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Ballast & Keel Bitters


Bengal Hot Drops
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Hello Everyone,

Although I'm a new contributor to the eGullet community, I've been following the various cocktail & spirits threads and admiring the much needed conversations found here since I was bartending in Chicago back in 2007. As I've noticed that a number of friends and colleagues have written about their hunches and ideas that they're working through here, I thought that this might be a good medium to share some of my own theories and hopefully gain some feedback about a recent endeavor.

I started making bitters a few years ago out of pure fascination with a kind of lost & forgotten ingredient (besides the worthy staples that are Angostura and Peychaud's) that is so crucial in building cocktails. Up until that point I had been working in bars in Virginia and Chicago that ranged from rowdy dives & hole in the walls to more upscale restaurants with excellent spirits collections but uninspired cocktail programs. Nothing really ever escalated beyond a beer and a shot, a whiskey on the rocks, or maybe the occasional Manhattan or Gimlet. Thankfully, a friend of mine essentially told me to "get my shit together" and learn the craft out of respect for myself and the profession. I became immersed not only in the world of late 19th and early 20th century cocktail writers and their exploits/philosophies/drunken rants, but also in the (then peaking) world of the classic cocktail resurgence - drinking my way through history at speakeasy-like cocktail lounges after my shifts much in the same way Charles Baker collected receipts by drinking his way around the world. In any event, one night I ended up smoking a cigarette with a friend at his bar and he took me down the basement where he showed me a tiny room filled with huge mason jars filled with mysterious dark liquids as he casually remarked, "those are all bitters." From that point I was hooked.

Over the past few years though, with few exceptions, I've found that while it's not uncommon to walk into a bar or restaurant and find some kind of house-made bitters in their arsenal - it's extremely common to find rather tired, vanilla flavor-profiles that lack ingenuity and passion. If I see another "grapefruit", "orange", or "lemon" bitters I could cry. We deserve more than that and it's our responsibility to push the boundaries of what is accepted and share our ideas with like-minded people otherwise there's no true outlet or motivation for change. While I believe that bitters should add subtle and nuanced complements to cocktail recipes, I also stand by the idea that they should be complex and robust on their own without being esoteric. It's my goal to try to capture the experience of being floored by a new flavor combination that challenges your palette with it's complexity, but still lets each ingredient shine through in it's most simple form.

A few weeks ago I launched Ballast & Keel Bittering House under these guidelines. I could really use some much needed feedback, and have samples at the ready. Any thoughts and suggestions are most welcome. If you're in NYC, I'm behind the bar at Saul in Brooklyn on Friday and Saturday nights. If you've actually spent the time to read this entirely too-long post, thank you. Cheers.

www.ballastandkeel.com

ballastandkeelbitters@gmail.com

Currently, I'm working on the Spring line-up - thinking Pear/Hibiscus and Cantaloupe/Lemongrass so far...

b&k lineup.jpg

5 box open brown floor.jpg

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It's great that there are so many new enthusiastic bitters producers entering the market. Unfortunately, many producers don't realize that they're actually putting the bars that use their products and the stores that sell them at risk of ATF fines and seizure for selling and using unlicensed alcohol products.

Under the eyes of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, any product containing alcohol needs to be registered with their Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) before it can be sold. This includes commercial ethanol, beer, wine and, of course, cocktail bitters. The TTB must designate a formula to be nonbeverage alcohol before it can be produced and sold legally. It takes a while to work the process through - we've been through it for six different formulas!

Last year, Dr. Adam Elmegirab and Bittermens formed the Craft Bitters Alliance (http://www.craftbittersalliance.com) to try and provide a list of bitters that have passed all of the federal and state requirements for production as well as to help new producers become legal. To produce legal bitters for sale, there are a few major steps that need to be followed:

  • Formal 27 CFR 17.134 review of each formulation by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
  • Label review by ATF (if requested)
  • Label compliance with FDA regulations
  • Ingredient compliance with FDA GRAS/FEMA lists
  • FDA registration of your bitters production facilities
  • NY State Food Processing Establishment License (since you're in New York)

Personally - I love that there are so many new bitters coming out. However, with the TTB now taking notice of new producers, it's in all of our interests (as enthusiasts, bartenders, retailers and bitters producers) to make sure that the products that are out there for sale are legal.

Avery Glasser

Bittermens, Inc

Founding Member of the Craft Bitters Alliance

PS: We'd like to extend a big congratulations to Cocktail Kingdom, the newest member of the Craft Bitters Alliance, for getting all of the necessary approvals for their Wormwood Bitters!

PPS: Ballast and Keel - if you've obtained your 27 CFR 17.134 designation as nonbeverage alcohol (also known as the infamous TTB 5154.1 form) - kudos! Let us know your status on the above items and we'll add you to the list of approved formulations!

Edited by BittermensAG (log)

Avery Glasser

Bittermens, Inc. - Producers of Bittermens Bitters & Extracts

Bittermens Spirits, Inc. - Purveyors of Small Batch Bitter Liqueurs

Vendetta Spirits, LLC. - Nano-Importer of Hand-Produced Spirits

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Avery,

I just saw your reply to the posting and as a matter of fact I contacted you a few months ago inquiring about navigating the process of making everything FDA/ATF compliant. I was under the impression that starting out as a small business as long as you were in the process of getting everything registered and tested then that was OK but I understand now that there is a different protocol because of the strict regulations on alcohol. I haven't sold anything yet, and was looking for feedback, which I got. Thanks for the heads up, the helpful information, and all the best to you.

Cheers.

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Hm... I never received anything from Ballast and Keel or Bengal Hot Drops.

Might there have been another name that you emailed me under?

Avery Glasser

Bittermens, Inc. - Producers of Bittermens Bitters & Extracts

Bittermens Spirits, Inc. - Purveyors of Small Batch Bitter Liqueurs

Vendetta Spirits, LLC. - Nano-Importer of Hand-Produced Spirits

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  • 1 month later...

Just a quick update - Avery sent out a mass email a few weeks ago to let everyone know that while it is recommended that you send in samples of your bitters along with the paperwork to get them approved, it is not a requirement.

I'm still in the process of meeting all of the necessary requirements, and therefore do not have any products for sale yet. However, I do have sample bottles I've been giving away to try to get some feedback so that I can tweak things a bit for when everything does work out with licensing/approval.

Also, I did a quick interview with The Daily Meal last week with a sample recipe and step-by-step slideshow. The actual interview was much more in-depth, but they just ended up pulling a few quotes... I think it looks great though.

I've been trying to update the website whenever I get a chance as well.

Thanks to everyone who's been helpful with thoughts and suggestions so far!

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It is true. The TTB has established that if you follow certain procedures and include at least one ingredient from their nonpotable list at a sufficient concentration, you are not required to get TTB approval of your formulation before producing. You cannot quality for excise tax drawback and you can be required to submit a sample for analysis at any time if the TTB believes your product to be potable or beverage alcohol.

However, all producers still need to ensure that they follow FDA requirements on GRAS/FEMA ingredient lists, labeling and production facility registration. You also need to have a food producer's license valid for the production of your formulations from the state where you produce in order to sell food products.

- Avery

PS: I certainly wouldn't say that sending a letter to a couple of fledgling bitters producers and one store qualifies as a mass email :)

Avery Glasser

Bittermens, Inc. - Producers of Bittermens Bitters & Extracts

Bittermens Spirits, Inc. - Purveyors of Small Batch Bitter Liqueurs

Vendetta Spirits, LLC. - Nano-Importer of Hand-Produced Spirits

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I'm sorry to hear about all the red tape involved in getting bitters to market. I've now seen Bitter Truth bitters at liquor stores, even though all other bitters are only at grocery stores.

Also, Bengal -- my wife and I were at Saul last Friday. She wasn't able to drink that night, and you made her an unrequested non-alcoholic drink that she absolutely loved. Can you post the recipe?

Roddy Rickhouse

Drinks Writer for Frontier Psychiatrist

http://frontpsych.com/

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Thanks for stopping by Roddy, I'm glad she liked the drink. I usually try to send something out for people who don't drink booze because it seems like they're afraid to ask for anything more than a cranberry & soda... and they deserve better! I'm trying to think back to last Friday night and I'm guessing that you were having dinner with another couple at one of the tables next to the bar? Apologies if I'm mistaking you for someone else, but I'm pretty sure I made this one for her:

1 oz. Lemon Juice

3/4 oz. Ginger-Agave Syrup (2:1:1 diced ginger to water and raw agave syrup, reduce to about 3/4 *I've tried using a blender in a pickle to save time but cooking the ginger really draws out the heat)

1/4 oz. Chestnut-Honey Syrup (2:1 water to chestnut honey)

3 Mint Sprigs

Soda Water

Combine lemon juice, chestnut honey syrup, ginger-agave syrup, and 2 mint sprigs (or about 5 medium sized leaves) in a large shaker tin with 3 to 4 large-format, dry ice cubes and shake vigorously for 10 seconds. Double strain (hawthorne and fine-mesh to catch the little pieces of mint) into a double old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Add soda water to fill (about 2.5 oz.) and garnish with slapped mint sprig. Should be a refreshingly crisp, yet fairly dry and spicy one to sip on.

This is another one that's a "virgin riff" on one of the cocktails coming up on the spring menu:

1 oz. Blood Orange Shrub (1:1:1 blood orange juice to red wine vinegar to 1:1 simple syrup, reduced to about 3/4)

3/4 oz. Yuzu Juice

1/4 oz. Agave Syrup (1:1 raw agave syrup to water)

Dry Ginger Ale (not to be confused with it's spicy, robust ginger beer cousin)

Combine shrub syrup, yuzu, and agave syrup in a large shaker tin filled with large-format ice and shake violently for 10 seconds. Strain into a double old fashioned glass filled with ice,top with ginger ale (about 2.5 oz.), and garnish with a <preferably> blood orange swath.

I know it may sound daunting with the homemade syrups, but they're really quick and easy to make and worth it in the long run - especially if you plan on drinking more than one. If you're having trouble finding any ingredients, you can score chestnut honey at any of the Garden of Eden supermarkets in Manhattan, Eataly, or any Italian grocer. Yuzu can be tricky sometimes but Sunrise Mart in Soho has a couple kinds (unfortunately they're concentrated - kind of like those little green and yellow plastic limes and lemons at MegaLoMart) and they sometimes have fresh yuzu fruit too. Some of the Chinatown shops have the good stuff, but I've always had to ask for help finding it - the less English on the bottle the better.

Hope this helps!

Cheers.

Edited by Bengal Hot Drops (log)
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I'm impressed! We were the two couples at the four top by the bar. Thanks for the recipe. I've got a variety of syrups in the fridge from time to time, and so I'll have to make the ginger-agave one soon. I'm a big fan of the double strain -- more bartenders should do this for cocktails.

We'll be back at Saul, I'm sure. Although I must say, while we've had great meals in the past, the skate wings were a bit off last Friday. That's what I get for not getting cassoulet, I suppose. :)

Roddy Rickhouse

Drinks Writer for Frontier Psychiatrist

http://frontpsych.com/

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You're welcome for the recipe, I'm always happy to share. Sorry the skate wasn't up to standard, but please do head back sometime. Saul should have a new spring menu soon (this time last year he was butchering whole lambs and serving a 5-way tasting as an entree: shoulder, shank, leg, loin, and merguez - so there should be some interesting things happening), and I'm almost settled on finalizing the recipes for the spring cocktail list... I usually run new ideas on the alternating weekend list until I get some feedback and iron out the kinks, so I'm about 90% there.

And speaking of syrups, I started using a new technique for making orgeat that makes a huge difference in one of the new cocktails - basically a Dark & Stormy riff with lemon for lime, and the addition of orgeat and velvet falernum bitters...

Haitian Straight

1.5 oz. Matusalem Classico (Ron Cubaney is even better but harder to find sometimes)

.75 oz. Gosling's Black Seal

.75 oz. Lemon

.75 oz. Ginger-Agave Syrup

.5 oz. Orgeat

8 drops Ballast & Keel Velvet Falernum Bitters

Dry gingerale

1 large mint sprig

Add Matusalem, lemon, ginger syrup, and orgeat into a shaker tin with 4 large ice cubes and shake aggressively for 10 seconds. Strain into a collins glass filled with large-format ice and top with dry ginger ale. Float Gosling's, plant the spanked mint, and cover the leaves with bitters. You still get the spice, heat, citrus, and heady rum boost from a Dark & Stormy - now with a subtle nutty character and enhanced aromatics.

Cheers.

Also started working on a pine/crushed velvet travel case for bar tools and bitters. All done with the exterior construction, and need to start cutting the foam and upholstery in a few days. I'll post some pictures when she's done.

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  • 3 weeks later...
  • 4 months later...

I just wanted to say that I got a chance to meet Bengal and sample the bitters at Tales of the Cocktail last weekend and I have to say the product is really nice. I took home samples of the Cinnamon & Walnut, and Wild Cherry & Tahitian Vanilla. The latter made for a delicious riff on a Vieux Carre.

Best of luck to you guys.

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