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The Sweet Business of Bitters

genevieve brazelton

Genevieve Brazelton’s business may be called The Bitter Housewife, but she’s anything but bitter about the success of the company she runs with her husband. She made bitters at home to have something to write about on her blog, and the bitters were better than she ever expected. Six iterations later, she had the perfect version for her favorite drink, an Old Fashioned. Her husband asked her if she thought they could start a business selling bitters and she answered, “I have no idea, but we could call it The Bitter Housewife.” The rest is history.

The Portland, OR-based business started selling to the public in 2014. After a few years, customer feedback, along with the rise of Dry January and other diets that eschew alcohol, led them to launch their canned alcohol-free drinks, Bitters & Soda in September 2019. Now they offer seven flavors of cocktail flavors and four varieties of pre-mixed Bitters & Soda for nationwide shipping. We talked with Brazelton about her development process, the response to the products and her favorite uses for bitters.

bitters with ingredients

Did you have any food or entrepreneurial experience before you started?

Yes to both. Not only did I grow up in restaurants because of my parents, but I’ve also had just about every job there is from prep cook to server to bar manager. I love food and drink, especially the way it brings people together. But I never saw restaurants as my lifelong career so I was always looking for something else. I have an education in writing and publishing so I was drawn to marketing and PR for food and drink based businesses. Much of that was freelance work with small agencies.

What was R&D like for both types of product?

Lots of mason jar tests. For the cocktail bitters, I start with an idea of the main flavor and then do research on flavor combinations. I come up with roughly five recipes to test at a 1-liter scale. When those first batches are finished, a month later I taste them all and make notes on what’s working and what’s not. Then I adjust the recipes accordingly. I usually make three or four rounds of tests before I come up with a final recipe, which takes about 6 months. Then we make an initial batch at scale and taste again to make sure it scaled up correctly and still tastes the way we want. If it does, we release it. If not, we go back and try again until it works.

For the Bitters & Soda, there’s less back and forth. However, the first flavor, Aromatic Bitters & Soda, required us to develop an entirely new process to make the base bitters without alcohol. That took a lot of trial and error in the kitchen. Once we figured out the process, each flavor is much quicker to figure out. But it’s still different than the cocktail bitters because these are made without alcohol, and are made to be consumed straight from the can, not mixed into a drink, so they need to be balanced differently.

I do all the R&D myself. We don’t work with any flavor houses or labs. Each recipe could be scaled down and made in someone’s kitchen, and all our ingredients can be found at your local herb shop or spice store. That integrity is super important to us.

How did people respond?

The initial response to both phases of our company has been great. Our cocktail bitters come in an eye-catching bottle that gets people interested. Folks come back to buy more because they’re easy to use and make people feel comfortable mixing all sorts of drinks. The Bitters & Soda is really different from most other options on the market right now. I’ve had people literally say, “Thank you for making this!” when they first taste it because they haven’t found anything else with lots of flavor –– but absolutely no sweetness –– and made from all real ingredients.

bitters and soda cans

Do you have a personal favorite flavor or use?

Right now, I’m pretty smitten with our Cardamom Bitters & Soda, but that might just be because it’s the new one. I drink it straight from the can. I’m also really fond of making a spritz with sweet vermouth and our Orange Bitters & Soda. I’m looking forward to more of those as we move into spring.

What’s your advice for people who are nervous about making cocktails at home?

Start simple and go with what you like. If gin and tonic is your thing, try adding 3 or 4 dashes of Grapefruit or Lime Coriander Bitters. Then add a teaspoon or two of flavored simple syrup like rosemary or thyme. I am a huge proponent of no more than four or five ingredient cocktails. Even an Old Fashioned can be endlessly played around with if you think of in its simplest terms: 1.5 oz spirit, 1 teaspoon simple syrup (flavored or not), and bitters. You can make it with gin, tequila, bourbon, whatever makes you happy.

Most importantly it should taste good to you. If it’s not sweet enough add more sugar. If it’s too sweet, add more bitters. If it doesn’t taste good the first time, that doesn’t mean you can’t make drinks. It just means you got the proportions wrong for your taste.

Do you have any favorite non-beverage uses for your bitters?

Oh yes, if you start to think of them like extracts, the kitchen opens up. You can use them in all sorts of baking –– a teaspoon or two in sugar cookies or shortbread, tossed with fruit in a pie or cobbler, to flavor whipped cream, frosting or even honey. You can also use them in marinades for meat or veggies and even a few dashes in a salad dressing.

Why did you decide to offer a subscription for the Bitters & Soda?

We thought that a lot of people would drink it if they were trying to drink less or stop drinking altogether. I think the best way to change a habit is to set yourself up for success. So if you always have something on hand that you like to drink and doesn’t have alcohol, it makes it really easy to make the choice to not have alcohol. We’re finding that most people don’t consume it every day like diet soda or sparkling water, but may drink one or two, a few times a week. A subscription means it’s always there.

Anything else you want to share about your business?

We’re finding that more and more people are living a lifestyle with a flexible approach to alcohol. Sometimes they drink it and sometimes they don’t. But many of those folks are looking for great tasting beverages no matter what their choice, and we make products that fit along the whole spectrum.


Sarah Strong

Sarah Strong is a New York City based writer who holds a master’s degree in food studies and is obsessed with television. You can follow her on Instagram at @feedsstrong to see where she eats, what she cooks and what sneakers she’s wearing.


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