Cocktail bitters enjoyed a heyday before Prohibition. Afterwards has been a long recovery. For decades, few people thought of bitters behind the name “Angostura.” The modern mixology movement has changed that. Today there is a rapidly increasing amount of bitter brands being produced to craft quality.
Including The Bitter Truth Bitters. Munich bartenders Stephan Berg (above left) and Alexander Hauck (right) co-founded this company in 2006. Berg, beyond his love of modern mixology, is also a bitters historian. We recently spoke with him about the past and present of craft bitters.
Cheers: With so many options nowadays for bitters, how does a bitters brand gain space at back bars?
Stephan Berg: With today’s crowded shelves, it is more difficult to get recognition than ever before. Back in 2005, right before we started, there were hardly any other bitters available (and very little demand). When The Bitter Truth bitters were released, the brand immediately attracted the right people: bartenders who were eager to rediscover old ingredients and were open to try new ways of mixing. This helped a lot. The right timing with the right type of product, strong branding, commitment to quality and usability were the foundation of the loyalty we have received from bartenders around the globe.
CH: Why have your products had such success at retail? What does that say about the modern consumer wanting to replicate mixology at their home?
SB: With an increasing number of bartenders seeing the value and importance of bitters in cocktail making, the media also picked up the trend and carried it towards consumers, who in return wanted to improve their mixing skills at home. It really took the right direction once we released our Bitters Traveler’s Set tin of five flavors in 20-ml. bottles, enough to mix some 70-90 drinks. It also proved to be a great gift item for the holidays, and was so well received, we were inspired create another tin of five flavors sold as Bitters Bar Pack, focusing on the more unusual, challenging flavors.
CH: When did people (consumers and bartenders) first start seeing value in craft bitters?
SB: It must have been around 2007-2008 for bartenders when the craft cocktail boom was gaining momentum, but for consumers not before 2010/2011.
CH: What has been your company’s journey in the emerging craft bitters movement?
SB: When we made our first attempts (solely for our own use in the bars we were working) there was little to no interest in bitters and the first response ranged from excitement to incomprehension. The first couple of years were challenging, with no distribution channels available, lack of understanding of the category and the craft cocktail movement being in its infancy. We spent a lot of time educating about the values of bitters and their rich history. With steady work we were able to gain some distribution, paving the road for other brands that followed – in large numbers with no end in sight. With constant innovation, discipline and a bit of luck we slowly built up distribution in about 70 countries and credibility among the bartender community.
CH: Ideally, what is the role of a bitters in a cocktail?
SB: Bitters provide balance, flavor and complexity to mixed drinks. They are a spice rack for the bar . . . just like salt AND pepper for chefs.
CH: What about the history of bitters so fascinates you?
SB: Bitters used to be the defining ingredient of the cocktail (at the time the word “cocktail” referred to a name of just one tiny category, aside other categories such as juleps, slings, toddies, fizzes, collinses, etc.). It wasn’t a cocktail if it didn’t have bitters — period! When Alex and I were still bartending in the early 2000’s, it always surprised me that there were hardly any bitters available and nobody seemed to miss any . . . but that was way before the craft cocktail movement.
CH: Why did your company branch out into liquors and liqueurs?
SB: Once we had initial success with our bitters, we saw many opportunities with liqueurs and liquor, as so many products were either hard to get, defunct or of poor quality. We wanted to be able to offer quality ingredients as essential to the creation of craft cocktails as our bitters. This is why we began releasing flavors such as Violet Liqueur, Golden Falernum, Pimento Dram, etc. We want The Bitter Truth to be thought of as the go-to brand for everything needed to make better drinks at home and at the bar.
Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org