One drunken night out four months ago, I decided I’d have a crack at producing and commercialising my own range of aromatic cocktail bitters. I should have awoken with that clarity of mind only experienced the morning after. A mind which reminds you with sober brutality that it was yet another foolish idea born of Dutch courage and youthful bartender enthusiasm. Unfortunately, having been raised in the land of Kiwi’s (the same people who invented bungy jumping, jet boating, zorbing, the first commercial jet pack and that guy who split the atom), I was somewhat deficient of the logic gene, born instead with an indigenous disease known as “sweet as” syndrome. So unsurprisingly the idea didn’t just stop there, it got busy.
Last we read of this plan (Bitters or Bust – Part 1), I had shared some early mistakes, outlined a few key learning’s in regards to licensing and thanks to an overdevelopment in the geek of spreadsheets, I had produced a tight financial plan and presentation. I’d hit local bars drumming up potential support and was about to deliver the proverbial ‘cheddar’ to a local wholesaler buddy at Latin Spirits & Beers. It was a cunning plan, my new partner was sold, we shook on it and a new bitters brand was born. Only real problem was now I had to put someone else’s money where my mouth was.
Named and branded in ode to the old Regency West Pier in the English seaside town of Brighton – ‘Regency Bitters’ will come in a range of three core flavour pairings; Coffee & Ginger, Juniper & Apricot and Smoked Mango…or at least that’s the idea. This is my real-time live narration of events and lessons both good and bad on the road to commercialising my own aromatic cocktail bitters.
The key to any good business plan is the ability to overestimate costs and therefore underspend on your total investment. This leaves a little cash for those “didn’t see that one coming” moments or even means you can return some of the initial investment making your partners even more happy. Happy partners make for a happy business.
With everything listed out in my equipment and ingredients tab, I got to the shopping taking extra time to find cheaper alternatives to everything already quoted. Botanicals can be bought through loads of online wholesalers and healthfood shops with sometimes huge variables in prices so shop around. Having already messed around in my bar, I had basic recipes already laid out but they needed a little fine tuning…OK they needed lots of fine tuning. Without recipes it’s hard to buy bulk botanicals so don’t rush in. Over or under buying costs more in the long run.
It’s also important at this stage to decide on your bitter base. With enough maceration almost any botanical can become bitter in their own right but by using a dedicated ‘bittering agent’, you can focus on flavour first and tweak bitter accordingly. Wormwood sounds great on a press release but UK and US law requires lab tested levels of thujone, so I stuck with gentian. It’s cheap, adds little competing flavour, macerates quickly and is SERIOUSLY bitter.
TIP: If you can find it cheap enough go organic, generally they infuse at a richer rate if fruit.
TIP: Pay attention to the size of your raw ingredient – e.g. whole dried apricots will retain more convertible oils and sugar flavourings than diced.
Funnels, sticky labels, small mason jars, large and fine grain coffee filters, digital scales, hydrometer…etc. It’s all got to be in there. As I’m a cocktail bartender and have elected for a smoked flavour (so much for Keep It Simple Stupid), I used this excuse to buy myself a Poly Science Smoking Gun (In truth I’m a big kid and have always wanted one). Equipment is completely up to you but be realistic. Large 20 litre glass mason jars look amazing when full of macerating botanical but are expensive, unwieldy and you’re screwed if one breaks. For me, I went food grade plastic pales with sealable lids and handles. Far from pretty but cheap, strong and safe.
To be frank, this was a bitch. As a rule of thumb, oils and aromatic sugars macerate at a stronger rate with a high-proof spirit. Too high and it can begin to breakdown or destroy some ingredients, too low and not enough flavour is extracted. I aimed for a 60% ABV neutral spirit although overproof rums and whiskies can also be used to add further flavour elements but are more expensive at volume. Every country has their own dedicated laws on the duty of overproof spirits but the basic rule-of-thumb tells says you’ll be paying more than twice as much per litre on tax than you will on the base product. Death and taxes and all that.
For my initial target batch of x430, 50ml glass pipette dropper bottles, I needed around 25 litres of 60% neutral spirit. There are a number of suppliers of consumable overproof spirit available (recommend Hayman Specialty Products & Ethimix) as most gin distillers purchase spirit in bulk for rectifying their own spirits.
Problem: All commercial suppliers of proof spirit do so at a strength of 95-96% ABV and a minimum volume of around 25 litres. With a set duty of around £28 a litre before even paying the base purchase price, my budget was well blown.
Solution: Establish a working relationship with a local boutique distillery and directly acquire the exact volume at a pre-cut strength. You’ll still have to pay duty but only on what you need. Being supported by a local distillery also helps with cross-promotion. In my case, I’d like to pay a huge respect to Blackdown Artisian Spirits for their amazing support throughout.
Now the toys had arrived and I’d successfully over smoked everything I could think of with my new super cool Smoking Gun (including myself), I pulled finger and got to the making. A cunning plan outlined thusfold;
- Micro-macerate all botanicals independently in small mason jars (500ml)
- Agitate each day
- Taste every two days to monitor maceration levels
- As each botanical reaches ‘optimum’ flavour level (guess point), remove botanicals to stop further development
- Filter all jars ready for blending
I further complicated my life by added additional samples of three different single origin coffee beans (Brazil, Rwanda and Burundi) and three different types of liquid smoke (Maple, Beech and ex Bourbon Oak). While the liquid smoke required trial and error on my behalf to impregnate the correct level of smoke into a neutral spirit, the coffee was made far easier thanks again to another local contact and collaboration. Nothing but love to the amazing Small Batch Coffee Company who very generously dedicated a cupping session for me in advance of donating single origin, direct source beans for the cause.
- Host a dedicated blending session made up of local, key industry influences
- Blend in groups all bitter flavours at half strength to not overload the palate (which happened anyway)
- Each group to blend one of three variables of each flavour
- Each group has a different origin coffee and smoke maceration
- The final blends from each group for each flavour is filtered and bottled for blind tasting and voting
I think it’s important to stop at this point and say something like – KEEP IT SIMPLE. Clearly I’m still to learn this lesson but I have to admit, it was all an incredible amount of fun.
- Industry Night / Final Tasting Session
- Designed to drive brand loyalty and seed excitement
- Virtual masterclass on the brand and production giving local bartenders a chance to taste and vote on their favourite blend and be the first to mix drinks with the range
- Top voted blend from each of the flavours becomes the final recipe.
- It starts all over again macerating each botanical but this time with exact recipes, maceration times and total volume
- Final maceration’s are blended together and rested to marry for at least a week before filtering (a prick of a job yet to come)
- All bottles are hand labelled, filled and packaged for sending out (a prick of a job yet to come)
- Deliver stock to wholesalers
- Send out samples to key industry bloggers, editors and accounts, chase up local bars for stocking etc
- Retire, live off your millions, make a film based on your life’s story and open a school for the blind in your name
Believe it or not, this is one of the most enjoyable parts. If you’ve been a bartender for even a brief period of time, you would have at least accidentally made a network of talented young individuals from photographers, web designers, graphic artists, brand ambassadors, bartenders, budgie whisperers and cheese masseur’s. While some may not be instantly relevant, you’d be surprised what a bit of mutual promotion and a nice bottle of Scotch can get you.
Death By Social Media
Set up a Facebook and Twitter account from the off and post the living sh*t out of everything you do. Play the game, it’s a professional choice now not a personal one and this game you HAVE to play. Include as many people as possible, tag fellow businesses, regional groups and active postees and above all else, use imagery as much as possible. Post, post, post.
This is one of those things you might require a little help with and definitely some feedback on. In an effort to save further investment, I elected to not pay a graphic designer to help me with my logo, labels and relevant artwork instead utilising a free online editing software called Pixlr. Basically setup as a poor man’s Photoshop, all of your basic image and photo editing needs are covered and with the right amount of time, much can be achieved.
Send emails and teasers to industry publications. Sing about your exploits in the street and basically pimp your images in any and all media you can get in touch with. Don’t underestimate the power of bloggers!
One of those things that are vital to get right but you’ll be damned if your can work out what it is you’re doing wrong. In a third business collaboration and possibly my most vital connection throughout, is the awesome team at Master of Malt. Experts in all things booze, MoM is one of the leading premium online spirit retailers and also have their own brand development and production arm. As well as supplying me with the glass pipette dispensers needed to dispense my bitters and retailing the product range online, they have been that go-to consultant for all those annoying little legal guidelines from labeling to barcodes, registered allergens, ABV testing and licensing etc (Richard you rock my world). It’s a minefield to tread on your own so take my advice; get advice.
Now it’s all about mass. Production of the final volumes at the now confirmed recipe and an attempt to reach zen through the intensely slow and brain numbing process of filtering, filling and labelling 430 units by hand. If anyone can donate a gaggle of evil minion monkeys with lasers on their heads (not relevant just cool) to assist, I’d hugely appreciate it. Unfortunately I might have to settle for weak-willed bartenders who can be easily bought for a cheap bottle of mezcal instead.
As I literally write, I am yet to begin the final macerations but have everything in place and play to do so. Samples of the final recipes have been sent off fully labeled to the editor of a leading nation drinks magazine and hopefully there will be some positive feedback. Otherwise I’ve got to just keep on, keeping on with post, post, post and ensuring I don’t lose any momentum.
I’m under budget, over complicated and completely loving every minute of it. Let’s just hope all of you do too.
Special Thanks To:
- David de Souza at Latin Spirits & Beers
- Sarah Thompson at Blackdown Artisan Spirits
- Alan Tomlins at Small Batch Coffee Company
- Richard Legg and Liam Belton at Master of Malt
- William Hendrik at Photography84