Hella Company

You Oughta Know Bitter…

That’s the tagline of a fascinating company that has entered the bitters business and is claiming a stake in the cocktail culture and beyond.

The Hella lineup.
The Hella lineup.

It is also the story of three friends with entrepreneurial skills and passion who, with the help of Kickstarter, started a business and making quite an impact. Just like the bitters they make, their diverse and eclectic backgrounds merge very nicely to create an outstanding product and a company with vision and values.

I met the team at the suggestion of my friend Sean O’Rourke from Fedway Distributors in NJ. Sean is the Craft Category Manager, a rising star at Fedway, and someone with first hand knowledge about craft and startup ventures. With his recommendation in mind I set off to Long Island City, Queens to meet the owners.

The Team

Jomaree Pinkard is the CEO, a Wharton MBA with over a decade of experience in the consulting and financial industries. Eddie Simeon is the CMO, a senior digital strategist and former Adweek executive with experience in commercial media development. Tobin Ludwig is the COO and an F&B industry veteran, a James Beard House featured craft bartender, educator and beverage consultant.

Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin
Jomaree, Eddie, and Tobin

The partners came together at various times in their lives as friends and business associates. Among other things, they shared a passion for food and do-it-yourself culinary efforts, including making their own bitters as a hobby. So, they made a batch of bitters, and friends and family loved it. So much so, that to meet the demand they went on Kickstarter and raised two and a half times what they had wanted.

Bitters

Let’s spend a minute on the topic of bitters. Here is a succinct history.

To cut to the chase, as they say, bitters have been around for centuries and ultimately found their way to become various types of medicines derived from plants or other types of natural resources. By the 19th century, the British and Colonial Americans added bitters to Canary wine (wines from the Canary Islands). From there they went to cocktails and to oblivion, thanks to prohibition. By the beginning of this century, they were back with a vengeance, and have become the backbone of most, if not all, cocktails. (See an earlier post on Gary Regan and his Orange Bitters No. 6.)

Why do I admire these guys?

Simple. They’re smart business people who understand that, in the craft world, “build it and they will come” just doesn’t work. They understand growth constraints, have developed business plans and strategies, and are outstanding marketers.

Bitters are a slow usage category with only a few drops used in a cocktail. My bottles of Angostura and Regan’s No. 6 Orange Bitters have been in my pantry since Methuselah was a teenager. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist an old expression.) So if you’re manufacturing bitters, there are limits to your growth and expansion.

What the Hella guys have done is produce a line of bitters—orange, aromatic, ginger, smoked chili, and ginger lemon. In addition, they recognize that bitters are of appeal to home chefs and do-it-yourselfers so they produced a Craft Your Own Bitters Kit. (I’m a proud owner of one of those kits and as you read this, my first batch of grapefruit bitters is aging.)

Other Products

Let’s start with cocktail syrups. These are also syrups used by many home bar chefs designed to help make cocktail mixing at home effortless and fun. These syrups make it easy to produce drinks at home that taste on par with what you will find in fancy cocktail bars. Hella makes three—hibiscus, cola, and tonic.

Here’s how they describe it:

Hella Cocktail Syrups are different than what you’re used to, and that’s just the way we like it. We wanted them to embody everything that Hella stands for so we made sure to use only the best all-natural ingredients, combined with just the right amount of cane sugar. Our 72-hour infusion of bark, fruit peel, and whole spices result in not too sweet and perfectly bitter syrups that make an excellent dry soda or a light and refreshing mixed drink or cocktail.

Another line of products includes Hella cocktail mixers—five in all, including Bloody Mary, Margarita, and Moscow Mule. I haven’t had a chance to try them as yet, but friends who have rave about them and think they’re among the best on the market.

Distribution and Sales

Here’s the part I really love.

While bitters generally contain high levels of alcohol, often 90°, in many states they are not considered an alcohol product, so you can buy them in grocery stores. They are also available in liquor stores. So distributors and retailers in both worlds are available to them.

In fact, check out the list ’A’ of retailers (in NYC): Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods, Chelsea Market, Whisk, Astor Wine and Spirits, to name a few.

Where to next?

They are not saying, so I feel free to speculate and perhaps offer an idea or two.

Based on the quality of their products, the commitment to excellence, and their entrepreneurial savvy, I hope they move from the margins of the booze business into the mainstream. My instinct tells me that if they were to add spirits to their mixers, the result would be a top shelf pre-mixed cocktail. Or, if they applied their creativity, they might come up with a proprietary spirits product that would make for an excellent cocktail.

But then again, these folks are smart. They know that focus is the key ingredient for an entrepreneurial success.

Incidentally, the name Hella comes from a popular expression—hella—as in a slang term meaning “very” or “extreme.”  So Hella products can mean hella awesome or hella great. In old school slang, we used the term “helluva,” as in they make “helluva bitters.” Either way the term is appropriate for their products.

By the way, I’ll let you know how my do-it-yourself bitters product turns out. Check the Booze Business Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/boozebusiness/

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Beyond Mezcal: Spirits from Mexico

Whiskey, Gin, and More

When you think of Mexico and booze, you think of tequila, beer and mezcal. But a few weeks ago I attended a tasting at Astor Center and learned about some outstanding mezcal but also about a mezcal based gin and whiskey distilled from ancestral (heirloom) corn.

The company conducting the tastings was Pierdre Almas from Oaxaca. The company, the people running it, and their business model are most unusual.

 

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The people

I was invited to the tasting by Yira Vallejo, who I’ve known for many years. Yira’s title, Director of Social Projects, hints at the uniqueness of Pierdre Almas, but it doesn’t really capture her capabilities and expertise. I first met her when she was sales director at Genesis Beverage Brands.

Yira and jonathan

Genesis is the wholesale division of MHW, Ltd. and serves as the “incubator” and test marketer for fledgling brands in the NY and NJ markets. While Genesis gets a mixed reaction as to effectiveness, I never met anyone who didn’t think Yira was top of the game and the shining light of the operation.

In 2014, she went home to Oaxaca, met Jonathan Barbieri, the founder of Pierdre Almas, and joined the company. Jonathan is an American who moved to Oaxaca some thirty years ago, set aside his career as an artist and founded the company and the Palenque in which the company operates. (A Palenque is the physical space where the mezcal is produced with the machinery, animals, people, and equipment.)

Jonathan is passionate about mezcal. In an interview with LatinLover blog, he had this to say:

Mezcal isn’t only something you drink: it’s a spiritual drink. It is a spirit and it means culture. Mezcal takes you on a journey where you get to know the families that have been producing it for centuries. It gives people unity and a sense of belonging because it is present in all of life’s events. Tradition isn’t something you get out of a drawer every year, traditions are lived every day.

By the way, the name Pierdre Almas, literarily means “one who loses your soul.” It’s the name of a cantina where the cantinero (barman) was known as Pierdre Almas. The cantina was so unusual that Jonathan adopted the name for his company.

Pierdre Almas

Yira and Jonathan describe their company (and its mission) as a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company. That’s not marketing hype, they mean it. The company is committed to the families and villages that produce their mezcal and partner with them to assist in local sports, health and wellness, and education. As to their environmental responsibility, they are actively involved in a wild agave reforestation campaign, among other efforts.

From a business standpoint, Pierdre Almas is committed to innovation. It is the first brand to designate the agave species on its label; to bottle mezcal at its original proof; to produce the first gin in the world called Mezcal Gin, gin distilled with 9 botanicals on a base of mezcal.

Oh, and let’s not forget about that whiskey.

The Mezcal Products

Let’s start with their mezcals. In case you’re wondering about the differences between mezcal and tequila, here is a simple explanation. You’ll also find a 60 second video from Liquor.com here.

In brief, there is one sentence commonly referred to, that describes the difference: “All tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila.”

I tasted two of Pierdre Almas’ offerings. One was a 2015 Espadín from San Luis del Río, Oaxaca. Espadin is the dominant agave in 20160523-NYC_Whiskey-8Oaxaca. It grows everywhere, is pest resistant and has a high yield. I found this to be smooth, somewhat sweet, and with a strong floral aroma.

The other Mezcal was a 2015 Wild Tepextate, also from Oaxaca. I thought this was more intense but definitely a pleasant sipping mezcal.

Gin

The product is called Pierde Almas +9 Botanicals, Mezcal Gin. First created in 2012. Here’s how Jonathan describes the process:

I began by macerating the nine legendary gin botanicals in a very good double-distilled Espadín Mezcal, and then rectified it (a third distillation). The result was a “fusionary first”. A true meeting of flavors…

I found it to be a most pleasant variation of gin. Men’s Journal summed it up nicely: “This is the rare gin you’ll first want to sip neat to appreciate.”

Whiskey

Their newest innovation is Ancestral Corn Whiskey from Mexico. It is made the old fashioned way in a small copper pot alembic and double distilled. The mash bill includes a selection of red, black, and yellow heirloom corn.

There are 60 distinct varieties of corn native to Mexico and more than half of them originated and still thrive in the state of Oaxaca. Many of the varieties date back over 6,000 years.

About now you’re thinking—Mexican Moonshine? Well, yes and no.

Here’s how Liquor.com described the taste:

…the Ancestral Corn Whiskey has a remarkably savory cornbread-like aroma and flavor, plus a subtle smokiness reminiscent of mezcal. In other words, it’s unlike most American-made corn whiskies on the market right now.

I totally agree.

There’s another facet to this story.

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It involves the fact that Pierdre Almas is a socially, culturally and environmentally responsible company. So, the whiskey project is meant to support small farmers and create an economic incentive to continue to grow their heritage corn. In their own words:

The state of Oaxaca—known as one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the hemisphere—stands on the front-line of resistance against monocropping and the industrialization of corn. The Ancestral Corn Whiskey project is intended to create an economic stimulus that will drive future cultivation of native corn in Mexico.

They also see it as a way to keep GMO corn out of Mexico.

At present, there is a limited supply of the whiskey and it’s in limited distribution in the test markets of Chicago, New York, and WHiskey 375 nuevaSan Francisco. Here are some of the places in NYC in which you can find it: Astor Wines, Toloache, Tacuba, and Leyenda

Jonathan is also expecting to set some aside for aging but, as you can imagine, it will be some time before that’s available.

At roughly $50 for a 375ml, it isn’t cheap. But, then again, worthwhile projects seldom are.

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Malfy Gin

Your views on gin are about to change

I’ve always found gin to be a fascinating category. While some will tell you that gin is really flavored vodka, don’t Malfy_Bottle_Fbelieve them. From my standpoint, flavored vodkas are based on added flavorings that, while not artificial, often taste that way to me. Gin is made with juniper berries, of course, and other botanicals as part of the distillation process. Some gins fall into the citrus camp but most use exotic spices and herbs.

What also make the category fascinating to me are the attitudes and opinions drinkers have about gin. Here are the five things I’ve heard most about gin.

1. Not everybody likes gin

Many of the consumers I’ve spoken with over the years seem to have a love or hate relationship with gin. The haters will tell you that they dislike the taste and blame it on the juniper and, as some have told me, those awful botanicals.

2. There are vodka drinkers and there are gin drinkers and neither the twain shall meet

3. The origin of gin is widely and strongly believed to have originated in the Netherlands with Great Britain playing the major role in its growth over the years.

4. Gin is to be either consumed in a cocktail or with tonic, and never on the rocks.

5. Gin as a category is not growing.

So, with these beliefs and opinions in mind, let’s take a close look at Malfy Gin.

An Unusual Gin from Italy

14770953_lIf you’ve ever been to the Amalfi Coast of Italy, you know about the beautiful scenery, the great food and those amazing lemons. Those lemons are at the core of Malfy Gin.

The Vergnano family distills Malfy Gin in a family run distillery in Moncalieri, Italy.  Although the spirit is infused with Italian juniper and five other botanicals it is the infusion of the famous Italian Coastal lemons, that give Malfy Gin it’s unusually fresh and zesty aroma. It clearly is not a traditional, juniper-heavy gin.

The gin is imported by Biggar & Leith (more about them in a moment) and is the “first luxury Italian gin” in the 12477426_lUSA. In fact the product carries the GQDI™ designation, which stands for Gin di Qualità Distillato in Italia.

Not only is the gin from Italy, but according to Biggar & Leith, “We were researching the history of gin – and there it was, staring us in the face; gin was invented in Italy – long before the British or Dutch.” I have found other references to Italy as the birthplace of gin, including here and here.

In addition, I emailed Gary (gaz) Regan (The Bartender’s Gin Compendium, The Joy of Mixology, The Negroni and more) and asked him about the origin of gin and Italy. He tends to agree and points out that the distillation of beverage alcohol began at the University of Salerno, Italy, circa 1050 – 1150, and juniper grows in abundance in that area. Since monks/students were seeking the “water of life,” it makes sense that they would add herbs to their distillates, so a juniper infused spirit would also makes sense.

The Product

Malfy Enjoying the ViewI found Malfy Gin Con Limone to be delicious, versatile and appealing to both gin drinkers and those who are not regular consumers in that category. I’m partial to Negronis and they refer to the Malfy version as the real Negroni—Italian gin, Italian vermouth and, of course, Campari. The Gin & Tonic was extraordinary with the prominent lemon taste and especially when enhanced by a slice of lemon (Italian, Meyer or California).

I also think that Malfy on the rocks was the most enjoyable way to appreciate the taste. Who says gin is only for cocktails?

Oh, and vodka fans I asked to try Malfy, enjoyed it very much. A crossover product, whereby vodka lovers enjoy gin? What is this world coming to?

About Biggar & Leith

Elwyn picThe company was founded by Elwyn Gladstone, a well-known spirits industry executive, most recently head of marketing at Proximo Spirits, and prior to that head of new brands at William Grant and Sons. Elwyn has been instrumental in the development and launch of such brands as Hendrick’s Gin, Sailor Jerry Rum, Kraken Rum, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey, and a host of others.

Here’s how he describes the company he founded and their first imported brand:

“Biggar & Leith owns a small portfolio of fine spirits from established, family-owned distilleries who are dedicated to innovation and quality. We search the globe for brands whose bottles transmit the personality and stories of the people who make them.”

The name Biggar & Leith comes from his great-great-great-great Grandfather, Thomas Gladstone. He left his home in Biggar, Scotland in 1746 for the port of Leith, near Edinburgh where he apprenticed and then started his own wine and spirits business. (It might also interest you to know that another ancestor of Elwyn’s is William Gladstone, the four time Prime Minister of Great Britain.)

If I know Elwyn, he’s already found the distillery and product that likely will come next.

The Score Card

I said at the outset that Malfy Gin would change your opinions and views about gin, so let’s tally the score.

1. While not everyone likes the taste of gin, I’ve found that gin rejecters, like Malfy. More than they thought they would.

2. The brand appeals to both vodka and gin drinkers.

3. The Dutch and the British may have made gin and genever famous, but I believe its origin was in Italy.

4. You can drink your gin any way you like, but I’ll have it on the rocks with a slice of citrus (usually grapefruit).

5. The gin category has two major components—domestic and imported. The former is declining. Across the board, small batch, crafted gins, both US made and imported are the growth engines for the category.

* * *

Malfy Gin sells for roughly $30 for a 750ML. It has only recently gone on sale so you might not be able to find it right away. But, trust me, you’re gonna love it.

I think my friend Elwyn Gladstone has a winner on his hands.

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