after a while?

BL – Yes and yes. From a bartender point of view, being a Brand Ambassador for a premium spirits company is the greatest achievement. Travel the world, unlimited booze, free publicity, no KPI’s. The truth is always much different as such, few Brand Ambassadors remain in the role more than a couple of years. It is even harder still on any relationships.

Being an ambassador for a few different brands taught me many things but strongest of all was networking. Thanks to those roles I merged into Brand Management and worked closely for many years alongside creative marketing agencies to launch new releases of cognac, scotch and rum to name a few. Having experience in marketing and brand development alongside a network of people in different fields of the industry was massively beneficial.

BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

BL – The bitters in all honesty was always a route to market for my follow up products, gin and vermouth/amaro. Bitters are a fun and versatile product but with very little retail value to Joe Public. I also moved back to my native New Zealand to bring my dreams to light and we’re a bit behind the curve when it comes to cocktail vogues like aromatic bitters. That said they are now sold nationwide as well as small volume sold to Australia and back to the UK.

If there was one thing to improve it would be time – my days are tied up holding down a full-time job, being a new Dad, trying to launch a new gin brand, opening a new craft distillery and… promoting the bitters. That said I wouldn’t change a thing, loving every minute of it.

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BH –  Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there?

BL – There is always a way to up scale and therefore cash in on higher economies of scale. The question will always be at what point do you begin to compromise your initial brand and product. I do need to scale up but am not forced to do so until demand dictates I do so. Once I have my own distillery open and can work full-time for myself, I will be able to forecast and prepare better for larger volumetric deliveries.

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 a wider range of bitters usage?

BL – Feedback has been great from bartenders who have said both how refreshing it is to not have another ugly bitters bottle and how good it is that the primary ingredients come before the bitter snap.

I will admit there is a bit of over romanticization behind bitters by bartenders. It’s great they/we covet our collections of strange essences but I find many are not using them in the correct way. Education can go a long way to amplifying the industry of what, why and how bitters are bitters.

BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

BL – At a F&B/GM/Manager level of the industry you need to not ‘sell the story’ of your bitters but the ‘promotion/potential profitability of their business’. It’s tough to talk about GP’s and retro deals with bitters so, easier to talk about how a menu is enhanced by a listed bitters recipe and how far a single bottle goes compared to standard spirits etc. The rest is down to replacing any bitters brands they might already have.

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

BL – Not as long as many think. For me it’s just under one month. Time is only relevant to botanical ratio and the condition (fresh v dehydrated v whole v powdered) of the ingredient.

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

BL – Double garage attached to my house, residential address. I rent too, don’t own.

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

BL – Once I’ve played around enough and created a direction I want a flavor to go, I look for the best of each of those core ingredients. For me origin is very important as is the story of the people behind them. All I do is pull them together. We proudly cross-promote all of our suppliers. In addition I’m looking for the unique. Our blackberries and grapefruit are New Zealand hybrid species and even our balsamic vinegar is macerated with kiwi pomegranates from a local olive farm. Basically – the unique and boutique.

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

BL – Good question. While we all understand flavours extract faster at a higher temperature, at the end of the day it is what works for you. As long as you are consistent each time. As my batches are dictated by seasonality of key ingredients, I’m making my batches at the same time each year and cross-reference my ambient temperatures each time. Once I can make this in my distillery, I’ll have more temperature control.

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

BL – Yep. I have just upgraded to a hand bottle machine for speed and a consistent fill but labeling and wax dipping are all done by hand. I even cut out my own carton dividers.

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?

BL – Another good question (although I’m intrigued by what a ‘woozy’ is). One of the key lessons learnt by my first trial brand of bitters was that pipettes are a bad idea in bitters bottles. They may be cool but are not only a more expensive packaging but I found bartenders dispensed in drops rather than dashes using too little and shifting less product. I now use dasher plugs with a wide aperture, so the right amount of flavor is added to a standard drink.

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

BL – I’m in metric so for me it’s mls. My bottles are 100ml/10cl. It’s a great size for delivering around 75 dashes a bottle, exporting can be done through regular post due to being within volume limits and a nice looking bottle size on a backbar.

BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters in New Zealand? or your region of Marlborough more specifically , and do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go?

BL – Nope. NZ doesn’t regulate by state or province but nationally so one guideline for all. Bitters are only recently recognized by excise and you need no license to produce or distill in NZ only licenses for work safety, customs control and food hygiene.

BH – What are the costs/fees/expenses involved, and are there regular facility inspections?

BL – Nope. Not even an annual license fee. We do get a customs inspection once a year but take stock and record all excise movements well so no issue. Other licenses take a bit of effort and application fees but once obtained last for many years.

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

BL – Afraid not, although I’d like to bring back some of my original Regency flavours like Bourbon Oak Smoked Mango bitters and Ginger & Apricot Bitters but all current focus is on the distillery and gin startup.

BH – What do you mean on the website when it says “sustainably produced from the bi-product of our national cheese industry”?

BL – Ha! Yeah, like most commercial gin or bitters producers around the world, it’s the most cost effective neutral base alcohol that drives your bottom line. In the UK there is ample neutral grain spirit, US has plenty of neutral corn spirit and for us in here in NZ, we have grass fed cows. The curds from our dairy cows are used to make yogurt and butter while the whey bi-product is distilled off into a sustainable neutral spirit.

BH –  I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far.  Will you be doing any barrel-aged bitters in the future?

BL – Maybe but most barrel-aged bitters do more for marketing than actual flavor. Barrels are the romance but I’d use oak chips as they are a more consistent flavor delivery and cost effective. More of a fan of smoke and char flavours over oak in bitters.

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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 releases ?

BL – No exact figures but I don’t co-macerate my flavours so no major errors made early on. I independently macerate each ingredient so I know at what ratio each is best released. I then blend these together in a recipe and leave to marry for a period of weeks before bottling.

BH – Can you talk with us a little about your future spirits production of Gin, Amaro, Vermouth, and Liqueurs?

BL – The gin is called ‘Roots, Marlborough Dry Gin’. It is also built on a whey spirit base and comprised of only 6 core botanicals. As an ex cocktail guy, I believe in less is more and while I love brands like Monkey 47, I don’t believe you need 47 botanicals to make a good gin.

Roots like the bitters is about getting the best from each ingredient and promoting a full tracability from root to cup. As such we have foraged wild juniper from the highlands of Macedonia, Bulgarian organic coriander seed, NZ grapefruit, NZ organic hops, NZ wild foraged gorse flower and NZ native kawakawa fruit.

Bottled at 45% vol and delivered in a ‘London Dry style’ where juniper plays primary. All are batch distilled in a copper pot. Recipe has been 2.5 years in the making (from my garage).

BH – You’re also a freelance drinks writer and have your own blog called Drinking Cup (drinkingcup.net) that has some very interesting and in-depth content, of which your latest entry is a great piece on what you’re doing now, called Distillery or Death – One Man’s Mission to Open a Craft Distillery: Part 1. How many years have you been at it with this beautifully-designed site page you’ve created?

BL –  Cheers. The blog was my way of keeping up as an ambassador on knowledge as well as allowing me a platform to share what inspired me. A few of the articles went semi viral like Understanding Maturation – Part 1 and A Lego Guide to the hipster Bartender which both hit 14,000 Facebook likes each and were read over 50,000 times.

Although I have to admit I haven’t written a real article for almost two years due to the above commitments. I need to follow up on Part 2 of The Story of American Whiskey – Part 1. Maybe I’ll have more time when I’m dead 😉

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

BL – An absolute pleasure! Keep up the great work yourself and if you or any of your readers are visiting New Zealand, come say g’day!

Website – http://www.elementaldistillers.com

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