The dark market

17 May, 2016


Then there is Fee Brothers, which ties a rope between tradition (it was founded in the second half of the 19th century) and the innovation of the younger brands. While Angostura has just two varieties (Aromatic Bitters and Orange Bitters) and Peychaud’s just the original recipe, Fee Brothers has diversified to meet the demand of the modern bartender, with 17 flavours.

“I thought the saturation point was a few years ago,” says Fee. “Shows what I know. We shall see. For the most part I have enjoyed seeing some of the imaginative flavours that have come out of the bitters market. Can’t we all just get along?”

Angostura takes a different view on innovation: “The market is becoming very heavily saturated by these countless flavours,” says its spokesperson. “There are multiple options available, all competing for the same space, without much differentiation. What makes one brand of celery bitters different from the other? The lines are becoming blurred. We see this as a distinct market space from our core business.”

But Stephan Berg of the Bitter Truth is happy to share space Stateside, where he says there is still room for more growth for his brand.

Like more of the more recent players to the bitters landscape, the company’s portfolio bulges with new editions. Latest off the line is the new 10-year anniversary range sub-branded Drops & Dashes, which is a root and branch exploration of plants. Arriving this month, the range comes in Roots, Wood, Blossom and Nut flavours, all housed in apothecary-styled mini decanters. Berg wistfully comments that if he had been “in charge of Angostura” he “would have covered line extensions”.

Alongside new flavours (probably Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Teapot and Dandelion & Burdock bitters best sum up the sort of innovation), collaborations with brands and bars are an increasing trend.

Berg, who has teamed up with the Savoy and Havana Club for Essence of Cuba, admits you cannot do too many collaborations and that the synergy has to be right.

Adam Elmegirab agrees. “I’ve been approached by a number of big brands, though it’s primarily through ambassadors who are wishing to make a connect with bartenders in top bars.” Elmegirab has taken up a few offers though, notably with Dead Rabbit for its remake of the historical Orinoco bitters and, most recently, Belvedere vodka for Belvedere bitters. He says he is in R&D with a whisky brand bitters too.

It’s worth noting that cocktail bitters are strikingly absent from the big drinks groups’ portfolios. Try to think of another globally available category in which the likes of Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Beam Suntory Bacardi and Brown-Forman are not chips-high. Of course, Pernod Ricard has dipped its toes. The Jameson spin-off Wild Sloe Berry bitters was made in-house at Midleton (with a little help from bartender Iain Griffiths) and there was the aforementioned Havana Club’s collaboration with the Bitter Truth. But the longevity of these ranges is unclear. Also they are two varying strategies that say more of the autonomy afforded to Pernod’s divisions – Irish Distillers and Havana Club International – than a group-wide bitters strategy.


Down a dress size or two, De Kuyper has recently entered the fray. “Up to now every batch we made has been sold out directly,” says Albert de Heer, marketing director, global brands. “We make them in very small quantities and see them as a nice addition to our portfolio. Our focus has been on the Juniper bitter as it represents a typical Dutch flavour. At this moment we are testing new flavours with bartenders to see if we can do a new one in the near future. Although it is not our focus business it fits very well in our focus on cocktails and spirits.”

But there is still a nagging question about the larger groups – if they are not poised to enter the market, then why not? Elmegirab offers some background: “Bitters, amaro, vermouths are all very similar in their history and usage, and still largely ignored by the conglomerates.” Fee thinks if they tried to jump in now, “it would be too late”. Angostura’s spokesperson adds: “They run the risk of being lost in the crowd without the technical know-how and the ability to differentiate, to create a distinct market space.”

Berg says, despite the lack of statistics available on the size of the opportunity, the large groups “watch the category”. He says they would likely not try to launch their own bitters brand but that it “makes sense to buy” an established brand. How about The Bitter Truth? “No comment” he says, before commenting: “If the price is right you never know.” Ain’t that the truth.

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