Contributing Writer Kyle Branche Interviews Napa Valley Bitters and Distillery Owner Ian Winget

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 week, Kyle chats it up with Napa Valley Bitters and Diststillery Owner Ian Winget


Article by Kyle Branche * Photos courtesy of Napa Valley Bitters and Distillery

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

Ian Winget - For as long as I can remember I’ve had a great affinity for not only the enjoyment of but also the production of cocktails, spirits, and wine. One day during the summer of 2012, during a particularly arduous part of a hike at Skyline Park in Napa, I let my mind wander in search of a way to get involved in the wonderful world of high end libations without becoming a proprietor of a bar, a distillery or a winery (which are notoriously litigious and expensive endeavors). Then, it came to me. Bitters. Bitters are an all important part of the, at the time, up and coming cocktail scene and they did not require many ABC permits, large productions facilities, or hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront investment capital. At that moment, under the blazing sun, on a hill in Napa, I caught the bitters bug!

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

IW – I have always had a passion for flavors and how they complement and contrast each other – like an artist’s fascination with color. I earned my Certified Sommelier certificate in 2009, I had worked in the Napa wine industry since 2007, and before that I had worked in France as an English Teacher and seasonal cook. I’ve had that fortunate opportunity to travel to and even live in many countries, among the full list are Mexico, France, Spain, Germany, Romania, Slovenia, The Philippines, and Australia. Travel is fascinating as it frames everything, including flavors and how they work, in a completely new and different context. What is delicious is one country or region may be strange or foul in another. It is quite enlightening to have experienced so many flavor combinations as a starting point to creating bitters flavors.

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

IW – NVB is a part time job. A passion project if you will. I don’t have as much time as I’d like to reach out to or follow up with retailers. The age old adage is, “There’s never enough sales.” Though this may be true, and I agree, making high quality bitters is time consuming and requires quite a bit of labor.

I’d love to work with a machinist to create some equipment that would make the production side of bitters a bit easier and less laborious.

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?

IW – The past few years, since about 2014/2015, there has been a surge of small craft bitters makers emerge in the market place, and as such there are more shops than ever before that specialize in providing customers a retail forum for the education, tasting and use of bitters. There are more craft bitters companies now than ever before in the USA, and the world for that matter, since before Prohibition. Like with spirits in the US, bitters is a growing market. There is opportunity and space for large and small producers to get what they want out of the industry.

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?

IW – Usually, they love them. They love the idea of them and they want to carry them. Often, like with many endeavors, it’s a relationship between people, and people are busy, so often the producer has to follow up with the retailer / bar / hotel manager to get things moving. This can be challenging as these are all high turnover positions.

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?

IW – I have. Again, it is a time thing. I have a full time job, a family, and I’m back in school again as well. I do what I can when I can.

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

IW – 50 days – for the Vintage Black Walnut Bitters. It really gets a great opaque black color. The flavors with a long maceration are so deep, rich, and wonderfully ominous.

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

IW – I share production space at the Napa Valley Distillery. Well, I have my own production room.

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

IW – I always get organic ingredients whenever they are available. I get citrus and other fruit from a local produce company. I get all the dried herbs and spices from local companies. When I cannot find what I need locally I’ll source from reputable companies from the US. For several flavors I hand harvest the citrus, and the black walnuts.

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

IW – I like to store in glass carboys. I will use stainless steel for production but not for longer term storage. Just a preference. Inside temperature generally suffices. The Distillery stays quite temperate.

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

IW – Indeed. All by hand, all by my wife and I. Actually, on occasion, we have friends come and help bottle larger quantities.

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 love your frost-style bottles, by the way. I think you may be the only one in the bitters biz that uses them?

IW – It took several months to find the right bottle for NVB. I thought that the frosted bottles would seem too 90s, but with a clean white label, and a white dropper it looks quite modern. I like that. Lots of folks are going for the vintage apothecary look and I just figured NVB would look a bit more modern. I started bottling in 4oz bottles with an aluminum cap and a dasher insert. That did not work very well. Dashers are hard to measure, at least the ones I used were, so I switched to 2oz bottles with a dropper. Now all NVD is bottled in 1oz bottles with a dropper, except for the Toasted Oak Bitters. It just works. I love the atomizer. It is great for spritzing glasses and tops of cocktails.

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.

IW – Consumers are overwhelmed with the numbers of bitters flavors out there. I finally settled on 1oz so that they can try several NVD flavors and repurchase the ones they use most. This size is not ideal for bars as they use much more bitters than your average cocktail consumer. 3oz is close to 100ml, there are a few bitters companies who use these. Every bottle manufacturer uses ounces or milliliters so you just have to find the package that works for your brand and your customers. If I only made bitters for bars I’d probably bottle in 8oz bottles.

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

IW – You have to register your flavors with the TTB. Mainly they want to make sure you are, or someone is, paying taxes on the alcohol. They also want to be sure that you are only using GRAS (generally accepted as safe) herbs and spices into your products.

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

IW – It’s time consuming mainly. The TTB certainly can inspect if they want – they are part of the Federal Government.

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?

IW – Surprisingly nothing at the moment. However… one never knows.

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?

IW – Generally, people have loved NVB bitters. Visitors to Napa love supporting Napa business, and I am fortunate that Napa, CA is known if not famous throughout most of the US and many countries as well.

My first five flavors associated with my Kickstarter campaign in 2013 were Meyer Lemon Sage, Tamarind Lime Chili, Coffee Pecan, Strawberry Rhubarb, and Grapefruit (hopped). I still make all of the flavors except Strawberry Rhubarb. The color stabilization was too challenging. I wish I could make 1,000 flavors!

BH - Personally, I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far that I’ve purchased. When I saw the flavor name of Fuego Del Corazon – meaning Heart Fire, I was curious about what type of flavor profile that would be. Even though you don’t produce it anymore, can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

IW – It is a 10 Mexican chili pepper bitters, with lots of black cardamom, and sarsaparilla, partially made with Tequila and a hint of agave to balance the intense heat. It was so earthy, smoky, spicy. I still have customers asking me to make more. It was dynamite!

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?

IW – I bet the most has been up to 5 versions. Here’s the thing, you can always filter ingredients out and add new ingredients. I don’t throw batches out. I “refine” them.

BH - Your latest releases of Island bitters and the limited release Wild West Whiskey Sarsaparilla bitters are a couple of your new winning combinations. I find myself using them often in cocktails. How are those two selling for you?

IW – Pretty well. Wild West Whiskey Bitters has a great ring to it – customers love the name and it tastes great. Island Time Bitters sells well during the summer months.

BH - Seems like the Oxbow Market in Napa is a great place for selling not only your bitters, but all the other bitters brands and flavors you stock and sell on your website as well. What all does Zachary do over there in your shopping/tasting kiosk?

IW – Sadly, Zach has moved on to follow other career opportunities.

BH - What determines how you go about taking on some inventory of another brand to sell?

IW – Let me take my NVB hat off and put my NVD hat on. As the purchaser for NVD, I am always looking for new amazing bitters flavors. I have to approach it from the POV of creating the best most unique experience for our customers. We also love to promote local brands as much as possible. We just brought in Monarch Bitters from Petaluma, CA, and Bitter Ginger Bitters (refers to the producers ginger beard not the flavor of all of his bitters) from CA as well. Both are very creative and different and deserve a space on our shelves.

BH – Ian, 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 Napa brand. Cheers !

IW – You are very welcome Kyle. Thank you for asking me to take part in this bitter conversation. Ha! Never gets old.

You’ve always been a huge supporter of NVB and NVD – thank you! I appreciate your passion for the craft of the bar. It is quite inspiring. Cheers!

Flavors - Bitter Elegance ~ Coffee Pecan ~ Fuego Del Corazon ~ Grapefruit ~ Meyer Lemon Sage ~ Old Fashioned Brandy Citrus ~ Barrel-Aged Orange Vanilla ~ Strawberry Rhubarb ~ Tamarind Lime Chili ~ Toasted Oak ~ Old School Citrus ~ Apple Spice ~ Holiday Spice ~ Wild West Whiskey Sarsaparilla ~ Chamomile Damiana ~ Antique Chocolate ~ Cherry Bark Vanilla ~ Hibiscus Rose ~ Ginger ~ Island Time

Website – http://www.napadistillery.com