You’ve probably heard of bitters before, but many people are not familiar with their purpose. We decided to do a Q&A with Sara Lund of Honest John Bitters, one of Harmons vendor partners, to get more information about this mysterious sounding substance, and its uses. Welcome, Sara!
Q. For those who aren’t in the know, can you give us a description of what bitters are, and how they are used?
Bitters were originally developed by apothecaries, herbalists, and healers for the curative or preventative properties presumed to be present in the ingredients. Bitters became a staple of early pharmacists’ and physicians’ medical cabinets. By adding herbs, citrus peels, roots, and other natural ingredients to alcohol distillates, they steeped the various ingredients for days or months, resulting in potent plant extracts that eventually became known collectively as bitters. Bitter notes, while evolutionarily conditioned to be a warning signal to the human palate to recognize non-edible plants, were also prized for their flavor-balancing properties. Bitter elements stimulate the salivary glands and encourage healthful digestion. In centuries past, various liquors were also prescribed for medicinal purposes, so chemists and physicians would also recommend adding a few drops of Bitters to counteract various maladies. And thus, the earliest cocktails were made.
Q. How did you become interested in bitters? What made you decide to start your own company?
I started Honest John Bitters Co. in 2016, highlighting original recipes developed in collaboration with bartenders and chefs at my downtown cocktail bar and restaurant Bodega and The Rest. Driven by desire to make flavorful high-quality products with organic ingredients, we had started producing our own bitters to support our bar programs. After our launch event, when we received local and national interest, the company quickly expanded to also include local bitters’ education classes, wholesale distribution to craft cocktail bars, and selected stockists like Harmons.
Q. What is the origin of your name, Honest John Bitters?
The branding and early concept development of Honest John Bitters was designed to evoke times past, when bitters were mysterious curatives peddled by alchemists, physicians, and even infamous traveling “snake oil” salesmen who may have been crossing their fingers behind their backs
when they touted the “cure-all powers” of Bitters to gullible “Honest Johns.” Actual bitters manufacturers advertising from the 19th century inspired the label, and I hired a dear friend and writer/cocktail historian, Darby Doyle, to compose all of the brands’ storytelling and copywriting to help combine the history of bitters and the many uses of the product in modern day.
Q. What is a way you can use bitters than people wouldn’t think of?
Think of bitters as a liquid spice A well-balanced, flavor-packed addition to cocktails and hot or cold beverages like coﬀee and tea. A dash or two of bitters added to mineral water or club soda turns basic hydration into a treat. Bitters are also a delicious addition to cooking, especially baked goods, frostings, and custards. We always include non-alcoholic beverage recipes on our website, as well as cooking and baking recipes.
Q. What makes the bitters you make stand out from those made by other companies?
Honest John Bitters are always made with a pure spirits-based, glycerin-free recipe. We source all of our organic plant materials from the Mountain West region. We use no artificial colorings and allow each batch to resemble the colors of the natural ingredients in each recipe. In addition to using pure neutral grain spirit, we also oﬀer four flavors in which we use bourbon and rye for the extraction process and foundation. Our black walnut, coﬀee + cherry, and chocolate are all made with a bourbon base. Our aromatic is made with a rye base. We take great pride in the fact that we bottle all of our bitters in clear bottles to show the clarity of the product, and to allow the customer to see the beautiful, natural earthy tones that are created by the herbs, peels, and spices.
Q. What is the one thing you are most proud of saying you achieved with your company?
Aside from the fact that during the mandatory COVID-19 closures of 2020, when the bar and restaurant were shuttered for seven months, Honest John Bitters not only kept me busy and my mind occupied, but its success literally saved Bodega and The Rest, and every staﬀ member’s job. I’m so proud to see our products on the shelves of Harmons stores, and to have had the opportunity to develop the relationships with not only each individual store buyer, but also the Cooking Schools and the leadership of the Harmons organization. I think 2021 is already oﬀ to a great start, and we are excited to improve existing products, as well as continue to expand our product assortment.
Sara Lund, owner of Honest John Bitters
Sara Lund, pictured here with her “other half,” Scott, started Honest John Bitters Co. in 2016, highlighting original recipes developed in collaboration with bartenders and chefs at her downtown cocktail bar and restaurant Bodega and The Rest. Driven by desire to make flavorful high-quality products with organic ingredients they started producing their own bitters to support their bar programs. After receiving both local and national interest at their launch event, they expanded to providing local bitters education classes, wholesale distribution, and store placement with selected stockists.