Contributing Writer Kyle Branche Interviews Rob Kaczanowski of Black Cloud Bitters

No. 3 in a series of bitters' interview articles

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 Rob Kaczanowski of Black Cloud Bitters, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.


Article by Kyle Branche * Photos courtesy of Black Cloud Bitters

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

Rob Kaczanowski - I had a Black Manhattan one night at a restaurant in Calgary and it knocked my socks off. I inquired what was in it and it turned out to be Rye, Amaro, and Chocolate bitters. I really wanted to understand how the bitters were made as it was the backbone of the cocktail. I spent a few months researching botanicals and decided that there was a lot that one could do with flavour profiles with bitters and we started experimenting with various ideas.

Once we landed on some key profile themes we started sharing them with friends and bartenders to get feedback. The feedback was incredible and people started asking us where they could buy them. At that point, we were not selling them. We decided that the time was right and we launched the company. Brandy (my wife) came up with the name and branding, and we had her brother in New York design the artwork and labels.

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

RK - My wife (Brandy) is a foody and has dabbled in the culinary arts for some time. I bartended and worked in restaurants for years. We both enjoy cooking together and developing flavour profiles for food and beverage. Brandy has an impeccable flavour palate. She can pick-out multiple ingredients in a taste-testing like nobody I have ever seen. We were at an event one night and a chef asked her to name what was in a recipe. She listed 5 of the ingredients off of the top of her head and the Chef said “that is correct – but there is one more”. Brandy closed her eyes, paused and responded “is it Rose Water”, the Chef smiled and said “YES.”

She is our flavour Yoda. I have a very strong understanding of spirits and spirit/flavour pairing. I come up with the initial recipes, then Brandy dials-in the right levels of spices and botanicals. Brandy also has a professional communications background and she manages the operations and all our media and branding. I have an international business development background and handle all the finance, corporate, and legal aspects of the business.

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

RK - The bitters market is very strong in North America, and it is highly correlated with the craft cocktail movement and bourbon (and other spirit) sales. It also has regional characteristic as well (i.e. local producers). Producers are attempting to differentiate themselves with unique flavour profiles and savvy sales and marketing support. Distillers are expanding into bitters to lever off of their existing spirit brands and Stand-alone Bitter producers are expanding into syrup, shrubs, tonics, tinctures etc.

Purchasers of bitters range from culinary professionals, to home bar enthusiasts to professional bartenders. It is similar to selling specialty oil and vinegars. You lead with the end product (pasta and salads) to highlight the underlying product (the oil and vinegars). Bitters are very similar; you lead with outcome (cocktails) to promote the bitters. We spend as much time creating recipes and doing photography as we do on production!

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?

RK - Our exposure in Canada is very strong. We have developed a very strong following in Western Canada. So yes we are definitely on a growth trajectory. Every growth spurt creates a step-change in our production and operations. It is very exciting. Every time you solve a sales problem (or meet a sales goal) you create a new production milestone. Increases in sales equal increases in production which trigger needs for efficiency improvements (i.e. equipment to reduce time per bottle produced). Next comes increases in storage space and then the search for economies of scale (i.e. bulk buying, etc). This calls for the need for better financing to support bulk buying and strong working capital facilities to smooth out the cash flow implications of batch production/sales. We will continue to grow at the current rate and we see great things on the horizon.

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 bitters usage

RK - We encourage feedback from everyone. The last thing we want to be doing is drinking too much of our whiskey (pardon the pun) and miss out on the underlying needs of our customers. Bartenders love our Charred Cedar bitters. They intuitively make sense as they are a staple for an Old Fashioned. Our flavour profiles are very unique and we encourage bartenders to step out of their comfort zone and explore our product range.

Our Saffron Mango bitters are to die for and they pair well with rye/bourbon and neutral grain spirits. Our Garden Party is a savoury bitter that turn a Gin & Tonic on its head. Prairie Rose bitters are an amazing base for spiced rum cocktails. Our Black & Blue is a staple for Rye/bourbon cocktails as well. We have fabulous bartending locally in Calgary and they are doing wonderful things with our bitters. Social media has been very helpful in the dialogue between us and our customers. It has also provided us with new ideas for our bitters. I see it as our job to influence consumers on how to use our product.

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?

RK - Again we lead with our own cocktail lists. We provide them to bars in advance to both educate them (if needed) and also to provide sales support at both the retail and wholesale level. We need to be as innovative in cocktail creations as the bartenders that use our product. As noted earlier, we MUST lead with the end product and our purchasers are ultimately the producers of that end-product. Anything we can do to support their underlying business or personal needs in creating that translates into sales of our bitters.

We have some other creative corporate initiatives in play in 2018 to further support our sales and marketing support. Stay tuned!

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

RK - One month.

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

RK - We lease a magical space. It is part bunker and part mad scientist lab! The aroma from the spices make you feel like you are in an open street market. We also have all my music gear in this space and I take breaks during bitters production and play my guitar at very loud volumes. It is a great way to break up the grind! It also keeps the creative juices flowing. We sometimes post the guitar playing on Instagram.

BH - Haha, that’s awesome! How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?

RK - We don’t share a lot of information about how we source our ingredients. However we have one of the strongest supply chains of any producer and we only purchase the very best ingredients on the market. We do not purchase low cost botanicals, spices, nor herbs. We rely on the best vanilla beans (and yes their prices have increased 300% since 2015), exceptional saffron and full bodied botanicals. We do not and will not cut corners on our ingredients. The food-safe cedar we use for our Charred Cedar is purchased in bulk in Canada and we hand-char it.

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

RK – #thatsatradesecret

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

RK - We do absolutely everything ourselves. Lots of equipment and lots of carpal tunnel on the horizon.

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

RK – Different customers prefer different tops. Bartenders like the ability to move quickly and like woozy bottles that they can shake, home enthusiasts like the precision of a dropper. We did not want to use standard woozy bottles (i.e. like an Angostura bottle) and we desired amber bottles for the aesthetics. We opted for amber Boston Rounds with droppers. Now you can get Amber Boston Rounds with shaker caps but they are measured in metric units (i.e. ml instead of oz). There are pros and cons to these. I don’t like their sizes but they also come with safety snap caps which make bottling a little more enjoyable. For now we are die-hard Amber Boston Round supporters.

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.

RK - We were adamant that we would use 1 oz bottles for our sample pack (others producers use ½ oz). Our larger product is in 4 oz bottles. We don’t use the 2 or 3 oz bottles. We also provide testers in ½ oz format. All our bottles are Amber Boston Rounds bottles. We don’t produce the oversized bitter bottles (8-10 oz) that you see in the US. In fact you cannot even sell those oversized bottles in some jurisdictions in Canada (although some US producers have slipped them into stores here not knowing they are actually not allowed).

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

RK - In Canada, you have to decide how you want to sell your bitters (as food or as a spirit). You can create bitters as a Spirit (subject to excise duty) or as food (which allows you to waive the excise duty). Both options are governed by the Canada Excise Office (Canadian version of the Tobacco Trade Bureau). Different bitter producers have varied approaches. If you produce it as a spirit, then it must be sold like a spirit (cannot be sold in food or specialty stores in Canada) and is subject to provincial liquor laws. If it is sold as food then it must be done so with the appropriate license AND approved formulas from the Excise Office.

The food route entails sample and formula submissions and lab testing involving organoleptic analysis (i.e. subjective taste testing) similar to what the TTB does in the US (to meet the TTB’s “Unfit for Beverage Purpose” classification). Selling it as food is a timing consuming process as all samples must pass through and be blessed by the labs. We have all the requisite licenses and permits to sell our product as food.

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

RK - There are Production Costs (i.e. spirits, botanicals, spices etc); Bottling Costs (bottles, labels, and equipment for producing, storage, bottling, and labeling), Shipping and Packaging costs; Sales and Marketing Costs (marketing collateral, websites, photos, etc.); Administrative Costs (accountants, bookkeeping, website, etc); Lease Costs (facilities), Legal/Regulatory Costs (trademark, licensing/permitting, and other commercial activities). And yes we can be and are routinely audited by licensing authorities (i.e. Health and Excise Office) at our site and via routine paperwork we have to file to keep our existing licenses in good standing. We are a viable going concern!

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?

RK - We have over a dozen unreleased flavours in our secret vault. It took us years to develop them. We decided to only release the current five flavours upfront as we wanted to make sure that we were providing the right level of sales and marketing support for those flavours. We have been playing with teas, exotic fruits, new barks/roots, and wonderful spices. We will likely start releasing new flavours in 2018.

BH - That’s great to hear! Overall, what’s the feedback been like since the launch of your five flavor line of bitters so far?

RK - The feedback has been great. It literally keeps on going and tells us we are doing the right thing. Our flavours are unique and stray from standard flavours of cocktail bitters. We have also received feedback on our labeling and packaging. People love our ink blot label (i.e. the Black Cloud) and the ink blot videos we use to market the product on our website. We use a the ink blot and the Black Cloud as a metaphor for how a bitter diffuses into a beverage and takes shape to create a fabulous experience.

In 2018 we will be adding barcodes to the labels and potentially introducing some colour to differentiate between the flavours (to meet the needs of all those bartenders who bartend in the dark!).

BH - Personally, I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I saw the name Garden Party, the first thing I thought of was the Ricky Nelson hit song. Then of course the great flavor profile. But talk with us a little about Prairie Rose and how the essence and spirit of that idea with this flavor and profile came about.

RK - Prairie Rose is made with Rose Hips, Rose Petals, a hint of saffron and some berries. It is anything but dainty. It pairs fabulously well with spiced rum. Our favourite cocktail is a Prairie Rum: 2oz spice rum, 2oz Blackberry Ginger Ale, three dashes of Prairie Rose Bitters. If you cannot find the Black Berry Ginger Ale you can either using regular Ginger Ale with a hint of Blackberry syrup or use home-made soda with a custom blackberry and ginger syrup. Tell us what you think.

BH - Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close out the interview?

RK - Interacting with people like yourself is instrumental in spreading the bitters story!

BH - Rob, 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 Black Cloud. Cheers!

Website – http://www.blackcloudbitters.com