If you're like me, and I can only assume you've been reading this blog for 7 ½ years if you are to some degree, you've enjoyed watching the brewing community boom over the past year. It seems like every city is getting an invigorating new business specifically keyed toward brewing beer or distilling liquor of some kind. (Except for Magna, that we know of, which is puzzling, because even Tooele got a brewery before they did in the past decade.) But not all of the alcohol-related pleasures are coming out of physical plants, like in the case of Beehive Bitters Co., who are making all-natural bitters to be sold online and are slowly making their way around bars throughout the state. Today we chat with the founder, Michael D'Amico, about the company and the process behind making his various concoctions. (All pictures courtesy of Beehive Bitters Co.
Gavin: Hey Michael, first thing, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well the basics are I’ve been in Utah since 2004, and before that I lived on the east coast. I left Utah in 2007 and joined the Marine Corps and left honorably in March of 2012 after serving three tours in five years as an Infantryman. I met my wife Katy in high school and we’re the stereotypical high school sweethearts. We married in 2008 and I wouldn’t change a thing, she keeps me grounded; her and my two boys are my rocks.
Gavin: Being a consumer of alcohol, when did you first learn about bitters and what they could do for drinks?
Around 2010 I started playing around with cocktails after getting a little bored with the "Jack & Cokes" and “Vodka Red Bulls.” It was then that I discovered how dramatic bitters can add and balance out many types of cocktails. They are the spice that take a “good” cocktail to something so much better and complex.
Gavin: How did you start getting involved with the process of making them?
At first I had no idea what I was doing, I knew the basics but as far as developing specific flavor profiles among a hundred other things I found that it takes a lot of patience to get what you want. You might spend two weeks on just a basic flavor like grapefruit, and after those two weeks are up, you find out it sucks and you messed up, so back to the drawing board! It was around 2013 when I began making them myself at home and after friends and family complimented how good they were I started seriously considering making a business out of what I love to do. In February of this year, I started that dream and have been going full steam ahead ever since!
Gavin: What was it like learning the ropes and creating your own flavors with natural ingredients?
You find out you have to do your research, and, unfortunately, a lot of what you can read online is not very helpful. Everyone has the ‘make bitters in 30 minutes’ blogs, and you find out really quick to get that deep clean flavor you need a lot longer than 30 minutes. Its a lot of trial and error and a lot of time spent waiting for time to pass to check the progress on the current project. In short there are a lot of frustrating parts to figuring it all out, but in the long run when you get something that works and you just know it’s what you’re looking for, it’s worth it!
Gavin: For those who may not know, what kind of work goes into making a single vile of bitters?
To not get to in depth, it starts with your basic ingredient list. Some companies put all of the ingredients (Barks, citrus, herbs, spices) into the infusing vessel with an alcohol (or non-alcohol) of their choice and wait a certain amount of time till they’re done. Our company separately infuses each and every ingredient. I find that doing this makes it so I can sample each and every ingredient to ensure it’s where it should be before I stop the infusion by straining the solids from the liquid. After all the ingredients have finished (some ingredients take only 8 days while the longer take 30 days), they’re mixed together using a specific recipe that’s measured by the ounce. I then take the finished bitters and bottle them into one-ounce amber Boston round dropper bottles. I personally chose the dropper because when you make a cocktail or “mocktail” you want the same amount of bitters
each time, so if I’m looking for eight drops, I can add them without over adding or shorting the recipe. After bottling, each cap receives a tamper evident seal and is then hand labeled. I personally hand write the batch number, bottle number, and ABV % on each and every label. Whether I produce 250 bottles a week or 2,000, I will continue to do this, I think it’s important since I take pride in each bottle I sell.
Gavin: When did the idea come about to start your own business?
I’ve always thought about being my own boss. I had a lot of idea’s growing up, most of them just way out of reach. This company almost came by accident to be honest. I’ve had a home bar for a few years now and have enjoyed making drinks for friends and family and playing the host. I remember I had gotten back from a trip and met up with a close family friend for a drink. We sat and talked, and he happens to be a very driven guy, somebody with the ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’ type attitude. I mentioned that the bitters I made were something I loved doing and he said “Why aren’t you selling them then?” That was the first time it started to click, that I could do this and that there was a market for great cocktail bitters! I’ve been at full speed since that night and I don’t plan on stopping!
Gavin: Being a home-run business, what was it like getting what you needed to start mass producing?
Money and knowledge. Having the idea is great, but finding out how to do it, and do it legally is another thing. I think I spend about eight hours the first day just researching what to do. After a lot of phone calls and online government website research I started. The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) is the first step, and requires a Manufactures Permit, which simply means that if you want to make a non-beverage product (bitters) but you use alcohol to make it, you need that permit. Then came City and State Licensing, Federal TTB paperwork, and of course money. Buying a case of the neutral grain alcohol I use is expensive enough and that only makes a few hundred bottles. In all honesty I’m not a rich man, I have a wife and two kids and we live in a small neighborhood up in Roy and I still work 40 hours a week at my other job, but I was committed and willing to do whatever it takes to make my dream a reality. I’m very driven and I think that is one of the most important qualities in being successful.
Gavin: Being how you use all natural flavoring and ingredients, what differences does it make on the drinks and other uses than if you went the more chemical route?
I think there is a big difference in the taste. You can tell if you were to drink artificial vanilla compared to the real stuff. The artificial stuff works, but why would you want it if it’s not the real thing and the real thing is available? My company produces clean fresh bitters. They’re not overpowering, and they’re real. Real ingredients with nothing artificial. I came into making bitters with this philosophy: If you can’t make it work without using artificial flavorings or colorings, than the flavor isn’t worth making.
Gavin: Do you have much of an opportunity to mess around with the process and experiment on flavors as you go?
I sure do. I like to spend at least one day a week for a few hours playing with different flavors. Some are horrible, haha! But some defiantly work and are the building blocks to new flavors that we’ll be releasing. I have a few that are all done and ready to go actually so look for them soon!
Gavin: What was it like seeing the word get around as you started selling them to people and businesses?
I remember about a week after I launched the Etsy shop, I got a review on there from a guy I’ve never met from Ohio that said it was “My favorite bitters I’ve had so far. Makes a great old-fashioned and I can’t wait to try it in more cocktails.” I had the biggest smile on my face! I remember thinking “so my friends and family weren’t lying to me! This can work!” It’s a really good feeling. I actually save every review I get both on Etsy and on our Instagram account in a folder just to look at every now and again to keep the fire going.
Gavin: Aside from your own Etsy shop, are there any plans to work with local companies to sell them in retail?
Sugar House Distillery in Salt Lake were my first retailers. Not only do they sell my bitters, but they distill their own vodka, rum and whiskey, which is something a lot of other companies in the spirits industry can’t say. They’re a great group of guys and I know I’m going off subject but if you haven’t stopped in to their distillery its worth a tour. The Boozetique, Liberty Heights Fresh, and Caputo’s Market also retail our bitters. There is also a distribution company I’m working with and other retail vendors in the works, but I’ll keep those to myself until things are finalized.
Gavin: Do you have anything special in the works for different flavors down the road?
I do, actually. I’m looking to launch two new flavors soon, I hope I’m not speaking prematurely but a citrus and a coffee bitters are ready for production in the next month or so. Other than that, Sugar House Distillery has given us a 10 gallon whiskey soaked barrel to make a new limited release Spiced Orange barrel aged bitters. I’ll be tweaking the original spiced orange recipe buy taking out and adding in a few ingredients, but the most exciting thing is we’ll be caramelizing the orange peels before infusion and then aging the finished bitters in the barrel for a few months. I’m hoping to release this limited batch in the fall of 2015. Things may change, but the concept is that each bottle will be bottled in two-ounce bottles with a special label.
Gavin: What can we expect from you and Beehive Bitters Co. over the rest of 2015?
My main goal is to establish our brand as a quality small-batch bitters company. Among a few other goals, my main ones are to establish distribution throughout the U.S. and release two other bitter flavors that will here to stay, as well as release the limited batch in the fall.