Kyle Branche Interviews Apothecary Bitters Company Owner Cole Benoit

A Monthly Series About Bitters

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.


Interview by Kyle Branche * Photos courtesy of Kyle Branche

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - Bitters Hub's Kyle Branche interviews Apothecary Bitters Company owner Cole Benoit.

Bitter Hub (Kyle Branche) – What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production?

CB – Bitters are a combination of some of my favorite things – flavor, booze and plants so I found them really interesting from a technical point of view. Ultimately though, I started making bitters for myself to create flavors that I wanted to use in cocktails that I couldn’t purchase – the smokey pear being a perfect example, which was one of the first flavors I designed simply because I wanted to use those flavors in the cocktails I was making. From there, friends in the industry got pretty excited about the flavors I was making and I figured we had something special with what we were doing so we decided to produce them commercially.

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

CB – I’ve been cooking and into culinary things since I was a kid and I worked in restaurants throughout high school and into my very early 20’s and I’ve always read cook books, researched ethnic food culture and immersed myself in food so I had a pretty solid understanding of flavor when I started making bitters.

As well, my father has a degree in horticulture and we lived on an acreage while I was a teenager where we had a two-cre garden, greenhouse, etc. so I’ve always had an interest in and attachment to plants, which definitely helps with creating bitters and is often over-looked.

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

CB – We’ve continued to see growth since we started and people seem to really enjoy our product, which is all I can really ask for. We’ve really been focusing on bitters education in Canada as it’s still very much a developing market for bitters with lots of potential. As for improvement, I’d like to expand more into the US as well since we have a relatively small presence there.

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?

CB – We’ve definitely expanded our production since we started but we would just increase the number of batches rather than bigger batches if the demand became relevant as you can run into issues when scaling recipes up over a certain size.

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’s 500,000 bartenders in the United States alone?

CB – The feedback from professional bartenders has been amazing and that response was the main impetus behind us starting the company in the first place.

I definitely think that bitters can and should be utilized by more bartenders in general and especially outside of Angostura and Peychauds as they can really elevate a cocktail to that next level. A lot of that is just education and interaction with bartenders though, which is a lot of what I do – putting on educational seminars and tasting for bartenders and those involved in the industry.

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 with bringing the product in for bartenders to create and experiment with?

CB – A lot of this ties into the education aspect that I mentioned in the previous question about teaching people about bitters and their importance – those seminars are open to anyone in the industry, not just bartenders, and I definitely think it’s important to educate everyone in the chain about what bitters can and should do for their bar.

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

CB – We generally don’t macerate for longer than three weeks.

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

CB – In terms of production, we do all of our production in a commercial kitchen that we share with our friends ginger beer company. Generally, my recipe development is done at my home bar.

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

CB – We use a couple of wholesale suppliers for our dried ingredients and use local suppliers for our fresh ones.

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

CB – Our production facility is pretty stable temperature wise, which is important. Having the production space too hot or too cold can definitely affect the flavor of the bitters. Storage wise, we do everything in stainless steel, aside from the barrel aged bitters obviously.

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

CB – Yes, we do all of our production, bottling and labeling in-house.

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

CB – Personally, I prefer droppers as they are more accurate, consistent and generally easier to use. It’s also easier for people to taste bitters on the back of their hand with a dropper, rather than a dasher, which is also a factor for us.

BH – How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz., 2oz., 4oz ? And do you think you’ll ever put together a small bottle variety pack of your flavors?

CB – We went with 4 oz bottles as they aren’t too large for the home consumer but are still large enough for bars. As well, anything smaller than 4 oz and your packaging costs are basically the same so the customer actually pays more per oz.

We definitely want to do gift boxes eventually but for now we’re just focusing on our current format.

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

CB – It was definitely an involved process getting started but not nearly as complicated as opening a distillery at least. Our bitters are classified as non-potable so it was mostly just dealing with the food/health administration. We also can’t purchase high-proof NGS in BC so we need a special permit for that.

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

CB – Initial costs were similar to starting any other business, fee wise, plus all of the equipment (tanks, bottle filler, labeler, ingredient storage, etc.). And yes, we get regular inspections from the health department.

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?

CB – Nothing new planned for right now, no. We’ll now be doing the Trade Wind every fall and the Elder Growth every spring as far as seasonals go, rather than new flavors every time, just to make it more consistent.

We are currently working on a few custom flavors for a few bars in Canada though.

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?

CB – The feedback has been really positive, both in terms of the flavor combinations and in terms of the quality of the bitters themselves.

We released Mystic Caravan (smokey pear), Spirit Fire (cherry cedar), Tlalocan (Latin lime), The Darkness (cacao coffee) and General Ambrose’s aromatic all at the same time as our debut flavors. We launched these flavors in June of 2014.

BH – Personally, I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far that I’ve purchased. I have all of them except for three – Nightshade, Trade Wind, and The Darkness. When I saw the flavor name of one of your new ones, Barbary Coast, I was curious about what type of flavor profile that would be. Can you talk with us a little on how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

CB – The Barbary Coast were inspired by North African cuisine, especially Moroccan cuisine, and the flavors and ingredients found in this region. The cuisine and ingredients of this area are especially inspiring to me and I actually originally designed these bitters for a cocktail I created for Long Table Distillery here in Vancouver. I also wanted another “brighter” flavor in our line up and something that was a little more savory and would be really useful in cooking, which is a way I love to use bitters, so these definitely fit that bill. I’m super happy with how they turned out and have been using them a lot lately.

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?

CB – At this point, I have a pretty solid understanding of the ingredients and ratios so it usually only takes a batch or two to get things where I want them to be. The smokey pear, which was one of the first batches of bitters I ever made, was pretty much bang on the first time I made it, which was surprising. If I have a very specific or visceral idea in mind then it can definitely take a little more finessing to get things where I’m happy – the Mason Dixon (Southern pecan) took me several iterations to get it to where I was completely happy with it as I had a pretty specific vision for that one and several different elements of Southern cuisine that I wanted to incorporate.

BH – Your other recent releases of Mason Dixon and Trade Wind are a couple of your new winning combinations. I find myself using the Mason Dixon often in my custom Cedar Peach Old Fashioned cocktail. How are those two selling for you?

CB – That sounds delicious! They’ve been really well received thus far. The Mason Dixon are definitely a favorite of mine as they incorporate some of my favorite flavors and I think they add a lot to a cocktail. The Trade Wind sells pretty quickly as it is limited and barrel aged, plus I think it’s a really good orange bitters – a lot of the orange bitters I’ve tried either don’t have enough orange intensity or enough depth so I designed ours around that and I think the barrel adds a really cool uniqueness to them as well.

BH– I love your philosophy with creating complex blends for layers of depth and flavor as opposed to one dimensional or single flavored bitters. Something tells me that requires more experimentation on your part. Would you say that’s an accurate assumption?

CB – Yes and no. A lot of the cuisines that I really enjoy are very layered, flavor wise, so my brain sort of just naturally approaches bitters that way. It can definitely take a bit of finesse to get everything to sit where I want it to in the bitters themselves and when used in a cocktail though, yes. With that said, it can also be really hard to do single flavored bitters sometimes as you’re only focusing on one flavor so those bitters need to be an exemplary expression of that ingredient.

BH– I really love your label designs. Who came up with that masterpiece where a brilliant template allows for the center interior to change with each flavor?

CB – Thanks. I actually did all of our branding and packaging design myself. I did freelance graphic design for several years and have a formal education in photography so the visual aspect of the company was really important to me.

I wanted to design something that was unique and fun but also stood out on the shelf and was easy to identify in a dimly lit bar, in terms of the different flavors, but still had brand consistency.

BH – You offer signature and collaborative offerings to bars, restaurants and spirits manufacturers. Is there consistent enough work for you in this department as well?

CB – This aspect of the company is mostly to allow me to continue to develop new flavors and challenge myself with flavor requests rather than being a significant revenue stream for the company. I’d definitely like to develop this more though and I think it’s a great way for bars to have a unique house bitters with less effort and more consistency than if they tried to do it themselves.

BH – Cole, I want to 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 Apothecary brand. Cheers!

Flavors Produced to Date

Mystic Caravan – forest smoke, pear, clove, honey, nutmeg

Spirit Fire – cherry, cedar, pepper, cinnamon, anise

The Darkness – cacao, coffee, spice, burnt orange

Tialocan – Latin lime, floral, spice, hibiscus

Mason Dixon – pecans, peaches, root beer

Barbary Coast – citrus, ginger, cardamom, spices

Heliotropic – floral citrus, lemon verbena, grapefruit, stone fruit, elderflower

SEASONAL/LIMITED

Elder Growth – conifer berry, Douglas fir, eucalyptus, baking spices

Nightshade – Chile chicory, smoke, kola, cinnamon, chocolate

BOURBON BARREL-AGED

General Ambrose’s Aromatic – tree bark, dried fruits, dark spices, juniper, orange, caramel

Trade Wind – orange, oak, vanilla, allspice

Website – http://www.apothecarybitters.com