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First Michigan bitters company gets start in Lansing
A few ounces of cider, a splash of pumpkin cocktail mix, some whiskey barrel-aged maple syrup, fresh thyme, crisp apple and the most important ingredient — a few drops of Smoked Apple Chicory bitters. Michael Fair, 23, the founder of Black Ink Bitters, shook this up, poured it into a glass and served it over some tonic water. A garnish of thyme sprig and an apple slice made the non-alcoholic “mocktail” complete. The taste of the drink could only be compared to a liquid pumpkin-apple pie — in the best sense of that phrase.
Fair is getting ready to showcase his unique brand of alchemy at Williams- Sonoma for an Oct. 1 event for the benefit of No Kid Hungry. There, he will both provide refreshments for a good cause and have a larger captive audience than normal to spread the word about Michigan’s first and only bitters maker.
“In an elevator speech, if a customer walks in they’ll ask, ‘What’s bitters?’ I’ll say, ‘It is a food flavoring agent, used as an extract,’” Fair said.
An exotic, ever-growing menu of flavors started with Fair’s first experiment in October 2016, Smoked Apple Chicory. “It was not a good batch — trial and error,” he said. It took three months to finally get the first batch down. By December and January, his crew developed 10 flavors, and by June of this year, Fair had two of his biggest flavors yet, which he dubbed Blanc and Noir.
Blanc is a Caribbean coconut raspberry flavor, and Noir is smoked chocolate cherry, two of 12 flavors that Fair has personally developed.
To create bitters, one must infuse highproof alcohol with a variety of chosen flavors. But just because a flavor might have a simple title, like Lemon, doesn’t mean that creating it is an easy feat.
“Each container contains between seven and 14 ingredients — even though it might say Orange as a flavor,” Fair said. “We do fresh orange rinds for that flavor profile and we call that our flavoring agent, but we also have to add in other components to enhance it and make it more complex at the same time.”
According to Fair, the whole process is a balancing game.
“Too much tartness or too much sweetness?
We can add a couple drops of bitters,” Fair said. “For my company, it’s potent. Just like any other traditional bitters company, it is three to five drops. Most bartenders that I’ve seen use three and, if you can handle the flavor and you really want a bitter note, you can add the full dropper, which is considered a dash.”
Methodical, focused and persistent are three words that could describe the young entrepreneur. His obsession with flavors, how to combine them and pair them with food and drink began while he was a student at Michigan State University.
He started by studying standard cocktails as a bartender at the English Inn in Eaton Rapids. He went into more depth with mixology courses and focused on bitters as one of his experiments. “It’s very similar to infusing drinks, but it’s more in a concentrated form,” Fair said. “Bartending at its finest got me interested in trying to make my own product. I am very experimental and I have a very big creative outlet when it comes to making craft cocktails.”
Originally, Fair thought he’d name his company Kraken, after the legendary Nordic sea monster. Though that didn’t stick as the name, the logo did. Fair knew that he wanted the company to be different and eye-catching right off the bat.
“We definitely wanted our gold kraken to go with the black ink, and we just like the classic gold,” Fair said.
By March of 2017, the company was up and running and its black, 1-ounce bottles began to hit the shelves. Fair said his eye-catching bottles grab attention, but he sometimes has to explain how best to use the product.
Bitters can be used effectively in baking as well as in drinks and other cooking.
However, unlike common extracts like vanilla, bitters come with a greater complexity of flavor. But Fair doesn’t sacrifice quality for the sake of complexity. Although he said he respects the existing “old school” bitters like Peychaud’s and Angostura, he will not infuse his product with anything but natural flavors.
“Those are both great bitters. They’ve been on the market for years, and I still use them to this day,” he said. “However, they are old school and they use artificial flavors and ingredients as well as dyes to get their signature color.”
Fair considers himself a part of the “new school” — all Michigan-made, hand crafted, with nothing artificial. “It is the most natural you can get,” Fair said.
Now, Fair is working to spread the word about his budding company. Currently, his warehouse is part of the Incubator Kitchens at Allen Market Place, and he does regular weekend showings at the Williams-Sonoma at Eastwood Towne Center. There, he is able to demonstrate his craft, while building on his existing customer base.
Williams-Sonoma offered Fair the opportunity to demo new products on their line with names like Five Apple Cider, Mulling Spices and Five Apple Pumpkin Punch. “I actually came in on the day that they opened it and I showcased it as a brand-new cocktail mix that they offered,” Fair said. “I made fresh mocktails, non-alcoholic, for customers walking into the store. I get to sell my bitters in the store too.”
In less than a year, he’s also been able to catch the eye of a local bar.
“American Fifth Distillery on Larch Street, right across from the Lugnuts stadium — they have a few of their craft cocktails holding some of our smoky flavors like Smoked Apple Chicory to some of our brighter tones, Mint Hibiscus and Blueberry Vanilla,” Fair said. “Those are very popular flavors.”
He said he looks forward to growing the local business through events like these.
“As of right now, it’s just in the Greater Lansing area, so it’s big, but not that big,” Fair said. “We hope to expand to other retail stores and other bars as well.”
But he has already carved out one distinction he is enjoying while it lasts.
“We are holding the market solo,” he said.
“We’re the only Michigan bitters company right now.”
NKH Ladies Soup “Social” w/ Black Ink Bitters Pumpkin Punch
Mocktails Sunday, Oct. 1 $20 Donation Williams-Sonoma 3040 Towne Centre Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-9314