Hella Bitters

Old-fashioned infusions make a home-bar splash.

Old-fashioned infusions make a home-bar splash.

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LONG ISLAND CITY—On a recent Tuesday I exited the 7 train, walked under the expressway, climbed a metal footbridge over train tracks, and took a left onto an industrial stretch of Borden Avenue. I was not seeking out stimulants or companionship.

I was looking for a guy who makes cocktail bitters.

I found my man in a loading dock across the street from Fresh Direct’s warehouse. Jomaree Pinkard was retrieving a pallet of gentian root and other spices to take to the small kitchen space that is the production base and creative lab for a his two-year-old artisanal bitters company, Hella Bitter.

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Founded in Williamsburg, Hella specializes in small-batch cocktail bitters, intensely flavorful infusions added by the drop to many mixed drinks. It arose from the vision and sweat of three guys who went pro after a successful Kickstarter campaign, graduating from 5-gallon plastic tubs to 30-gallon batches. When they decamped to Queens, they invested in two massive tanks, each with a 550-gallon capacity.

But instead of banging down the door of every bearded bartender in town, Hella is focused on the home cocktail tinkerer. “We want to make bitters for people who don’t know what bitters are,” says cofounder Tobin Ludwig.

Pinkard—business consultant by day and Hella’s business strategist, social media maven and O&D guy in the rest of his waking hours—birthed the biz with Ludwig (a bartender for Fedora and chief of sourcing and production for Hella) and Eddie Simeon (who works days as a project manager at Martha Stewart Living and has a keen eye for design). They lease production space from Organic Food Incubator, a Queens company that encourages food entrepreneurship. Says Ludwig of the windowless workspace, “This is the clubhouse we always wanted.”

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Here they infuse two flavors: Citrus—infused with lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit and, when seasonal, blood orange and Meyer lemon—and Aromatic, heady with cinnamon, star anise, clove, caraway, black peppercorn and rose hips. The bittering agents are gentian and wormwood. Both styles start with 160-proof ethyl alcohol.

Ludwig uses a bouquet-garni technique for the maceration: Roots and spices go, individually, into mesh bags, allowing him to remove one botanical sooner than others. Lime peels might stay in the tank longer than, say, ginger. Finding the magic formula took months of tinkering and tasting. Tobin now comes in several days a week tasting batches, stirring the bitters with a giant paddle and adjusting flavors based on taste.

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Today the tiny-but-mighty bottles are sold at places like Astor Wine & Spirits, Whisk, the Meadow, West Elm Market and Whole Foods. Tanqueray gin recently featured the Hella founders in a short video, print ads and billboards. “I see myself everywhere,” Simeon laughs. “I feel like John Malkovich.”

But their ultimate reward is seeing another face altogether: the “wow” expression when a potential customer smells the warm spices for the first time. Says Tobin, “it’s a moment of victory.”

Get the recipe for the red jacket old fashioned here.

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