BITTERS AND SHRUBS FROM THE HUDSON STANDARD
Interview with Marianne Courville, owner of The Hudson Standard, a small batch company in Hudson, NY, producing handcrafted bitters and shrubs. For listing of shops, online shopping and recipes, see THE HUDSON STANDARD.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED? I have to credit a friend on the west coast who has told me more than once that there's this thing going on with bitters, and I should consider it. Then, I happened to read an article about shrubs. Something clicked, and I really wanted to make shrubs. I realized I could do both shrubs & bitters. But, what's also extremely important for me is that it needs to be about sourcing ingredients locally, too. Shrubs. Bitters. Hudson. My friend already had the name - The Hudson Standard. And I worked on the design and putting the business together.
WHAT ARE SHRUBS? Shrubs are syrups. In colonial times, shrub syrups were a traditional, early American way of preserving fruit. People would preserve fruit in vinegar at end of season, let it macerate, then sweeten that up, strain it and add to cold water. In colonial times, that was the first soft drink . Later, in the 1800s, shrubs became popular as a cocktail mixer. When commercial soda came about, people stopped making shrubs.
Shrubs have come back and are gaining in popularity mainly because of the craft cocktail trend. For those who don't drink at all, shrubs are great as a soda stream syrup, it's natural and refreshing. And since it has apple cider vinegar, it's kind of a healthy alternative to commercial soda. It's also a very popular cocktail mixer.
All of our shrubs are organic apple cider vinegar based. We source our fruit locally, and the farthest I've had to go is Maine for some of the fruit in the Cassis Berry.
HOW DO YOU MAKE THE BITTERS? Bitters were originally made for medicinal purposes. Most bitters are made from extracting flavors, roots, plants using grain alcohol, so it's like tincturing. Instead of macerating, like with the shrubs, you're tincturing, extracting, using grain alcohol. Our flavors are locally-inspired because we want to keep it to what's known in the Hudson Valley. Varieties include Celery Bitters; Spruce Shoot Bitters (from the tips of spruce trees in spring); Ginger Bitters; and Love-Struck Bitters, made from hyssop, thyme, peppercorn and ginger. I grow my own wormwood for the bitters and some of the flavors too, including fresh coriander, mint and hyssop. Then I source things like juniper and spruce shoot that we get in fall. And local farms have begun to grow ginger, so we source from the Hudson Valley.
WHAT LOCAL FARMS DO YOU SOURCE FROM? We've been getting maple syrup from a wonderful farm in Duchess County called Soukup Farms - it's a multi-generational family farm. My favorite local fruit farm is Eger Brothers Farm. I'm crazy about working with Jimmy Eger. He's from a family that's been here for generations. He thinks it's hilarious what we're doing and is full of ideas for us. I'm getting most all of my pears and apples from him. They're the closest fruit farm to us, with lots of land and great views of the Hudson Valley across to the Catskills. They also have a farm stand nearby that's marvelous. Samascott Orchards is a farm I really like, located in nearby Kinderhook. And Montgomery Place Orchard is a great farm, with the best black raspberries I've ever had. I use it in my cassis. (View from Egers Farm below)
HOW HAS THE BUSINESS GROWN? We launched in 2013, on Thanksgiving weekend at Basilica Farm & Flea in downtown Hudson, where we sold 150 bottles of Pear Honey Ginger Shrub and 50 bottles of Ginger Bitters. Sold out the shrubs in 2 hours! That was our launch and then we learned lots by honing our skills. Bitters aren't easy to make, and I feel like every batch is better than the last. I was a photographer for many years, and in the darkroom you get a better grasp of the subtleties of the process the more you work with it - that's the way it is for me with the bitters.
Then in 2014, I got help from "Incubator without Walls" at Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation (HVADC). That program helped me develop a business plan and it's a wonderful resource for information about sourcing ingredients from the area. Our plan was to do 5000 bottles in 2014, and we sold everything by end of the year. This year our plan is to double that, but we've also doubled the size of our bottle. so we've really quadrupled our production this past year.
WHERE ARE YOU SELLING? We did a few farmers markets the first year, and Basilica Farm & Flea, Hudson River Exchange, the Hudson area winter farmers market and retail stores. We wholesale as much as we retail now, with product placed in retail stores and restaurants, and we sell online, too. Last September, Nancy Fuller featured us on Farmhouse Rules (the Food Network) - she lives in Hudson, is very popular, and we got lots of orders when that show aired. We're scheduled for the Holiday Fair in Brooklyn late December.
TELL US ABOUT THE RECIPES ON YOUR SITE. The recipes for the bitters are developed with the help of friends who are mixologists, and I'm getting some great help on the shrub recipes from Kelly Miller, a chef friend who also lives in Hudson. I think the Strawberry Rhubarb is one of the best - it's a great dressing. Every dressing I make now I use a different shrub. You don't need to use a lot - just a touch really adds to the flavor of the dressing. It's like a gastrique in French cooking.
HOW LARGE IS YOUR STAFF? I have 3 women on my crew, and we're having so much fun chatting it up all day long. The staff also helps sell shrubs and bitters at local farmers markets, and we playfully compete to see who can sell the most.
WHAT'S THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THE BUSINESS? My husband and I have been in Hudson 11 years - our store is Hudson Wine Merchants on Warren Street. Over the years I've watched this influx of small batch distillers, cider makers and beer makers. We've been watching this whole thing happen over 11 years and it's exciting to be part of that. My husband and a silent partner are all business partners in this venture, but I run the business. Me and my awesome crew of girls! We drink shrubs all day long.