Podcast

Stephan Berg From The Bitter Truth

They say Bitters are the spice rack of the cocktail world, so to find out more, we talk to Stephan Berg from The Bitter Truth

By: Tiff Christie|June 4,2020

Less than two decades ago if you wanted bitters other than the faithful Angostura and Peychaud, you would have to make them yourself.

And that’s where Bitter Truth stepped in. After have made bitters in their own bars, Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck decided to open up their creations to the world.

We talk to Stephan about scaling up, the bitters in their range and of course the best way in cocktails to use them.

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Less than two decades ago if you wanted bitters other than the faithful Angostura or Peuchaud, you would have to make them yourself. And that's where Bitter Truth stepped in. After they had made bitters in their own bars, Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck decided to open up their creations to the world. We talked to Stephan about scaling up, the bitters in their range and of course the best way in cocktails to use them.

Thank you for joining us, Stephan.

Thanks for having me.

Now how did bitters get from the medicine cabinet into the cocktail glass?

Well, bitters originally were medicine. This was your tipple you would take if you have something that was ailing you and bitters traveled a long way. Bitters in Europe they were made for centuries by mom's for example and they were passing along those recipes. But then you saw immigration happening towards the new world, the United States or America back then. And so they brought their medicine with them. And also picked plants from that region where they were landing and then they were just combining the knowledge of those medicinal values of the plants. And so the bitters were in every household basically because there was hardly any other medical infrastructure present at that time. People had to treat themselves. And once they had the bitters at home, they soon discovered that if you would add a tiny bit of those bitters which were already alcoholic, to other alcoholic beverages, that the taste of the other alcoholic beverage would improve them. And that probably happened by accident at some point. Nobody knows when and where, but this is probably how it all went.

And how important, I mean, you say that it improves the taste of the cocktail, but how important is bitters to a cocktail?

Back then you had several kinds of mixed drinks already in wide consumption. But the difference for the cocktail, which now is the overall term for mixed drinks, but it was different back then because the cocktail back then was defined by the use of bitters. You had other drinks like the juleps or the slings or fizzes, sours. They did not call for bitters. But the cocktail itself called for bitters and it was defined by the use of bitters. Over time, the term cocktail became the overall term for it. But the bitters actually added an extra layer of complexity. They were actually more balanced with all the herbs and spices, they are part of the bitters. They would add an extra dimension of flavour to some of the other ingredients.

Now when you were talking about those early cocktails, you would be talking about things that would be the forefathers of things like an old fashioned, I'm assuming.

This is a very good role model for it because the earliest cocktail recipes, they were actually following the first known description of what the cocktail is and that was described as spirit of any kind, sugar, water and bitters. And water in best case came in an iced form, which was not always at hand of course. But the old fashioned, it's just liquor, it's sugar, it got the bitters, maybe a bit of fancy fruit and that was it and then they just changed the spirit so it as easy from the whisky old fashioned cocktail to a gin cocktail. It was not too far off and they all circled around the same concept in the early beginnings of the cocktail scene.

Let's go forward a number of years, but back from where we are today. Describe the cocktail scene and the availability of bitters when you started The Bitter Truth.

Well, it was a very different time even if it was just roughly 15 years ago. But back then there were other drinks in demand. Usually, here in Germany this was not the epicentre of the cocktail world. Usually, people were looking to America or to the U.K., but in Germany there was not much happening cocktail wise because Germany is traditionally a wine and a beer country. After all, we had a few cocktail bars over time, but the majority of the population, they were not so much into cocktails. And 15 years ago or 20 years ago the most popular drink here in Germany was the Caipirinha. You could have it everywhere. But bitters or high-end cocktails, they were hardly seen. Maybe in a five star hotel or some premium cocktail places where they would have that clientele who would order an old fashion or a Martini cocktail, or Manhattan, these kind of things.
But there were a lot of interested people from the bar trade who were just bored by the usual cocktail that were offered with lots of Grenadine and lots of juices to cover up the booze. And then people started thinking in a different direction with starting to use herbs. And of course, the internet was booming and so you got influenced from all parts of the world and all of a sudden there was movement and just within a few years, cocktail bars they were just popping up like mushrooms everywhere and the young and hungry bartenders they were digging out all these older recipes and then they realised, "Wow, this is missing and this is missing and we can't buy this and we can't buy that". That was actually how it was back then and then everything went pretty quick. I mean, it didn't feel quick when it happened, but 15 years is not a long, long timeframe actually.

And what made you interested in seeking out bitters recipes and trying to reconstruct them?

Well, I was a bartender back then and I used to work on cruise ships and I worked here Munich in a very old cocktail place where we had these type of clientele who would demand classic stirred drinks, but I couldn't buy anything. There was Angostura of course, but other than that, there were no options. I was basically forced to make my own bitters when I wanted to serve my customers. And at that time I was also a big collector of vintage cocktail books, pre-prohibition literature about cocktail making and the spirits. And what was very odd to me was basically that bitters defined the cocktail, but we had no bitters anymore.
Where have they gone? And of course when we then made the bitters at the very beginning just for our own use, we had other bartenders coming to the bar and asking, "Oh, what is it? Can I have something?". And at some point, we had to make a decision either we would just keep it for ourselves or we would share it. And we liked the idea of sharing things because it would also enrich the cocktail scene and other drinks would become into demand then. And because everybody was bored about making the fifth thousands Caipirinha or something like that.

How difficult was it to find some of the old recipes? I mean, you've talked about having some of the old books. Were there a lot of bitters recipes within those, or...

There were some. There were some. I mean, in the old cocktail books from the 19th century, usually there was an appendix where they would give directions to imitate this or to do this and that. Because of the liquor stores back then they would not be fully stocked so the bartender of the 19th century, they also had to make their own stuff. And so the cocktail books usually gave a few recipes how you could make some kind of bitters.
And this was just a starting point because of course we had the recipes and we made them and then those could be better or could be different because the tastes have changed over time, of course. And then we added our own two cents to it and adjusted those recipes to achieve something that we would have liked ourself. That was the starting.
And when we presented the first bitters we had, well, we got a very mixed response because people were just not used to use bitters anymore. And some said, "Well, we had other bitters for so long, but we hardly used them. Why would we need yours?". But there was the other part of the bartending scene who said, "Oh, this is great. All of a sudden we have something that comes from our own circle and we have more options to play with". And that was very, very helpful.
It didn't feel like the right thing to do at that time, but looking backwards maybe everybody was just waiting for something to happen.

Now as you mentioned it was 15, 14, 15 years ago that you started Bitter Truth. Are you surprised by how many bitters companies have opened up since then?

Yes and no. I mean, nobody had expected that bitters would become such a big thing in the cocktail world again. And at the beginning was just a labor of love, but once the media were writing about it and we got awards and these kind of things. It's like it always is. If there's something that has success, you will have others following your path.
And at the beginning of course we were worried, okay, too many other companies making this stuff. But at the end it just helps growing the market and also the understanding how bitters are used and they're widely used now. I mean, go to a bar anywhere in the world and you will find bitters there.
That was not expected at all. And even if we have so many producers of bitters now and I don't know. I mean, there are new companies coming to market all the time, but I'm not sure if this is just a local phenomenon or is it really reaching a wider scale also with the distribution network and so on.
I don't know. The shelves are usually crowded with all kinds of bitters, but how would you make your choice?

Well, that's the thing. For home bartenders who look at this almost oversaturated bitters market. How do they choose which ones to bring into the house and which ones to try and use?

That's a very difficult question. Basically, if they have not done the investigation, which are the top 10 bitters brands, they can quickly get lost with things because all the impressions of bitters, well, it's very hard. It would even be hard for ourselves to make the right pick, but on the other hand the longer standing companies, they are usually the ones who provides a consistent quality over years and you can hardly go wrong with them. On the other hand, there's a lot of marketing going on around bitters and those who scream the loudest may get the most attention. But there is also a lot of trial and error involved, I guess. I mean, it's just like buying a new bottle of gin. I mean, you can be lucky or you can be disappointed.

Do you think that the bitters market is oversaturated? Or do you think that there is still room for innovation?

I believe there's always room for innovation because this keeps the world turning around and it is saturated to the max, but I was also thinking this many years ago already and I was proved wrong. Maybe we are just at the beginning and there's more to come. It's very hard to make a good guess here if it's oversaturated. It's definitely getting more difficult especially now with the virus spreading around the world. It's not making things easier for nobody.

Let's go back a little bit again. When you made the decision to scale it up and start Bitter Truth, was it difficult to scale the recipes themselves up to a, shall we say almost commercial level?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, if you do something small batch with a few litres and then you go to a few thousand litres, you have to make adjustments. And also you have to guarantee that the product is shelf stable, that it's not changing over times. You have to apply different techniques and you also have to adjust the recipes because bigger batches behave differently than smaller batches. But this is something we had enough time to figure out because we made the first 25,000 products by hand and we already had some experience that things develop a bit differently when you go to larger batches.

Now you call bitters the spice rack of the bar. Explain to people exactly what you mean by that?

What a spice rack for a bar actually gives reference to all the herbs and spices you would use in the kitchen. And when it comes to cocktails, the bitters offer the most complex essence you can use in your cocktails. And just by changing the bitters, you can have a complete different result of your cocktail. And so you can spice it in the way you want your cocktail to taste. And I can only describe it as the salt and pepper for the bar.

If someone has never used bitters before, and they're about to buy bitters for the first time. What type of bitters would you suggest that they start with?

I would suggest you go for a classic Aromatic Bitters and an Orange Bitters. These are the two classic, most popular bitters flavours who have thousands of references in cocktails over say 100, 200 years. And this is a good starting point. Stick to your aromatic and orange or maybe you can even play around that Aromatic Bitters category, but as a beginner I would not suggest you go straight to the savoury style of bitters like celery or olives because they are simply a different kind of thing. And they require a bit of experience in handling also.

Now you talk about some of these bitters being different styles, can you talk us through what they are?

Yeah. The classic bitters style as it used to be in the old days, there was only aromatic type. When bitters were only medicine, they were besought as stomach bitters or iron bitters. Something that would strengthen your body, at least they were pretending that. There were all kind of aromatic heavy, just think of your concentrated Amaro type of stuff. And then towards the end of the 19th century, there was also a shift in alcoholic spirits because they were shifting from pot-still distillation to continuous distillation.
And the spirits, they got lighter and lighter. We saw the introduction of dry gin for example. They then required also a lighter type of bitters. And that made way for the fruit style, a fruity type of bitters like Orange Bitters because they were not so heavy bodied like the aromatic style. Basically, you have the aromatic group which is the creole, the chocolate, for example, Chocolate Bitters, the Jerry Thomas' Bitters. And then you have the citrus fruity section with lemon, grapefruit, peach where the fruit notes are in the foreground. And then you have the other category, which is savoury style bitters. Think about your Celery Bitters, your Cucumber or Olive bitters. And then you have maybe some odd ones, they don't fall into one or the other category. But basically, you can break it down to those three categories.

What is the biggest mistake that you see people making when they use bitters?

I think the biggest mistakes is that people use too little of the bitters. Sometimes I read recipes where they call for one or two or three drops. I mean, if you have a cocktail that is three, four ounces and you have a drop or two of bitters, they would simply get lost. And if we look back what a cocktail usually was, it was a small drink. It was not a 10 ounce glass or whatever. It was a small drink, two to three ounces and they had two to three dashes of bitters. If you would scale it up, you would end up in today's cocktail sizes sometimes, you would end up at four to six dashes.
On the other hand, some people are also overusing it, where they put way too much bitters into the cocktail and then the bitters take over. But this is just my opinion. I mean, basically there is no good or right or wrong as long as the drinker likes the drink.

Like salt and pepper, it is to taste.

Yes. Yes. I mean, I describe the bitters also like the bass in music. You should not hear the base straight in your face, but if you take it off, you will immediately notice there's something missing. And a very simple test you can do with bitters is do the same drink with bitters and do it without and you will notice that the drink with bitters always taste better.

Recently you guys released the Bogart's Bitters, which sounds a bit special. Do you want to tell us a little bit about the story behind those?

Bogart's Bitters were a long process to redevelop. Bogart's Bitters actually never existed. It's a misspelling of a famous bitters brand from the 19th century, which was known as Boker's Bitters. But Boker's Bitters were the king of bitters in the 19th century. They were the first bitters ever used in cocktails by Jerry Thomas and by Harry Johnson. The two leading figures of the bar trade in the 19th century. But what happened when they were publishing the very first cocktail book in 1862 written by Jerry Thomas, they had a spelling mistake in that few cocktail recipes. And instead of Boker's, they were writing Bogart's. I was lucky enough to find a bottle of original Boker's Bitters, which still had all the contents in the bottle and the label were intact. And I found this about 13 years ago and since then there was always the plan to re-release it.
We did a lot of reconstructing, analysing and it took us 12 years to come to the point where we were happy with the results. And up till 2005 the common saying was, "No living person has ever tried real Boker's Bitters". And that was quite something we wanted to bring back and there's a little movie about all the history about Boker's Bitters on our website we made and it explains a lot about the little details of the journey we had to go though.

Are there other historical bitters that you would like to recreate?

I would have liked to see a good replica of Abbott's Bitters. Abbott's Bitters was a company based in Baltimore in the United States. And they went out of business in the mid 50s. And there were a few attempts to recreate this type of bitters because it had a very special taste to it. But so far I have not had a replica that was right on point with the original stuff we have. But this was something very interesting. I mean, they were commercially released again, but well, as I said, they were not as complex as the original.
And I fear there will not be another recreation of Abbott's because somebody made it a trademark again and then things get very difficult to fight against trademarks, unfortunately.

What sort of flavour would the Abbott's have had that made it different from anything else that is around?

It was a typical Aromatic Bitters with warm spices and so on, but it had a pronounced tonka bean note to it. And it's believed there was no tonka bean in it, but it goes in that direction. But tonka bean itself is not approved in the United States by the FDA because it has some medicinal downsides, I would say, where it's causing internal bleeding if taken in higher doses also.

Yes, that would cause a problem.

That would cause problems. Yeah. Indeed.

Which of the bitters that you produce is your favourite?

Another difficult question because that will be like, name your favourite child. I'm most proud of the Bogart's, I must say, simply because it took so long and there were many ups and downs in all the process and this is something that's our legacy, I would say, because we tried to get as close as possible to the original stuff to save some cocktail history. But other than that, I have no favourite because our rule to market is usually we have to like it ourselves. If we don't like it, we will not release it. They're all equal to ourselves.

Now aside from the Bogart's, I believe there are 12 bitter expressions within your range now. Can we discuss a few of they bitters and how they're used? I was thinking we might start with the Jerry Thomas.

Yeah. Jerry Thomas' Bitters is a typical aromatic style bitters. It's actually based on a recipe that was given by Jerry Thomas, the bartender from the 19th century itself in his books. He used to run several saloons and bars across the United States. And he had his own bitters he was serving as a digestive to his customers. And the problem with that recipe he was publishing was that one ingredient was no longer considered safe by the global health organisations. So we had to reformulate that original recipes by replacing that dangerous ingredient with a couple of other ingredients to achieve the same flavour profile. It tastes very 19th century. There's a lot of clove, a lot of cinnamon notes to it. But it's great with all kinds of dark liquor, with rum, with whiskey, with cognac. It has a very dry note to it. Got fruit notes, clove and numbness is involved, but it opens up a cocktail like the Manhattan or the old fashioned in unknown ways.

What about the creole?

The creole... yeah. The creole is also a type of Aromatic Bitters, but the ingredients used in Creole Bitters are a completely different neighborhood. In Creole Bitters, those are influenced by the Creole cuisine from the Southern States of America. Say Louisiana, where you had a lot of immigrants coming from the Caribbean Islands so former slaves who then worked on the sugar cane fields and they brought of course their culinary style with them. It's more kitchen spice driven and also Cajun cuisine played a very important role in this type of style of bitters. You've got anise, you've got caraway, you've got mace, all being present. Basically, Peychaud or the creator of Peychaud's Bitter used to be a Creole people. Because they were the first born generation after the slaves were brought from Africa to America. And so it's very different to your Angostura or to your aromatic type bitters. It's more dry, more flora fruity, I would say. You can of course put it into your Manhattan's old fashion type of things. But it's also great with gin, for example while other typical aromatic bitters are not so great with gin because they rather work with darker spirits. But Creole Bitters with lighter type of spirits is a very good match.

You were talking about the aromatics tending to work better with darker spirits. Fruit, I would guess would work better with lighter spirits? Does savoury... can do both?

It can actually be both and that's very surprising. When we made the first savoury flavoured bitters, Celery was the first and it was a very good match with gin, obviously gin or Blanco Tequila. But soon we realised that people are using the savoury flavours in completely different ways sometimes. And this is also for us a learning process. We have seen candied pineapple sprinkled with Celery Bitters and we thought, "Oh, that's pretty odd", but it was great. Or we have seen cocktails made with Fernet and other ingredients and then they used Cucumber Bitters in it and it was great. There's no right or wrong again. I mean, you see, creativity goes in all directions. And as long as the result finds customers or supporters of that kind of drink, be my guest.

Now what's the future for Bitter Truth? What are you doing next?

Well, that's hard to say in these difficult times. But Bitter Truth began very early also to diversify, so we're not only producing bitters, this is one part of our business. We early started by making liqueurs that were no longer made just like Violet Liqueur, or Falernum, or Pimento Dram. And probably we will make more of these type of products because we've got so many bitters already and I think we closed a circle with the release of the Bogart's Bitters. At the moment I can't see what's missing.
And we're all right in the middle of a storm with all the restaurant and bar industries suffering from this Covid-19 situation. Nobody knows what the future is going to bring. Nobody has a crystal ball. We have a few things we're already working on, but hard to tell. Yeah. I mean, we just have to see what the next month's going to bring. Is it getting better or is it getting worse? And hopefully it will turn out to the better, but of course that was a hard hit for everybody who is in the liquor industry, be it bars, restaurants. I don't know. Very difficult time.

If people are trying to find the bitters or the liqueurs, where are they available? Are you pretty much available globally?

Pretty much, yeah. I mean, we have distribution in about 80 countries, so all the major markets, I would say of the U.S., Australia, China, all over Asia, all over Europe. There are some white spots still in South America and Africa, but other than that it should be relatively easy to find the Bitter Truth in your home market.
Next week we're going to launch our new website and there's also a section where you can go to where to buy the Bitter Truth and it will give you some selection of online shops where you can buy, the shops in your home country.

Oh, excellent. If people want to find out more about The Bitter Truth and where they can buy it, obviously they can go to your website, which is www.the-bitter-truth.com. Thank you for joining us, Stephan.

Thanks for having me.

For more information on Bitter Truth Bitters, go to the-bitter-truth.com

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Stephan Berg From The Bitter Truth

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