A Bitters Brand Grows in Brooklyn

By Nell Alk

What began in Oakland, CA as simple curiosity about bitters in 2007 evolved into a self-proclaimed “passion project” headquartered Brooklyn. In 2011, a group of innovative DIY-guys (Benjamin Ahr Harrison, Tobin Ludwig, Eduardo Simeon and Jomaree Pinkard) transformed their vision into a booming small-batch bitters business with the help of an über successful Kickstarter campaign. With this they elevated an awe-turned-hobby into a full-blown operation, founding Hella Bitter in a Williamsburg kitchen.

Though it indeed started with Harrison, the visionary tapped his buddies to assemble the perfect crew, comprising Ludwig (production and sales), Simeon (operations and relationships) and Pinkard (business brains and whip-cracker). Earlier this year, the Hella Bitter map expanded even more, as the dream team relocated manufacturing to Harlem’s Hot Bread Kitchen. Finally, a suitable space to accommodate increasing demand.

Read on for some fun facts about this whimsical but super savvy brand’s humble beginnings and subsequent triumph in the alcohol arena. By the sound — and taste — of things, these guys are rising and show no signs of slowing. (Also snag the fruit of their labor online or at any number of locations across the country.)

In the simplest sense, what is bitters?
Tobin Ludwig: Think about vanilla extract. In terms of how they’re made, there’s a lot of crossover. Albeit the flavors and uses are different, the idea is the same. Bitters is a flavor extract. It’s a flavor enhancer. I like to call it a cocktail condiment.

Tell me about the first batch of bitters so I get an idea how far you’ve come.
Eduardo Simeon: The first batch, [which] rendered about six bottles, was made in a large mason jar. We [ate] Cholula Hot Sauce for a week straight. We didn’t know you could just buy empty bottles on Amazon.com.

[Laughs] And now?
Simeon: [Ben] produced a label, named it and it became something his friends and family were aware of and supportive of. The product evolved.

Followed by a runaway Kickstarter campaign! I understand you raised, like, 250% of goal.
Simeon: With the surplus, our first strategy was to go straight to restaurants, like The Red Cat, Miller’s Tavern and Mermaid Inn. Then, Jomaree said we needed to focus on retailers. Places like The Meadow, Whisk in Williamsburg, Bar Keeper in Los Angeles and Bi-Rite [Market] in San Francisco.

Do you guys do anything apart from this?
Ludwig: We all do other things. The goal is for this to sustain us, but now it’s a full time job, in addition to our full time jobs. We’re all workaholics, as we have to be. We pour a ton of energy and love into this project. After we finish our nine-to-fives, we dive into what we love doing. [Our varied day jobs] exemplify why we’re such a good team. We bring a diverse set of talents to the table. They’re complimentary.

Totally. So, why Hella?
Simeon: Hella is a slang term from the Bay Area, where the company has its roots. Hella means “very,” like hella tight or hella dope. So it’s a quip-py play on words. It’s hella bitter and bitter sounds like better. The subtitle we’ve been throwing around is, Make the world a bitter place.

Love it. This quip-factor evidently ties into the label, featuring Benjamin sneering.
Simeon: That expression is called thizz face or thizzle face. Per the “Thizzelle Dance” by Mac Dre, a Bay Area legend, Put a look on my face like I smell some piss. That’s what the thizz face is. It’s something that Ben ran with, because it’s kind of hilarious to see a white guy thizzin’ out in a three-piece suit. We take cocktails seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

Ludwig: We’re focused on broadening the cocktail experience to be all-inclusive. Our goal is to educate. We want people who don’t know what bitters are to end up with a bottle of our bitters.

Share an example of how you “take cocktails seriously.”
Ludwig: Do[ing] one or two things really well and not stretch[ing] ourselves thin. Focus[ing] on two flavors: Citrus and Aromatic, the salt and pepper of bartenders. Those are [bitters] every bar needs.

What else stands out about your bitters?
Simeon: Two unique [aspects of our method] are over-proof vodka and natural sugar. The texture of our bitters is a little more viscous, a little stickier. And it’s a little hotter, because of the high-proof vodka.

Ludwig: Not all bitters are sweetened. To add color and richness, we caramelize the sugar in-house. It makes our bitters really special.

The Hella Bitter boys and Perrier Water join the Manhattan Cocktail Classic’s Industry Invitational talk “What’s Shaken: Cocktail Trends from the Source” on May 14, 2012.