Q&A with Ian Blessing, Co-Founder and Owner of All The Bitter
Sure, we're biased but we know our award-winning spirits make top-shelf cocktails worth bragging about. We also know we can't do it alone. It takes a village to raise a child, and we see it the same when it comes to recipes that call for quality ingredients to elevate the expression of our spirits for a perfectly crafted cocktail. And if you are the company you keep, then we are most certainly in good company sharing a glass with All The Bitter, alcohol-free cocktail bitters.
Somehow between the balancing act of handcrafting, producing, and even bottling these small-batch, functional bitters, (oh, and raising two children) we stole a moment from Co-Founder and Owner, Ian Blessing to give us a guided tour into the world of bitters and the unique approach of he and his wife’s family-run company, All The Bitter.
If someone were to say, “I make beer” basically everyone would know what that means. When you tell people, “I make bitters” what’s the range of responses you get? In other words, how would you rank the general public’s knowledge of bitters?
People either have no idea what I’m talking about, or they’re super excited and are ready to geek out on bittering agents, flavor profiles, extraction methods, etc. Bitters are admittedly a fairly esoteric ingredient for your average drinker—unless you actually make cocktails at home, many people tend to be unfamiliar with them. What has been the most surprising are the number of people who are aware of bitters, but didn’t know they contain alcohol!
When you’re asked, “What are bitters?” how do you answer?
The best way to describe bitters is with a simple comparison: bitters are like the spice rack for your bar. They’re the salt and pepper, cumin and coriander. They add depth to drinks, balance various elements, and really make the thing shine. If your food is lacking something, it’s usually salt or spice. When your drink is missing something, that something is often bitters.
“If your food is lacking something, it’s usually salt or spice. When your drink is missing something, that something is often bitters.”
As to what bitters are exactly, they’re a concentrated infusion of botanicals in a base spirit, or in our case, glycerin. They can be made from, and flavored like, just about anything, but they’re typically made with bitter plants like gentian root and cinchona bark, plus any combination of spices, citrus peels, fruit, nuts, flowers, seeds, etc.
As former sommeliers of the world-renowned restaurant, The French Laundry, located in the wine mecca of Napa Valley, you and your partner dedicated years of focused effort and made entire careers around alcohol. What led you to turn your back on booze and go alcohol-free?
After my wife and business partner Carly and I had our first child, we decided that alcohol just wasn’t in our plans anymore—we were better parents when we weren’t drinking. Having made careers around alcohol, though, the flavors and rituals of booze were pretty ingrained in our lives and losing them definitely left a void. As you can imagine, we were thrilled to discover that non-alcoholic beverages have come a long way since O’Douls!
Why do traditional bitters have alcohol anyway? Do they serve some essential role? If so, how are you getting away with leaving it out of your process?
Alcohol acts as both a solvent for botanical extracts and as a preservative. As opposed to spirits, which are distilled, or wines and beers that are fermented, bitters are simply extracted from various ingredients. You could say they’re “brewed”, like a tea, except you’re using a stronger and more shelf-stable solvent than water, and they might brew for 2 months or more. We leave alcohol out of our process by using vegetable glycerin instead. While glycerin works in a similar fashion to alcohol, it’s not quite as good at the job of extracting, so we counter that by packing in 2-3x more raw botanical ingredients than you’d find in traditional bitters.
There are qualities that set your bitters apart from most others. Can you explain what those are and what led you to prioritize those differences for All The Bitter?
One differentiator is that we make everything by hand from start to finish. Carly and I physically produce the bitters, including hand bottling, and I’d say it’s half practical and half romantic. We considered having a third party make the bitters for us, but nobody was willing to dedicate the time or space it takes to make bitters the way we do … that’s the practical side. The romantic side is that we’ve been selling other people’s drinks for so many years in restaurants, so when we had the chance to get our hands dirty and make something ourselves, we couldn’t not.
The ingredients you source have loads of various health benefits. How do you go about balancing flavor with function? Is there a prioritizing of one over the other?
Bitters have a historical context in health, and we wanted to bridge that gap between the bitters taken as medicine in the 1700s to today’s version of cocktail bitters used primarily to flavor drinks. Fortunately, some of the ingredients typically used in bitters already carry functional benefits, like the digestive aid gentian root. Other functional ingredients, like dandelion and burdock, aren’t super common in cocktail bitters but totally make sense flavor-wise.
Balancing flavor and function is just that—a balancing act. It took a full year and hundreds of test batches to get it right. The priority is definitely flavor. These are intended to flavor drinks, first and foremost, but that just means it took extra time to make sure the flavor profiles were in line with classic cocktail bitters while maintaining a bill of functional ingredients.
Are you sourcing ingredients from your own backyard, or are they found in far-flung climates?
We try to source ingredients locally when possible, such as oranges when they’re in season, and we purchase botanicals grown in the US whenever they’re available. However, many of the ingredients we use simply aren’t grown here. Spices typically come from places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Egypt, Peru, and India, and some of the botanicals we use are highly place-specific—gentian root, for instance, is an alpine plant native to the mountains of central Europe.
It seems clear that lifestyle, health, and wellness are built into the very DNA of All The Bitter. What is the “2% for Todd” program, and how does it align with the ethos and mission of the company?
2% for Todd is the name we’ve given to our initiative to give back 2% of our sales to support recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. It’s named for Carly’s father Todd, who dealt with substance abuse issues for most of his life and unfortunately never found recovery. It’s our hope that by giving back we can help those who seek it to find a better way of living.
We started this company for two reasons, in no particular order: we love tasty drinks, and we wanted to help people. We’re mission-driven, focusing on community, inclusivity, mindfulness, and wellbeing. 2% for Todd, along with our participation in 1% for the Planet, are two of the ways that we’re able to tangibly give back to both our local and global communities.
The title of Sommelier at The French Laundry requires an incredibly refined palate. What do you say to someone who may be intimidated, thinking, “I don’t have a refined palate, so how am I supposed to have the confidence to use bitters for building a quality flavor profile?”
I like to think of making cocktails the same as cooking. Everyone was new to cooking at some point. It may have seemed intimidating, but once you jump in and make a few dishes, you realize that it’s not all that difficult. Some people stick to recipes, others prefer to freestyle, but everyone develops their own palate and preferences. If you want to spend time learning the intricacies of building the perfect drink, it can be a highly enjoyable and rewarding hobby, but there’s also nothing wrong with keeping it simple. Have you ever used salt and pepper? Then you already know how to use bitters.
“Have you ever used salt and pepper?
Then you already know how to use bitters.”
A few dashes of bitters can be used to “season” just about anything from seltzer water to tonic, beer, coffee, and of course, cocktails.
What are a few sure-fire ways to enjoy your bitters? Additionally, can you give us an insider tip on some especially cool or unusual ways to utilize bitters?
The easiest way to use bitters is simply adding them to soda water. We love Topo Chico, but any brand of plain seltzer (or Soda Stream) will work great. Use as much or as little as you’d like, but I think 5 full droppers (5 mL, or 1 tsp) of bitters is the perfect amount for 12 oz of seltzer.
The best way to experience the effect that bitters have on a cocktail is in an Old Fashioned. Our favorite is a variation using maple syrup: in a mixing glass combine 2 ½ ounces of Monday Zero Alcohol Whiskey, 4 full droppers of All The Bitter Aromatic, and ¼ oz maple syrup. Add ice and stir for 20 seconds, then strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish it with an orange peel, twisting first to express the oils overtop. Classic!
As for cool and unusual ways to use bitters, we were surprised to find that they can greatly improve the flavor of non-alcoholic wines. Adding 2-3 full droppers of our Aromatic or New Orleans bitters to a glass of red wine can really boost its complexity and help fight some of the “grapey” flavors that are often found in AF wine. The Orange bitters are great in white and sparkling wine, too!
What’s the future look like for All The Bitter? Are you guys going to be able to keep it small-batch handcrafted? What excites you most regarding the prospect of the company?
At this point, demand is definitely outpacing what we’re able to physically produce, and Carly and I are stretched pretty thin doing things like shipping and production ourselves. There’s no question that scaling up is in our immediate future, but what form that will take remains to be determined. I’m excited about creating new flavors of bitters—we’ve been playing with recipes for chipotle chocolate, lavender chamomile, lemon, and barrel-aged bitters—and eventually a line of canned bitters and soda drinks as well.