Hella Bitter, a Brooklyn-based start-up, sells artisanal bitters that are quickly becoming the product of choice at some of our favorite bars and restaurants, like Noorman’s Kil, the Spotted Pig, and the Mermaid Inn. So we decided to ask one of the company’s owners, Benjamin Ahr Harrison, to explain how Hella Bitter got its start and what sets its bitters apart from the competition. He gave us some great answers and his own recipe for a Manhattan cocktail as an extra bonus.
How did you get into the bitters business?
Hella Bitter started as a hobby the way you might make jam and put your own label on it. I got interested in cocktails and started learning about what went into them, and then found some recipes for making bitters and tried them. When I first started I was making five bottles at a time and was just reusing empty hot sauce bottles to give the bitters to friends and family. When I did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to make a whole bunch of bitters at once, I realized that Hella Bitter could become more than a hobby, and so my friends Tobin Ludwig, Eduardo Simeon, Jomaree Pinkard, and I started to think about what it would take to make Hella Bitter into a real business. What really motivated us after that was when we took our bitters to local bars, restaurants, and shops, and we got incredibly positive feedback on our bitters from professionals. We are taking it really seriously now. We started working with a small business incubator program that Hot Bread Kitchen runs, so we can use this incredible facility they have to produce our product and get guidance and mentorship on the process of scaling our business up.
What’s with the name? Are you guys from California?
Eduardo and I both grew up in Oakland, and I came up with the name when we were roommates and bitters were still just a hobby of mine. I think one thing a lot of people notice about our product is that it’s more noticeably bitter than a lot of the other bitters out there, so playing that up in the name sort of fits. The other part of it is that the character on the bottle is making a thizz face, which is also a Bay Area thing. It was a bit of a thorn in our side that when we started the company up — we were only selling bitters in New York, despite having this very Bay Area branding — but we’re in a bunch of stores and restaurants out there now.
I see that you currently have two flavors. What do they taste like and what cocktails are they best used in?
I forget who said this, but someone observed that we’re making the salt and pepper of cocktail bitters. That is to say, these are the two kinds of bitters most often called for in classic cocktail recipes. Aromatic bitters are usually flavored with angostura bark, or some combination of things that evoke angostura bark. Ours are wormwood-based, which makes them a bit different, but they’re balanced really nicely for any cocktail that you would use an aromatic bitters in. Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans, champagne cocktails are all really awesome with our aromatic bitters. Our citrus flavor is a premium take on orange bitters. We use the best citrus available in season when we make it, so there are subtle variations from batch to batch. We think it’s one of the more three-dimensional orange bitters out there. It’s great in a Bronx cocktail, a Pegu Club cocktail, a Bennet cocktail, or just as a little addition to a gin and tonic or a vodka soda or something like that.
Do you have secret ingredients that set your bitters apart from the competition? If not, what else sets your bitters apart?
I don’t think we have any secrets per se. We definitely have a proprietary recipe and our own process, and I think that’s what makes our bitters our bitters, but one of the coolest things about being a craft bitters company is that we’re friends with a lot of the other companies. There isn’t a big sense that we’re competing for each other’s market share. We are all trying to make something really delicious and distinctive, and hopefully as the bitters space grows, more people will get interested in bitters and buy them for their home bars. I’d be nuts if I didn’t tell you I think Hella Bitter has the best orange and aromatic options out there, but I love the other bitters on the market. My home bar is crazy for how many different bottles of bitters are on it. And I use all of them.
What can you use bitters in other than cocktails?
Lots of things! Some people have used our bitters in salad dressings. We did a blog post about a few Thanksgiving recipes we came up with for stuffing and cranberry chutney. We had a very limited-run sage flavor that was in stores at the time, but I think citrus would have been awesome in that as well. A friend of ours discovered that something magical happens when you put our aromatic bitters on vanilla ice cream, so he baked a pie and served it with whipped cream seasoned with aromatic bitters. Honestly, though, on a warm day if I have a bottle of Perrier or something, I’ll put a few dashes of bitters in a glass of that, and that’s pretty much as good as it gets.
2 oz. bourbon whiskey
1 oz. sweet vermouth
3 dashes Hella Bitter Citrus
Combine ingredients over ice, stir, serve up with a bourbon cherry garnish.