Growing up in the Caribbean, bitters were a mainstay in my family’s cocktail bar, as well as in our kitchen pantry. For those who may not be familiar, bitters is essentially a flavor extract made be infusing a variety of botanicals, which are steeped in alcohol for 30 days or more. Some recipes which go back as far as the 18th century, can have upwards of 130 botanical ingredients. The result is a product that adds a unique depth and complexity of flavor to cocktail and culinary recipes.
Hella Bitters first showed up on my radar when I saw them featured as part of a campaign for American Express and I immediately became intrigued. Three guys from varied backgrounds, handcrafting this niche product in Brooklyn, NY. I had to know more! I proceeded to stock up some of their products, and quite frankly I’ve been finding reasons to use them ever since. The following are excerpts from my conversation with co-founder Jomaree Pinkard. Read on.
Let’s first start with the name. Who gets credit for Hella Bitters, and what was the onus behind it? What led three guys with such wildly different professional backgrounds, to decide to start making bitters for a living?
Hella Bitters, now Hella Co. grew out of our passion for making things at home. As friends, Tobin, Eddie and I would get together and make cocktails. Making bitters fit into that. We found the mass-produced stuff to be too sweet, and made with lower-quality ingredients that didn’t live up to the spirits we were drinking them with. We didn't love what was out there on the market, so we tried making our own. We were looking for more complex flavor, so we mixed four citrus fruits—orange, lemon, lime, and grapefruit.
Tobin and Eddie got into making this stuff before the mixology trend really took off in New York, which was around 2009. Bitters, they discovered, were a good hangover remedy, and they shared that citrus recipe with buddies.Still before we thought of ourselves as a company, we did a little Kickstarter in 2011 that allowed us to build an inventory. The goal was $900, and we raised just over $2,000. Once we saw the demand, we started walking our bitters into stores and bars where we had relationships. Tobin had been working front-of-house in the hospitality industry in New York for a long time, so he was friends with restaurant managers who ended up being our first clients.
We were selling to a few restaurants and specialty kitchen supply stores, and there was enough proof to support starting a company. We realized early on that Hella Bitters was about accessibility. Let's make a premium alternative to the basic mass-produced stuff, we thought, but let's also include the novice: the at-home bartender, the casual hobbyist. Let's create a product that really speaks to them. We started with just two flavors—Citrus and Aromatic—the bitters equivalent of salt and pepper in a cook's repertoire. Over time, we evolved into making new flavors because people were asking us to expand our line on social media and in the bars and restaurants that stocked us.
Hella Bitters has come a long way since its’ inception in 2011. Is there a breakthrough moment that you can pinpoint which led to so much early success?
That moment in time was our first Fancy Food show. It was our first large trade event and we had no idea the type and scope of buyers we would soon meet. Shortly after the show, we secured some significant purchase orders and had to ramp-up production by a magnitude. To do that we had to purchase larger vessels for making bitters (550 gal steel tanks) and move into a production space with a larger footprint.
When it comes to your products it all starts first class ingredients. Can you talk a little about the what goes into your bitters and what makes them different than some of the other varieties out there in the market?
The exercise of making tinctures and extracts is ancient. It was during the first cocktail renaissance that small batch bitters were as prominent in pharmacies as they were in cocktails. After prohibition, only a few brands survived to modernity.
Hella is special because we focus on making flavors that are accessible to normal folks who love cocktails and food. It's important to us that our products are approachable and user-friendly. Versatility and user friendliness make them the perfect aromatic ingredient for cocktails and food. That's why we focus so much on core flavors. While people's taste in bitters varies with each unique palette and preference, we believe the best bitters are those made with real ingredients like whole spices and fresh fruit. Our process and ingredients are all natural. No fake stuff. Only real sugar and real alcohol. Our Hella Bitters are a premium alternative to mass-produced and low-grade bitters; our extracts are all natural and perfectly balanced.
In addition to the bitters, Hella carries cocktail syrups too, which I love by the way. Talk a little about those?
When you order a coke at a restaurant, it usually comes out of a soda gun. The gun is connected to a hose and the hose to a bag. In that bag is a syrup concentrate and in the syrup is a bunch of junk. Our cocktail soda syrups are a premium alternative to regular carbonated tonic water and cola syrups. They are much less sweet – rather dry and bitter – but do not actually contain our bitters. Instead, we use cinchona bark (the organic source of quinine) as a bittering agent. The process for making them is also a maceration but instead of alcohol, we use filtered water and cane sugar brought to temperature. Our 72-hour infusion of bark, fruit peel, and whole spices result in not too sweet and perfectly bitter syrups that make an excellent dry soda or a light and refreshing mixed drink or cocktail.
What can we expect from Hella Bitters in the future?
As things progress and the company grows, we will stay true to our roots and continue to make authentic products that are valuable to a broad audience of cocktail lovers and foodies. Today, we're excited to be working on a premium line of cocktail mixers set to launch this summer. We’ll be launching a premium spicy and regular version of Bloody Mary and Margarita Mix as well as a Moscow Mule ginger lime mix. As with all of our other lines, our goal is to stay true to amazing flavor and real ingredients you can actually pronounce!
Check out Hella Co. at www.hellacompany.com