Contributing Writer Kyle Branche Interviews Bill Buitenhuys of AZ Bitters Lab

Introducing a monthly Standing Room Only interview series by contributing writer Kyle Branche, featuring various "Bitters brand" owner interviews. Bitters focuses on culinary food and drink, with a unique and long history of medicinal practice as well. This month, Kyle chats it up with Bill Buitenhuys of AZ Bitters Lab, based in Chandler, Arizona.


Interview by Kyle Bramche * Photos courtesy of AZ Bitters Lab

CHANDLER, ARIZONA

Bitters Hub - What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production?

Bill Buitenhuys – Lill and I love to pair wine and food. There is something special when you can find the right set of flavors and textures to compliment. When we moved to Phoenix (or moved back to Phoenix in Lill’s case) from Boston, we found that restaurant wine lists were much more California or West Coast-centric whereas the New England lists were more Euro. So, while sitting at a bar, we would ask the bartender to make cocktails for us to go with our food. We were blown away with the creativity of the Phoenix bartenders that would mix up just the right drink, often including a dash of a specific bitters or infusion to make it just so.

One night driving home, Lill suggested that maybe we can experiment at home with our own bitters. So we scoured the internet for ideas (this was before Parson’s seminal book) and ordered all the bitter roots and herbs we could find. We set up a Facebook page to document our home experiments,, tasted all of the roots, made a bunch of tinctures, did some blending, made more complex recipes, and finally got to results that we really liked…and we were having a great time doing it together. We brought samples to the same bartenders that helped light the fire in us, and next thing you know, they asked to purchase for use at their bar. So the motivation for converting our home playground into a commercial business came from the support of the Phoenix spirits community.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product ?

BB – Does loving to eat count as experience? Neither of us are culinary trained professionals. I’m a physicist by degree/engineer by trade and Lill has an MBA (and impeccable tasting ability). So my experimental nature and Lill’s business grounding gave us the tools to develop this passion into a viable business.

BH - How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

BB – We could not be happier with our sales growth. Two years ago was quite challenging as our in-state sales more than doubled. That forced us to streamline production procedures and kick things up another level. Our bitters are in over 350 bars in AZ plus many bars throughout the country. We’re sold in 8 states and in three countries plus we have online reach for the US through a few different websites. We are distributed in Arizona through Young’s Market Co so improvement for reach would be expanding distribution to more states, and that is certainly in our near term plans.

BH - Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point?

BB – We prefer to keep batches at the size we currently make, but just make more of them as demand arises. What we have found is that many ingredients to not act linearly. In other words, tripling every ingredient to make a larger batch size may not taste the same as the smaller batch. We are extremely particular about batch to batch consistency and we have a nice process for quality control.

BH - What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product?

BB – Does loving to eat count as experience? Neither of us are culinary trained professionals. I’m a physicist by degree/engineer by trade and Lill has an MBA (and impeccable tasting ability). So my experimental nature and Lill’s business grounding gave us the tools to develop this passion into a viable business.

BH - How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

BB – We could not be happier with our sales growth. Two years ago was quite challenging as our in-state sales more than doubled. That forced us to streamline production procedures and kick things up another level. Our bitters are in over 350 bars in AZ plus many bars throughout the country. We’re sold in 8 states and in 3 countries plus we have online reach for the US through a few different websites. We are distributed in Arizona through Young’s Market Co so improvement for reach would be expanding distribution to more states, and that is certainly in our near term plans.

BH - Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisan endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point?

BB – We prefer to keep batches at the size we currently make, but just make more of them as demand arises. What we have found is that many ingredients to not act linearly. In other words, tripling every ingredient to make a larger batch size may not taste the same as the smaller batch. We are extremely particular about batch to batch consistency and we have a nice process for quality control.

BH - What kind of feedback do you get from professional bartenders, and do you wish that more bartenders would get involved in regards to upping their game with a wider range of bitters usage?

BB – There is nothing more humbling than when a bartender that we admire uses our product in a signature cocktail. The joy of seeing one of our ingredients listed on a new menu absolutely never gets old. We know many bartenders try us because we are local. But when we get re-orders or when they add other flavors of ours to their portfolio or when they list our product on their menu, that’s when we know they are using our bitters because they really like them, not just because we are local. Overall, we could not be happier with the feedback, love, and support we’ve received from the Arizona spirits community.

BH - Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

BB – We love talking with bartenders, bar owners, and managers about our product. We especially love it when the FnB manager brings in the chef or chef/owner into the discussions as that tells us that they really care about the connection between food and beverage. As our bitters are predominately food inspired, those talks with the bar staff and chefs usually turn out to be very exciting.

BH - What is the longest maceration process/time for any of the flavors you’ve produced to date?

BB – Our maceration is typically 4 weeks for all of our flavors.

BH – What is the facility like in which you create your various bitters and flavors?

BB – Our production facility is housed in a commercial bakery/kitchen.

BH - How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?

BB – We have a wonderful supply chain for all of our ingredients. For roots, herbs, and botanicals, we purchase mostly from an AZ based, family owned and operated company that sources super quality ingredients for restaurants and producers over the past 30+ years. As citrus is one of the “5 C’s” of Arizona, we have local sources for oranges from Dec through May where the zests can go from grove to maceration in a day or two from being picked.

BH - What are your storage and temperature necessities that you feel equate to the best results for your product?

BB – Our storage area is climate-controlled with minimal temperate swings.

BH - Is all your bottling and labeling done in-house?

BB – Absolutely. All production functions are done in-house by our team of three (Lill, Lill’s Mom Linda, and me).

BH - How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, etc? I like the bottles you use for your product.

BB – Amber Boston round has a classic look and style so we decided to go with those for our products. We went with a dasher top for our standard as it gives the bartender the ability to add our bitters with one hand, helping with their efficiency. We also provide eyedroppers to bars that desire higher accuracy.

BH - How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, etc? I like the bottles you use for your product.

BB – Amber Boston round has a classic look and style so we decided to go with those for our products. We went with a dasher top for our standard as it gives the bartender the ability to add our bitters with one hand, helping with their efficiency. We also provide eyedroppers to bars that desire higher accuracy.

BH - How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz, 2oz, 4oz ? And do you think you’ll be producing smaller bottle mini-sampler packs of all four of your bitters for sale in the future?

BB – 4oz bottles is a pretty standard size for bitters. It’s large enough that it doesn’t get lost on a back bar and not too big to take up too much space. Most bars go through them at a reasonable pace. We don’t want them too small as that would drive up recyclable waste. We have received requests for smaller sized sampler set from retail consumers and we have also received many requests for larger bottles from high volume bars.

BH - Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters in Arizona?, and do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go?

BB – That’s quite the question as we were the first producer of bitters in Arizona. The county regulatory division didn’t know what to do with us as we were asking for licensing for a product that is 35-50% abv that didn’t need oversight by the AZ Alcohol Board. It took quite a bit of education, first on our part to figure out the TTB classification process and getting our bitters classified as non-potable, then the AZ Dept of Liquor Licenses and Control to have them document that they didn’t have jurisdiction over our production, and finally to the Maricopa County Environmental Health Dept to obtain the business licensing for a product they had never considered before.

This last step took quite a few face to face meetings and lots of action items for us to address. Since initial licensing, all of our bitters go through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) process to be classified as non-potable so we can do commerce in the state and across state lines as a food product/flavor extract, much like vanilla extract.

During the TTB approval process, we have to ensure that all ingredients that we use are approved for use as a food item (Generally Recognized as Safe) or are legal to be used in extracts. We strive to ensure that we are creating a product that doesn’t put health at risk. It’s disappointing when we go to a bar and see that they are using ingredients in their house-made bitters and tinctures that aren’t legal or are potentially unsafe to use like tobacco (illegal to serve in food or drink), sassafras with safrole (prohibited from use in food), or activated charcoal (health risk for those on medications), to mention a few. There is lots of education still needed here

BH - What are the costs/fees/expenses involved, and are there facility inspections?

BB – There were lots of startup fees for everything from trademarks, to web hosting, to art work, and licensing. Facility inspections are at the discretion of the FDA for our business and from Maricopa County Health for the facility at large.

BH - Do you have any new flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point?

BB – We always have a few experiments on-going and we are planning on releasing at least one new flavor in 2018.

BH – Overall, what’s the feedback been like since the launch of your many flavored line of bitters some years ago ? . . . what was your debut flavor and when was it released?

BB – We launched in late 2012 with two flavors: Figgy Pudding and Más Mole. We’ll talk more about Figgy in a bit, but Más Mole is influenced by a traditional Mexican red mole. It’s made with three different varieties of dried chiles, roasted cocoa nibs, citrus, black pepper, cinnamon, and bunch of other things you would find in a complex mole sauce. In mid-2013, we released Orange Sunshine which features orange, fennel, and saffron and is based on a Sicilian orange/fennel salad. And in 2014 we released Mi Casa, which is an all-purpose aromatic bitters that has a comforting cinnamon and allspice front end and a bunch of interesting nuances like myrrh, galangal, and ginger on the back end. It’s been a huge hit for tiki drinks.

Some of the coolest feedback we’ve received is from pastry chefs that use our bitters in whipped creams, frostings, ice creams, and caramels.

BH - Personally, I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I saw the name of Figgy Pudding, I was curious about what type of flavor profile that would be. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

BB – One year at holiday time, we went to see a staging of The Christmas Carol, you know where they sing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” and the line “So bring us some figgy pudding!” Well in the Play Bill was a recipe for a traditional British figgy pudding. We made the dessert that year and we thought how wonderful those flavors would be in a Manhattan. So we captured those dried fruits, the warm holiday spices of cinnamon, clove, and cardamom, a hint of orange zest, and a brandy base into our bitters. Figgy loves to mingle with brown spirits, is great in hot chocolate, and as a nice replacement for vanilla extract in many recipes. Lill adds a dash or two of Figgy to her coffee every morning.

BH - What are the most samples and least samples of trial and error testing you had to go through to get the flavor profile you wanted with a couple of your releases? You seem to enjoy putting some interesting combinations together.

BB - Figgy probably had the most trials as that was what we used to develop our unique process to make deeply flavored, flavor-forward, consistent bitters. Without combing all of our research notes, I’d guess that at least a dozen Figgy variations were made before release. And you are right, we love experimenting with flavor combinations. The Flavor Bible is our friend!

BH– Have you ever thought of putting the flavor combination of orange, mint, and cinnamon together ? The reason I ask is I have a toothpaste with this flavor combo and it’s awesome ! Thought it would be a great idea for a bitters since nobody else has done it yet.

BB - Hmm, the mint is interesting. Fresh, fragile leaf herbs can be so aromatic and flavorful but we’ve found to be very hard to work with. I love how you got inspired from your toothpaste! You’d fit right in with us!

BH - Is your AZ Bitters Lab also a store, like a retail shop for a variety of different yet related products aside from your bitters line?

BB - AZBL is a lab and production facility. We don’t have our own shop but we are very fortunate to be sold in many wonderful retail shops through Arizona, in other states, and in Australia.

BH - I’m originally from upstate New York before moving out West. I lived in Phoenix from 79′ to 85. You’re originally from Boston. How do you like it out in the Phoenix area ?

BB – Let’s see, it’s -9deg this week in Boston and a sunny 73deg in Phoenix this week. No complaints this time of year! The summers (which run from April to Nov) and the 115deg heat can get a bit long but I love it out here. I do miss our family and friends in MA, the little town charm of New England, the ocean, fresh seafood all over the place, and all the Mom and Pop restaurants but there is so much to love out here in the Southwest. The people are amazing, the food and drink scene is exploding…not just in Phoenix, but in Tucson, Flagstaff, Prescott, Sedona, all over, and the sunrise and sunset vistas can’t be beat. I truly feel blessed every day when I can look out to the mountains all around us and see such spectacular views.

BH – Bill, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. The visitors here on Bitters Hub appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating AZ Bitters Lab and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand.. Cheers!

BB – Thank you, Kyle. Lill and I really appreciate that you reached out to us and that you have such a comprehensive resource for people interested in all the cool bitters being made all over the world. Cheers to you!

Website – http://www.azbitterslab.com