The Bitters Man Branches OutMay 17, 2011 By: Jack Robertiello
In June 2006, Munich bartenders Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck gave birth to the idea of producing and distributing cocktail bitters on a large scale because bitters were hard to find in Germany and those that were available were of inferior quality. Both already had gained a considerable amount of experience in producing handmade cocktail bitters for the bars they were tending, and Berg owned a large collection of historical bitters, some of which hadn’t been produced for decades. By August 2006, the two released their first products through their new company, The Bitter Truth: Orange Bitters and Old Time Aromatic Bitters.
Now they've branched out into liqueurs and amaros and are about to launch their pimento dram in the United States.
Mix: Your bitters, despite people (me) who said distribution issues would slow your success, have managed to make their way to many of the best bars across the country. But you're not content with being solely a bitters company, are you?
Stephan Berg: No, we are not. Bitters were the starting point of our journey simply because these were the only products we could manage to produce in 2006. We didn’t have a distillery or warehouses, not to mention that no company would have wanted to produce small volumes for us. It really took some time before we were able to find partners with the right equipment willing to work with us. But we’ve had more success than we ever expected with our bitters range, and we came to a point when we didn’t want to produce a never-ending line of bitters that might overstretch bar needs. We thought there are so many fields one can work on, so many missing ingredients and so many products that could be made a little different, or better.
Mix: Pimento Dram, your latest, is an example of the type of spirits you develop — rare or difficult to find, with perhaps one or two similar brands sold in the United States. What's special about your Pimento?
Berg: Pimento Dram is a challenging product, once widely used for tropical or Tiki drinks that somehow disappeared from bar shelves. With limited production in Jamaica and even more limited distribution outside of the island, very few people knew what it was. So it’s perfect for us and, with the recent Tiki boom in bars, it’s perfect timing, we think. The pimento berry offers a wide range of flavors and we aimed to produce an aromatic liqueur that can be sipped on its own, showing multiple layers of cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg in combination with the aromatic complexity of Jamaican rum. At the same time, it lifts up drinks with heavy ingredients such as ginger beer or juices. It is a product that offers completely new aspects for drink making.
Mix: Of all you sell — bitters, liqueurs, amaros — what's the most popular, and what do you think is the reason?
Berg: Due to their longer existence, bitters are still our key products, and we are just in the initial steps to bring our liqueurs to the U.S. markets. Speaking of other markets like the U.K. or China, our crème de violette and apricot liqueur are very popular. For the violet, it might be because it tastes natural, simply because it is natural. Floral aromas tend to become quite soapy when one tries to imitate nature, so one should better not try to do so. For the apricot liqueur, people are captured by its fruitiness and its balance, but in general I would say that liqueurs are having a big comeback, and with the “drink less but better” movement, people are open for new top-shelf products. Here in central Europe, we have a long tradition with amaros, so it’s no wonder this is most appreciated by our neighbors. America is just about to discover amaros and their herbal complexity, but we are sure they will love them.
Mix: With so much activity from old brands returning to the United States as well as new ones such as the ones you produce, what are you finding that bartenders are most interested in?
Berg: Today’s bartenders are very open-minded and are keen to play with all these new offerings in the spirit rack that are emerging. The available product variety has never been better than it is today. The bartender loves products that he never had before that he can use to discover new ways of mixing. Challenging products are loved most, at least this is our experience.
Mix: Are you able to make any progress outside of the current cocktail-focused bars? Are any of your products poised for a bigger break out?
Berg: Not sure about a bigger break out, and I think it is hard to foresee what will happen. Sometimes things just happen — who would have bet a dollar a few years ago on the bitters revival? Amaros could work for the masses, as we can see from the sales numbers for Jagermeister. At the moment, we are very happy with how everything is coming together, and we feel we have a lot of options for the future.
Mix: Sloe gin, elderflower liqueur, creme de violette, now pimento — what's next?
Berg: We just finished a Pink Gin, a classic mixture of traditionally crafted gin and a fine blend of aromatic bitters, which will become available in a 750-milliliter package later this year. Gin and bitters was appreciated by our ancestors for some reason, so we are curious to see how this product will be welcomed in the present. We are working on several projects at the moment; for instance, there will be a new edition of our bitters travel pack in the next months. Some products we make will be launched in Europe first and, if it turns good, we’ll bring them to America. We promise to surprise with new stuff, but everything takes some time.
Mix: What's your favorite cocktail right now?
Berg: I’m quite classic with cocktails — a Dry Martini is still my favorite, but I’m in love with vermouth in whatever way it is served to me.