Miles Thomas — founder and owner of Scrappy’s Bitters — is no stranger to the craft of making good drinks. On this “Next Round” episode, he speaks with host Zach Geballe about his early days as a bartender and what led him to launch Scrappy’s, a Seattle-based bitters company.
Thomas breaks down the experimentation process he went through to learn how to make bitters and when he realized he could build a brand from what started out as a hobby. Geballe and Thomas also talk about what differentiates Scrappy’s from the competition, and how to enjoy bitters in classic cocktails.
Tune in and visit https://www.scrappysbitters.com/ to learn more about Scrappy’s Bitters.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. This is a “VinePair Podcast Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so we can explore a broader range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I’m speaking with Miles Thomas, who is the founder and owner of Scrappy’s Bitters, based right here in Seattle. Miles, how are you doing?
Miles Thomas: I’m doing great. How are you, Zach?
Z: I’m well, thanks. We should start here. You and I have known each other for 15 years. We worked together long ago. Can you explain to our listeners how you first got into bartending and cocktails and how that took you into this world of making bitters?
M: For my second job, I was bussing tables. My friend’s dad owned an Italian restaurant, and I really wanted to bus tables. I was working before bagging groceries and I needed something else. My pops was very insistent that I get a job when I was 15. He basically told me I would be kicked out if I didn’t get a job.
M: I got right to it. When I got the job bussing tables, I actually really enjoyed it. At first, it was really difficult. I was very shy, so breaking through that took a while. Eventually, I became a server. The restaurant was an Italian neighborhood joint, and the bar got really busy at night, so I’d inadvertently become a barback late at night on the weekends. I had this idea that being a bartender is super cool. You’re very social. You get to meet cool people and have a good time. I followed that, and eventually I wound up at Serafina. That bar gig for me, at the time, was a little bit over my head. I hadn’t quite had the experience or the know-how to do the job, but Matt and Chris there were really good. They took me under their wing and showed me lots of stuff. I learned a ton while I was there. Chris was really into making infusions and all kinds of stuff. I took that and ran with it. I was super duper interested in that and started making stuff at home in my apartment. I would come to him with all the things that I was making and was excited to show him. He’d talk about it with me. I ended up doing a bunch of reading. Eventually, I had a friend that was making grapefruit bitters and putting that in cocktails. He told me, with all the stuff I do, I should try and make bitters. I was like, “Oh, OK, yeah, sure. Let me see what you’ve got so far.” He gave me his grapefruit bitters recipe and I made that. It was all right. I started looking online for a whole bunch of other stuff.
M: Eventually, I was trying all kinds of stuff and nothing was really working out. It took me a really long time to actually figure it out. It was at least a solid year of making a lot of mistakes before I had something that was usable. I just worked on it for a while, and then I started to use it behind the bar. It was OK. I was continuously learning stuff. Every time I figured out something new, I would try to make it better. Eventually, there was this bartender meetup type of thing.
M: It was at Liberty Bar, and it was a bitters exchange, where we exchanged the bitters we were making. I brought my Lavender bitters. It was really a fun thing for me because there were a lot of bartenders. All of the best bartenders I knew in Seattle, people from Zig Zag and everywhere were there. I really respected all of them. I thought, man, all of these guys are really great bartenders, but their bitters suck. That’s when I thought I should maybe turn this into a business.
M: That’s when people started asking me for bitters. I never really thought about it as a business when I started out. It was just something that was fun. I wanted to have some special moves behind the bar, so I would get more customers to come to my bar and have my special drinks. That was really the whole driving force to start out with. Sure. When other bartenders were asking for it, I told them, “Sure, I can make you some.” There was really no other stuff out at the time. The only things that were out were Angostura, Regan’s Orange Bitters, the Fee Brothers bitters, and Peychaud.
M: There was really nothing of good quality. Angostura’s OK, but was full of red dye and caramel color. It’s a staple forever, but there are better bitters for sure. I thought, OK, let’s just do this. I started out and definitely didn’t know what I was doing at all. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I had no money. I think I made the first batch in my apartment, which is definitely illegal.
Z: Fortunately, I think the statute of limitations has passed on that one.
M: I think so. It was just that very first one, and I didn’t know who I was going to sell it to. I walked around to all the bars where I knew bar managers. I told them what I was doing and that, if they were interested, they could buy some now. I sold out that day.
M: I started getting requests for more, which I thought was really cool because I didn’t know that was going to happen. My buddy Patrick, he used to be Ethan Stowell’s partner back in the day at Tavolàta on Second Avenue. They had a prep kitchen downstairs that was separate from the regular kitchen. I had left Serafina to do bar management at Branzino, so I was really right next door. My buddy told me I could have this closet and use of the prep kitchen, which is a legal and certified space.
M: He said I could do my thing there for free and he’d just give it to me. And I thought, “Wow. OK. Cool.”
M: From there on out, I was making it in there for a long time. At one point, I didn’t want to do it on my own. I was trying to get Chris, who was at Serafina, to be part of it for a while. I asked him to come along and whatnot. He had some personal stuff going on in his life that really made it not possible for him to be part of it, unfortunately. We just never ended up doing it together.
M: Eventually, I just kept growing. For a good, like, two or three years, I was still learning a ton. As much as I would like to say that the product’s been rock solid and consistent forever, in the first three years or so, it evolved quite a bit into what it is today. And after that, it’s been very solid and consistent. For me, it’s all about, how can I make the best thing possible? If I find something new and good out, then of course, I want to do that. I want to make it that way. I just never stop learning. Even now, I’ve learned so much more. I think the products are super-rock solid now, and I think that making any kind of change to them would be more detrimental than it would be good. I do come out with new stuff all the time, though. I’ve actually started a couple other businesses since, too.
Z: OK, cool. I want to talk about those a little later, but I want to ask a simple but also maybe not simple question. How are bitters made, and what is it about the process that makes it, from the outside at least, seem way more difficult than the kinds of infusions that you were doing and lots of other people do? It seems to me that bitters are a very complicated infusion. Is that correct?
M: Yeah, I would say so. I think that’s a great description of them. They’re kind of a tincture, but I would say they’re a very complex tincture. Tinctures are generally one to a few ingredients, and bitters are generally many ingredients. Bitters have to be bitter, so there needs to be a bittering agent. If there’s not a bittering agent, they don’t perform the way they’re supposed to. That bitterness is really what grounds them in the cocktail and helps make them perform properly. Bitters are to cocktails as vanilla extract is to baking.
M: So the bitters generally bring out other flavors in the drink. They really smooth off the edges of the alcohol and cut some of the sweetness. I think it’s important to know what bitters are doing in your cocktail. Make an Old Fashioned without bitters. Just make sweet whiskey to start. Try that. Drink a sip or so, and then add your bitters to it. Taste it after that, and see how that has really evolved that drink into an actual cocktail at that point. If you’re adding aromatic bitters to make your Old Fashioned, try adding some orange bitters on top of that and see what that does. There’s really no rule. You don’t have to only do one. I don’t think enough people inspect what’s going on in there. I often see a lot of bartenders or people in general putting bitters in their drink and they don’t really do anything. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great bitters out there, but there’s some that are really not strong enough. They don’t really work. You have to ask, are you just doing a show, or are you doing something that’s good for your drink? I’m sidetracking. I’m sorry.
Z: No, that’s OK.
M: Back to what are they? Why are they more complicated? They’re generally a bunch of different herbs macerated in alcohol. That’s pretty important in my opinion. Alcohol is an excellent solvent, and it’s also edible. If your bitters are the right alcohol percentage and you make a cocktail after the dilution, the bitters are higher in alcohol, so if you wanted to float them on top of the drink, you could do that.
Z: Oh, OK.
M: They’re generally fruits, spices, and a bittering agent. There’s so many different types of bittering agents. I exclusively use gentian, but there’s quinine, cinchona bark, which is the same as quinine, horehound, wormwood, which is the bittering agent in vermouth. Funny enough, if you have an Americano, that’s kind of like vermouth without wormwood. It’s with quinine. That’s because at a certain point, wormwood was not allowed in the U.S.
Z: When you talk about the maceration of herbs, spices, or whatever it is that you are making, is that all one big kind of batch that’s macerating, or are you doing these things separately and then blending them?
M: Good question. In general, the majority of your ingredients are probably all together.
M: The thing that’s super counterintuitive with bitters is the way that they taste on their own versus how they function in a drink could really be two different things.
M: How you make them is also sometimes counterintuitive. Making normal infusions is a bit different because it’s sort of straightforward. Making bitters isn’t. That’s because they need to be way more powerful. The intensity of your bitters needs to be super strong, because if you think about it, you’re just using a few dashes in a drink. If it’s pleasant on its own and good that way, it’s probably not going to stand up in your drink. When I see a lot of newer stuff come out, that’s generally what they’re missing. Sometimes their flavors are great, but they really don’t have the intensity to make it through in the drink. Yes, you macerate the majority of it together, I would say. But depending on what you’re trying to do, you could extract different flavors from different things. If you’re macerating everything together, you’re more or less doing the same extraction with everything. Sometimes, you need something different from a different herb, fruit, or what have you. You may do that separately and then blend that together. Something that we’ve always done is create some of the major flavors in a sort of tincture form. This isn’t necessarily for the formula, but rather the variation. The organic material changes from season to season, so this is just for consistency’s sake.
Z: I see.
M: Maybe you like your bitterness to be more bitter, so you might extract your bitterness differently. Maybe you want your fruit to be different, so you’re going to extract that differently and you’re going to bring all your herbs together. There’s this saturation point of your liquid that depends on how strong your alcohol is. If you extract things at too high alcohol, though, you can extract things that aren’t desirable. There’s this delicate balance that you’re always on.
Z: Are you just using time to do the extraction, or is temperature a part of it as well?
M: Some of it is just time. I do use a couple of other methods. I’m a little bit tight lipped about all that just because it’s proprietary.
Z: That’s totally fine. Of course.
M: When I started, there was almost no information whatsoever about making bitters, so I had to create a lot of it on my own.
Z: OK. I want to come back to the chronology here a little bit. For people who aren’t familiar, the initial time period we were talking about was the late 2000s, in terms of getting from bartending to bitters-making, to making it at scale. What were the steps for you? It makes sense to me, as someone who’s from the Seattle area, that it was a relatively small and close community. I totally get going door to door to bars and telling them, “Hey, look, I made these, try them, buy them.” How do you go beyond Seattle? What were the steps there for you in terms of connecting to distribution or bars? How did you get Scrappy’s out to the masses?
M: That’s a great question. I think it’s somewhat unbelievable, honestly. I’m not generally one to toot my own horn, but I do think I make the best bitters in the world. Honestly, I think the merit of the quality of bitters that I was making was why they had spread so quickly. People just came to me, having somehow heard about it, and asked me if they could buy some. Starting out was really slow. The way I grew the company was at around the same speed. I didn’t have any investment or anything like that. It all had to be organic. I couldn’t grow faster than I did because I didn’t have the capital to. I think The Boston Shaker was one of my first out-of-state customers. I would sell to stores directly then. Stores would come to me and say, “I heard about some bitters that you’re making. Can I order some for my store?” It went like that for the first few years. It’s only been three or so years that we’ve been actively pursuing distribution outside of what business has come to us. It’s kind of an incredible feat. We’re in most of the major markets around the world.
Z: When you’ve traveled in the past and gone to a bar, when you see a bottle of your bitters — which I imagine you see pretty regularly — do you ever tell the bartender it’s yours? Or, do you just enjoy watching them use it and they never know?
M: Unless I’m working, I never say anything about myself. If I see it at a bar and I’m just a customer, I’m definitely not going to say a word. I’m just going to be stoked. I might try to get them to make me a drink with that or something like that. I travel for work a lot. We’re generally visiting a distributor. I’ve kind of stopped doing it inside the U.S. myself. I have some staff that does that now. I still like to go outside the U.S. markets. When we’re meeting with a distributor, it’s pretty nice. They take you around to all their favorite bars. Usually, those bars are also their accounts, so, of course, your stuff’s there, too.
M: You meet the bartenders, make friends with them, end up drinking way too much, and get to see all the cool bars. It’s pretty awesome. So, I will definitely talk about the bitters when I’m in that scenario. But if I’m by myself? No.
Z: Gotcha. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the specific products. One of the things that I’ve always enjoyed about them is that you have always had this sense of how bitters, and well-made bitters, can enhance a cocktail and also add flavors that might be difficult to get in a drink in another fashion. You mentioned lavender. That’s certainly one of my favorites. I think the Cardamom bitters have been, in my life of making cocktails at home, the one that I use probably more than any other. I think it adds a dimension to a cocktail that’s hard to find otherwise. Cardamom is out there, but that’s a whole other deal. Whether it’s those two, or something else, what are some of the bitters that you’re particularly proud of?
M: For me, trying to get the purest form of those flavors in such a manner that it’s easy to use is a big deal. I’m really pushing for a particular thing. I have a definite stylistic thing. Almost everything that I make has somewhat of a floral quality in the finish. I don’t know if it’s super noticeable, but it’s there. At least, I notice it. I think the cool flavors that are a little more exotic, like Cardamom and Lavender, are generally how people discover the brand. Once they start to use like the Orange and the Aromatic, which seem pretty regular — there’s a million orange and aromatic bitters out there — but when you start making your Old Fashioneds with them, I feel like you never go back. Those actually are our top sellers now. Initially, it was Lavender and Cardamom. I’m really proud of Black Lemon. That’s the newest flavor of the lineup.
Z: Oh, cool.
M: It’s a flavor I made a while back. I just didn’t think that it would be that cool or anybody would be that into it. I had like a whole bunch sitting around at one point. I decided, let’s put it in a bottle, and I’ll give it away to some of the bartenders I know that like different stuff. People went crazy for it, so we added it to the lineup. Another one like that is Fire Tincture. It’s a habanero extraction. It’s got mostly habanero peppers, but there’s about seven or so other peppers in there to round that flavor out. I used to make that for myself when I was bartending to use as a spicy additive. All the spicy cocktails that I had, they just had hot sauce in them. I didn’t like the vinegar and the muddiness that those hot sauces added. I wanted something that had a clean hotness. I really didn’t think anybody would be interested in it. I kind of did the same thing where I just put out some. I think it’s our No. 3 top-selling product. We sell an enormous amount of it.
Z: Speaking of that, how big is Scrappy’s these days?
M: I don’t look at the numbers all the time, but I think we put out around half a million bottles a year. That number grows every year. It’s a fair amount. I’m not certain what everyone else is making. I’m sure that Angostura is a fair amount bigger than us. I don’t think that there’s another craft bitters that makes more bitters than we do. I’ve definitely never seen as much in the market of another brand. I do know that The Bitter Truth is pretty big in Europe, but they’re not really that big here.
Z: Fair enough. You mentioned the Black Lemon and the Fire Tincture as ones that interested you and you weren’t sure if there was a market for it. Is there anything else that you’re playing with that you think might make an appearance down the road?
M: At the moment, I think we have a really solid lineup. I don’t want to get too wild with it. There’s around 13 flavors. We do a Seville, which I think is super good. That’s sort of a seasonal one. It’s still part of the 13. For our 10-year anniversary — we’re on year 13 now — I did Bergamot bitters, which I was really stoked on. That was one of those flavors that I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s just never been in the cards because it’s so expensive. I figured for a 10-year anniversary I could make a certain amount of it. It was a little bit more expensive, but it was just one of those things I wanted to do. That went pretty well. Scrappy’s has still got cool stuff up its sleeve, too. I’ve been working on a bunch of special releases. I’ve got at least the next four years slotted out of one special release per year. It’s going to be stuff that we just make one time. It’s going to be more expensive because it’s stuff that would never make sense to be in regular production. It’s just too labor-intensive and ingredients cost too much. If you’re really into it or you want to collect things, or you need the coolest thing ever, get it when you see it. Otherwise, you may never get it again.
Z: Very cool. Well, Miles, this has been super fascinating. It’s been very cool to see your company grow from a bootleg, almost, in someone’s prep kitchen. I imagine you’ve got a little more space than that now.
M: We have a great big facility now.
Z: Congrats. I use the bitters all the time. That’s the reality. I agree that the quality is unsurpassed. You made one point that I want to emphasize for listeners. I’ve tasted a lot of bitters — not as much as you, I’m sure, but still plenty. It’s that intensity, I think, where many other producers come up short. They can taste plenty good on their own. You can taste them and get the flavor and it’s good, but when you put it in the drink, it just tends to disappear if you don’t use a ton of it. Then, you get to other issues with the balance of your cocktails. Scrappy’s remains the bar of excellence, pun intended, for bitters.
M: I think that’s an excellent description, Zach. We have a huge shelf of bitters here, obviously. We like to try everything. As much as I say some bad things about other companies, I know that there are some great ones out there, too. So, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater of everyone.
Z: I have two last questions for cocktail consumption purposes. One is, as far as showing off the bitters and understanding them in the drink, is there a cocktail — you mentioned the Old Fashioned — that you think is the best way to try out most of the bitters? Then, additionally, do you have a cocktail that you add bitters to when you’re drinking it that most people would not think to add bitters to?
M: We do a lot of seminars, and I’m trying to make things a little bit more accessible to the general public. We do a lot for bartenders and the distributors, but we’re going to try to come out with what’s basically like a seminar in a box. You’ll order this kit and either tune into a live or pre-recorded seminar that talks you through: What are bitters? How do you use them? How do you determine if these are going to be good and how they’re going to work in your drink? I start with the most basic drinks because I feel like it’s the easiest to grasp and then you get more advanced later. An Old Fashioned is kind of what a bittered Sling is. It’s the definition of a cocktail. The other one that’s really interesting and easy to do is just a Gimlet or a Daiquiri. If you want to try some of those really interesting flavors, you can try a Daiquiri with a dash of Cardamom, Lavender, or any of the other flavors. You can take that one cocktail in so many different directions with just a dash of any of those flavors.
Z: Very cool. That’s a really good notion. I hadn’t thought about something as transparent as a Daiquiri.
M: Yeah, totally. A Martini even works, honestly. Stuff that is straightforward gives you the best demonstration, initially. You don’t have to do that with Scrappy’s. I would recommend doing it with any bitters that you have. You can get a better grasp of what’s going on there, and then using it in a more complex manner becomes more intuitive.
Z: Gotcha. Well, Miles, thanks again so much for your time. I really appreciate it and look forward to chatting in the future.
M: Yeah, thanks Zach. Great to hear from you.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please give us a rating on review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself, Adam Teeter, and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.