February 14th, 2013
As Hawaii's cocktail culture continues to grow, some of our local food and beverage industry stars are stepping out and risking their necks — and bank accounts — to provide customers with new and exciting opportunities to learn and expand their palates.
'Books & Bitters'
With Kyle Reutner of Hawaii Bitters Co.
» Where: R&D, 691 Auahi St.
» When: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17
» Cost: $35 (plus $1.87 fee), includes Hawaii Bitters Co. gift pack; click here to buy tickets
» Info: www.hawaiibitters.com
Take Dave Newman, for instance, who opened Pint & Jigger in 2012. Or Troy Terorutua of REAL a Gastropub, who offers some seriously awesome food to go with one of the largest beer selections available in Hawaii — and won a Honolulu Star-Advertiser 'Ilima Award last year for his efforts.
And now, here comes Kyle Reutner, who may not be opening a traditional brick-and-mortar watering hole or the latest and greatest mobile food operation — although he has run a successful mobile bar operation, Imbibe Hawaii, with fellow bartender Maria Burke for some time.
Instead, the mixologist with a chemistry background is focused on creating a new line of bitters, an alcoholic seasoning of sorts used to enhance cocktails via a mix of aromatic roots, herbs, fruit and other ingredients. Some bitters brands, like Angostura from Trinidad and Tobago, Fee Brothers from New York and Peychaud's from Kentucky, have been in production since before Prohibition in the 1920's and 1930's.
Hawaii Bitters Co. is the result of a partnership between Reutner, a Colorado native who got his start behind the bar with Christian Self at thirtyninehotel, and part-time Hawaii resident Mike Prasad, a Los Angeles-based tech entrepreneur who handles marketing and other business operations for the new company.
"I'm in charge of the juice and he's in charge of the stuff I'm not good at," joked Reutner last month as he worked on bottling the first batch of bitters to be distributed to backers from online crowd funding site Kickstarter.com. Last summer, the two raised $20,347 from more than 400 backers, which was used to develop a core lineup of flavored bitters and complete an initial product run.
Reutner said once they had the money in hand last October, he's spent most of his time creating test batches and experimenting with different flavor combinations when he's not pouring drinks at Pint & Jigger or Murphy's Bar and Grill. Some newer bitters producers have introduced products using more exotic ingredients; Reutner said he expects Hawaii Bitters Co. to fill a niche for customers interested in the natural flavors of our islands.
"As far as flavor goes, almost everything is locally sourced and all-organic," he said. "All of the roots are organic — they're just not local. I'm doing the best I can because of who I am and what I believe in. I just want them to stand on their own."
Hawaii Bitters Co. is bottling three varieties of bitters to start: Lilikoi, Chocolate Ginger and Kona Coffee Macadamia Nut. Five-ounce bottles will be available for purchase via the company's website, which also lists a number of other flavors set to be introduced in the coming months. In total, Reutner said he expects to offer seven different core flavors, with additional "one-off" flavors available as well.
While not made entirely of ingredients found in Hawaii, the manufacturing process is done completely by hand in a nondescript building in Kalihi that's home to Island Distillers.
There, Dave Flinstone makes Hawaiian and Hawaiian Coconut vodka along with Hawaiian Moonshine, which is described as "the modern version of a traditional 18th century okolehao, the original Hawaiian liquor," using a single pot still.
A slightly different formulation of the okolehao, made with ti root and cane sugar, is what's used to make Hawaii Bitters Co. products.
"It's neutral sugar cane spirit … just to a different specification," explained Reutner. "It's the same distillation process, just to where I want it to be.
"Bottom line though? This whole process would have been way more difficult without Dave's help. I owe him huge."
With a built-in following already in place — thanks to the Kickstarter campaign and Reutner's involvement with the local bartending community and Hawaii chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild — Hawaii Bitters Co. is already looking at turning a profit in 2013, according to Reutner.
And while most people are unfamiliar with the role bitters play in making a drink, or that they can also be used in cooking, or that the time and effort needed to produce quality bitters is more of an art than a science, he's confident there will be a market for these new flavors.
"It would be really cool for this to turn into a real, full-time gig," said Reutner. "That being said, I really, really love bartending. I don't just do that to make money."
For those interested in learning more about bitters and their role in making quality handcrafted cocktails, Reutner is hosting a special workshop as part of this year's inaugural Hawaii Cocktail Week. From Saturday, Feb. 16, through Saturday, Feb. 23, a number of guest bartenders will be on Oahu to participate in a variety of events, including special pairing dinners and tasting room sessions with featured liquors. A number of free events are also scheduled; check the Hawaii Cocktail Week website for more info.
Reutner's Sunday workshop, "Books & Bitters," will guide newbies on a trek into unchartered territory and "focus on the craft of bitters making" as well as how to use Hawaii Bitters Co. products in drinks both at home or while out with friends.
Included in the cost of the workshop is a Hawaii Bitters Co. gift pack worth $35; click this link to buy tickets online.
Jason Genegabus is Entertainment Editor/Online at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and has covered the local nightlife, music, bar and entertainment scenes since 2001. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter and Google+.