Contributing Writer Kyle Branche Interviews Crude Bitters Owner Craig Rudewicz

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 Craig Rudewicz of Crude Bitters, based in Raleigh, North Carolina.


Article by Kyle Branche * Photos courtesy of Kyle Branche

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

Craig Rudewicz – It started initially with making my own syrups and flavorings for home use with a desire to use real ingredients. Store bought brands are full of artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup and my wife and I wanted to move away from it. I’ve always been a cocktail enthusiast, so the research lead to making my own tinctures, and then eventually bitters. We don’t use any artificial flavors, glycerin, or dyes.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration ?

CR – I appreciate a good drink and the history behind cocktails. The community of a bar and the drink industry is important and I wanted to be involved with it. My wife and I moved to Raleigh from Boston and I was determined to work in a field I enjoyed, rather than work a job just to pay the bills. I was the Bar Manager for a couple of bars here in the Raleigh area and focused my attention on creating cocktails and cocktail ingredients that were as seasonal and unique as a food dish. I used the kitchens and customers to experiment with sodas, syrups, bitters etc. The business started at the first bar I managed here.

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

CR – We are very happy with our reach so far. The business was a one-man operation until this past November when my wife joined full-time. We distribute to 30 states nationwide; self-distributing and self-promoting. It is important to me that we connect with the retailers and bars that sell/use our products. I do not want our products to just be a portfolio value-add for a distributor. We were lucky to receive some great press and win awards early on which helped spread the word of what we do. Our Rosemary-Grapefruit-Peppercorn bitters were the first bitters to ever win a Good Food Award in 2015.

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 ?

CR – There’s definitely an interest in expanding production! We have been expanding in small increments since we started, always making sure our methods still adhere to our craft ideals.

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, considering there are so many great flavors out there now ?

CR – It really depends on the city. In some cities the bartenders have reached the point of branching out from the standards, and some aren’t ready yet. Those that have tried our bitters become repeat customers…that’s the best feedback we can get. Of course, we would love bartenders everywhere to get on board.

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 to bring it in for their bar staff to use ?

CR – We do tastings for bars/restaurants often, but we’ve actually found that targeting retailers works more effectively. Bartenders trust a well curated shop and usually have the ability to taste bitters there, on their own time. The shops we work with promote our products, we promote the shop, and the bars/restaurants are taken care of as well.

BH – It would be great if bartenders would take it upon themselves as an investment into their own craft practice to buy and curate their own bitters kits or collections for use behind the bar, but how do you think they should go about getting the approval of bringing it into the establishments they work in for usage ?

CR – They shouldn’t wait for approval. If a bitter flavor intrigues them and can be used in their program, they should invest in a bottle and bring it from home. If it fits, the bar will use it.

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

CR – The longest maceration was 90 days. We were using persimmons, which can be tricky to get a strong, potent aroma.

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

CR – We recently moved to a new production facility. It’s a fantastic pink concrete building just a couple of blocks from downtown Raleigh. The front half of the building is made of small rooms we use for our cocktail supply shop and there’s a large room in the back half for production and cocktail classes.

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

CR – We source as much as we can from local farms in North Carolina, especially when we are producing our seasonal flavors. If we cannot acquire it locally, we use a few different wholesale vendors for fresh and dried herbs, spices, etc.

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

CR – We use glass for our maceration vessels and keep the production space between 65-75 degrees.

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

CR – Yes. My wife and I handle all bottling and labeling. Every bottle of our bitters are handled by one of us before being sold.

BH – How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, etc ?

CR – When I started, I made the decision to use the eyedropper. I like the look and the precision of it.

BH – How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz., 2oz., 4oz ? And just curious, is there such a size as a 3oz bottle out there ? I haven’t seen one.

CR – All of our year-round flavors come in 4oz bottles, and our seasonal flavors come in 2oz bottles. I don’t know why there isn’t a 3oz bottle…maybe it’s just too odd of a size.

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

CR – We were the first commercial bitters company in North Carolina. It was a lengthy process to become a licensed business only because no “official” entity could answer our questions. North Carolina is a control state in terms of alcohol sales which complicates everything. We had to do a ton of research and teach the governing entities how to handle our business. We produce a food product and are regulated as such.

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

CR – We get annual inspections by the state, like any other commercial kitchen, and business costs can vary.

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

CR – We do a rotating flavor of a tiki bitters every year so that’ll come out in May, but the exact flavor is still a secret. Every fall/winter we have a seasonal as well, and this year will be the Persimmon and Apple. Perfect for autumn cocktails.

BH – Great, I’m looking forward to getting both of those flavors. 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 ?

CR – Our first flavor was released in 2013 and has remained one of our most popular: ‘Rizzo’ (rosemary, grapefruit and peppercorn). We won a Good Food award in 2015 for it, the first bitters to win the award. The feedback has been amazing. We encourage people to use bitters in different ways, not just cocktails. A lot of people have never thought to use in seltzer water or in baking.

BH – Personally, I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far that I’ve purchased, of which are several. When I saw the flavor name and combination of Bitterless Marriage with hibiscus, lavender and oak, I thought to myself “That’s gotta be killer” and it is. Women love it when I atomize it on their wrists. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about ?

CR – Our friends were getting married and we wanted to give them something unique. I did some research and created the flavor to represent aspects of marriage. Women wore hibiscus flowers behind their ear when they were to be married, lavender symbolizes devotion and love, and oak is added for strength. Since then it has become one of our best sellers. It’s great in all spirits.

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 ?

CR – I attempted a peach bitters a while back that failed miserably. The end result was always a sludge-like consistency. I abandoned the flavor after many attempts. Our coffee-cocoa flavor took the least amount of time to perfect.

BH – As I was about to ask you how you settled on the brand name for your bitters, when I was typing in your last name at the top of the page, it dawned on me – the first letter of your first name and the first four letters of your last name. Nice ! But tell me, how many people really catch that with what you’ve observed so far ?

CR – Very few actually catch that! It took me way too long to realize it myself. I wanted a name that conveyed the rudimentary beginnings of bitters. They began very crudely, so “Crude” was the perfect brand name.

BH – What’s it like for your retail space to be hanging out in downtown Raleigh ? Is it a happening area ? I’ve never been there myself, so am curious, is it a pretty good populace ?

CR – We are two blocks right outside downtown in an area that is being increasingly developed. A food hall is opening this year across the street that will increase our foot traffic even more. Raleigh is an amazing city, full of a great mix of restaurants, bars, retail, and technology. My wife and I live a few blocks from our headquarters.

BH – Is your once-titled ABV store now called The Bittery, or are they different ? I notice it’s a cocktail supply and classroom. I think that’s a great idea in doing both.

CR – Yes, we changed the name to the Bittery when we moved locations this past summer. The cocktail supply shop is the front half of our building and we sell our products, as well as, other companies bitters, syrups, barware and glassware. Our cocktail classes occur 2-3 times a month and we cycle through different spirits, cocktails, and topics.

BH – How are the classes going so far with interest, and how many different bitters brands and flavors do you stock and sell there in your shop ?

CR – We’ve been teaching the classes for a couple of years now and they sell out quickly. We keep class sizes small so that attendees can ask questions and the focus is kept on education. Our classes focus on our products, but the retail shop stocks a ever-growing selection of cocktail ingredients.

BH – Craig, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. I’m sure the visitors here on Bitters Hub will appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating your Crude brand. Cheers !

CR – Thank you, Kyle. Any time you are in Raleigh, please let us know and stop by!

Website – http://www.crudebitters.com