Around 10 years ago, after a career in the hospitality industry, Genevieve Brazelton started a lifestyle and entertainment blog and needed some topics to write about. To get the juices flowing, she took up crafting cocktail bitters—the enigmatic libations in miniature bottles that tend to play a supporting role in drinks—with the equipment in her own kitchen.
“That spurred my husband Dan to say, ‘Can we make a business out of selling bitters?’” Brazelton says. “My quippy response was, ‘I have no idea, but we should call it The Bitter Housewife.’” A quick search online not only verified the idea’s originality but proved to be the spark for a venture that is still growing today.
But what exactly are bitters? The precise provenance of these tinctures—highly concentrated liquor made with herbs, spices, and other plant ingredients—is obscured in the annals of history (think hieroglyphs and medieval castles), though they seem to have hit the mainstream in the early 19th century. They’re never meant to be consumed outright, and because they’re utilized by the drop, they can be sold at a supermarket; essentially, you could never drink enough of it to be affected by the alcohol content.
As Brazelton’s interest in the recipes and traditions of cocktail bitters caught fire, she ran into the all-too-common resistance of how things had always been done. “Everybody was familiar with Angostura and Fee Brothers, but there weren’t a lot of craft producers,” she explains. “But what was there, was [made by] ex-bartenders, all men, and there was this real shroud of mystery around these elixirs. They always had sepia-toned labels, and ingredients were secret. That just didn’t resonate with me. Cocktails should be fun, they should be accessible, and they should be easy. So, I saw there was a hole for that.”
By 2014, The Bitter Housewife was in stores around Portland, mainly New Seasons and Market of Choice. Their wares have since expanded to seven flavors, including cardamom, lime coriander, and hazelnut. After a particularly successful Christmas gift-a-thon, where they sold out twice, Brazelton was as confident as ever of the market’s desire for their products.
She also knew it was time to diversify. Feedback gathered at various events revealed that many customers were mixing their bitters into soda water. Says Brazelton, “I had some women tell me: ‘I always have a bottle in my purse, so I can make bitters and soda wherever I go.’” Others kept a supply on their desk at work for an afternoon pick-me-up.
“To be on grocery store shelves, we had to be below a half of a percent of alcohol, so I had to start from scratch and come up with a new formula,” she says. “How do I get more flavor and less alcohol?” Talking to local distillers and conducting extensive research, Brazelton began to tinker, experimenting with vacuum stills to develop a proprietary process. The end result? A canned beverage—Bitters & Soda—that is 100% alcohol- and sugar-free, yet packs all of the desired taste.
The Bitter Housewife is also bitterly honest, and Brazelton is quick to say it’s not for everybody. “It also has a really interesting way of growing on you,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of people tell us that the first sip, they were like, ‘This is not my thing; I’m going to throw this out.’ But they drank a bit more, and about halfway through the can, they’re like, ‘No, this is actually really good!’ And some of them now are regular subscribers because they crave it.”
With two Bitters & Soda flavors currently available, Aromatic and Orange, and Grapefruit on the way this summer, The Bitter Housewife is facing the best possible problem. “Right now, we’re actually struggling to keep up with production,” she admits. “We don’t have enough cash flow to have months’ worth of ingredients on hand.” The company is actually in the middle of an equity crowdfunding campaign on StartEngine and is seeking investors to sustain their growth.
The timeliness of this product is not lost on Brazelton, especially as the past year’s lockdown has shined a spotlight on mental health and how cutting back on alcohol can be beneficial. “People are just realizing that they feel better if they don’t have alcohol in their system regularly,” she says. “It’s still a great thing to celebrate and have a couple of drinks, but you don’t need it all the time.”
Like many people, Brazelton found herself consuming more than normal at the onset of the pandemic, but found it made her more sluggish, anxious, and less present. “What I really wanted was not so much the drink, but that ritual of having a beverage that almost requires you to sip it slowly. It felt special,” she says. “For me, the time I craved it most was often at the end of the day while I was making dinner. In the kitchen, it’s that shift: I’m done with work. I’ve closed the computer. Now it’s family time, and I’m slowing down a little bit. I think that Bitters & Soda really fits into that for a lot of people.”
To purchase Bitters & Soda online or use the store locator tool, visit thebitterhousewife.com.