Jason Rowan needs to buy a label maker.
The brown glass medicine bottles lined up in a gourmet shop in the Essex Street Market bear labels produced on his home printer. But since Rowan and business partner Mark Buettler launched Brooklyn Hemispherical Bitters eight weeks ago, the pair can’t keep up that way any more.
Demand for their bitters—concoctions born of macerating fruits, herbs and spices in alcohol and other bittering agents, which are then used to flavor cocktails—has outpaced their home-office equipment, and they are ramping up production and packaging to meet it.
“We’re at that awkward phase, where you’ve dipped your toe in, and then all of the sudden you’re getting all this feedback, and people wanting more,” Rowan said.
The pair sold 75 bottles of their potions in December, their first month; as of the end of January, sales and pre-orders topped 250.
Across the city, purveyors of cocktails increasingly are embracing the use of local, seasonal and organic ingredients that have become the hallmark of New York’s artisan food movement. Rowan and Buettler have dived head-first into the supply side of that trend. It started about a year ago, when, for fun, they started hand-crafting bitters in flavors like rhubarb, Meyer lemon and sriracha, buying fresh herbs, berries and other ingredients from grocers in Essex Street Market and Chelsea Market. They started giving sample batches to bartender friends and experimenting with recipes for new cocktails, such as a rhubarb Bellini.
Enter Brooke Little, who runs Formaggio Essex, a tiny artisan cheese shop in the Essex Street Market that also stocks a sampling of other gourmet foods, such as ginger beer from England and taralli from Italy.
Like many good ideas, the plan to bottle, market and sell the bitters was born in a bar. Rowan met Little one Friday night at Trophy Bar in Williamsburg, where she was partaking in another one of his concoctions, a puree of fresh mint, cilantro, jalapeno peppers and pineapple juice called verdita, which is consumed as a shot, partnered with a shot of tequila.
“That led to us doing a verdita and cheese pairing together,” Rowan said. “And eventually, Brooke insisted that I had to bottle our bitters, and she would sell them in her shop.”
Rowan, who lives in Chelsea and works as a freelance journalist, and Buettler, who lives in Brooklyn and does wine and spirits consulting, both have long experience in the bar business. Rowan does cocktail catering and writes a cocktail blog, while Buettler has tended bar in various venues, including being the head bartender at Dressler in Brooklyn.
When developing their product line, Rowan and Buettler chose flavors that were not already available from other gourmet bitters producers, and planned to vary them seasonally according to produce availability. Right now, for example, a batch of black mission fig is brewing.
“We started making them for bartenders, but these are also ‘gateway bitters’ for curious home cocktail drinkers with a foodie bent,” Rowan says. “You can take standard cocktail and just turn it on its ear a little bit. For example, how about a note of Meyer lemon in a martini? That’s what these are for.”
They’ve used their network of friends—including the crew at White Star, in the Lower East Side—as both guinea pigs and ambassadors, and word has spread.
As Rowan talked about his business in a booth at the Essex Street Market last week, one customer was en route there from Philadelphia to pick up a batch of Meyer lemon bitters from Formaggio Essex, Brooklyn Bitters’ only retail outlet so far. Four-ounce bottles sell for $12.95 there. Future plans include additional retail outlets, including White Star, where they are served in a variety of drinks already.
“All the bars we’ve given them to are coming back asking for more,” says Rowan. “We can’t keep up with demand.”