Bitters, Botanicals, and BalanceCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Brooklyn, a small batch Italian spirits brand pops off. Published: July 20, 2021
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As far as warm weather cocktail trends go, the Aperol spritz is perhaps the most contentious. Proponents — and there are many — hail the bubbly red-orange drink as the drink of summer (thanks in large part to a bullish 2017 marketing campaign by Aperol’s maker, Campari America); detractors spurn it as a boozy Capri Sun, all show and no dimension.
I used to be staunchly anti-spritz, until a friend made a batch using the bittersweet Aperitivo from Faccia Brutto, a Brooklyn-based Italian spirits brand launched at the onset of the pandemic. Turns out, I’m not anti-spritz — I’m anti-Aperol. The brainchild of Patrick Miller, previously executive chef at beloved Boerum Hill eatery Rucola, Faccia Brutto makes aperitivos for people who don’t think they like aperitivos. Keep reading for my conversation with Miller, and cheers to the summer of Faccia Brutto!
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you start experimenting with spirits?
Halfway, two-thirds of the way through my tenure at Rucola, I caught the bug of making cocktail bitters. It was for a DIY Christmas gift one year ... A poor line cook’s gift to family and friends. I made some orange bitters, and then I started fooling around with Fernet on my days off. Then my mom bought me this little five-gallon barrel, so that spurred me to continue tinkering. One thing led to another, and I was like, This might actually be a good next job for me to have. There’s lower stress, I can manage things myself, I don't have to depend on line cooks that might not show up, dishwashers that might walk out, that kind of thing. Being a chef at a neighborhood restaurant that's open seven days a week is definitely a young man's job. So I started honing the recipes, and then in 2018, I was like, Okay, here’s a business plan, here's a pitch deck, let's get some investors.
You officially launched at the start of the pandemic; what made that possible?
[By] 2019, I had the funding I needed. I got the site [for making spirits] and started paying rent that July. Then between July 2019 and February 2020, I was just waiting for permits. I left Rucola in January 2020, right before the pandemic started, because I felt like the last permit was going to come any day. It came in the beginning of February, so I started making my first batches in early March and made my first sale in April.
How did the pandemic impact your rollout?
I had a bunch of tastings and things lined up for March, then March 15th came and everything closed. I went from having a list of 300 people who I wanted to do tastings with and try to sell my product to, to like three. It also really hindered my ability to actually deliver the product, because one of the investors owns a specialty foods company and delivers to restaurants all around Brooklyn and New York, and part of the deal was that he was going to make the deliveries. But he couldn't do that ... He was like, "I just gave all my delivery trucks to my staff so they can get safely to and from work and still have jobs." So he got his own Subaru bonded and licensed [to deliver alcohol], and I made the deliveries myself in his Subaru once a week with a hand truck. It was definitely a mixed blessing: it was a pain in the butt to drive around Brooklyn and Manhattan through the traffic, but at the same time, it was nice to be able to meet the owners of the wine shops that were giving me business, since those were the only places that were open. When I first opened, I had three or four accounts, and then it slowly grew from there.
Did you have any supply shortages?
Peak lock down, I didn't have any supply chain issues. Because most of what I use are dried botanicals. The only fresh things I use are citrus peels and mint. Honestly, it’s been since people are healthier and places are opening up that I've actually had supply-side issues with getting the neutral grain spirit or receiving citrus, which is weird.
I’m guessing many of the restaurants you were planning to sell to pivoted to provision shops. Did those provide a meaningful source of revenue?
The retail shops were able, for a little while at least, to help me pay rent. Until I had to ask to start paying half rent, because there just weren't enough retail shops. The provision shops weren't opening fast enough, or not going through product fast enough. Until I got picked up by a distributor [T. Edward] in September 2020, it was getting tough. I have some savings that I could've put in the business, but the whole idea is that the business is able to sustain itself. So I was just waiting, and waiting, and waiting. I'm glad I didn't cave and put a few thousand from savings in. Because since I got picked up by the distributor, it's been a lot easier.
What’s T. Edward’s geographic scope?
They have headquarters in a few states, but they have partnerships with other distributors in 47 states. So right now, I'm currently being distributed in 12 states, and we're looking to double that by the end of 2022.
Yeah, thanks. It's certainly a wider range than the Subaru could drive.
No kidding. How are you imagining your core clientele?
My stuff is tailored towards people who have been exposed to some sort of Italian aperitivi, but at the same time, it is approachable enough where if it's your first time having something like a Fernet or an Amaro, you can drink that and chances are you'll like it, because the whole concept of the business is balance. For example, my Aperitivo kind of splits the difference between Aperol and Campari. If somebody really likes negronis or Americano cocktails and they want a little bitterness, they get that. If they really like spritzes, there's tons of fruit, so that satisfies them. What I saw in the American-made Amari industry is that everything just leaned one way or the other and it wasn't balanced. Coming from restaurants and being a cook, if you are cooking a dish and there's too much acid, there's too much salt, there's too much fat, it's going to be off and people aren't going to like it.
You spent around three years honing your recipes before launching the business; what did that process look like?
Italians are famously super secret about this, and the other guys in Brooklyn [making small batch spirits] also fall under the same category. I offered to come help, not even to ask them what's in it ... I've been working in restaurants a long time, and if you want to see how people at a restaurant make a dish or what techniques they're using, you go work for free for them. But the two other people in Brooklyn did not want me to come in, which is fine, so I had to do some deep dive research on the internet and look in distillers’ forums. I found old Italian and French texts that were translated in English, and some that were not translated at all. I had to try to Google translate them, and even some of the words didn't come up because they were just colloquial names for certain herbs. It took a long time. Then, my partner and I have been together for 16 years, and she has an Americano cocktail every day. She also has a way more sensitive palate than I do. So I figured if I could get her to like the Aperitivo or the Amari that I was making, I would have a good chance at switching people who were drinking Campari to drink my stuff.
So essentially, you have a testing kitchen right in your own home.
Exactly. It took like 50, 60 test batches of the Aperitivo and the Fernet. Fewer of the Amari just because I got lucky, and also I had learned how much bittering agent or citrus to put in to get the desired effect. But yeah, R&D took forever. But I definitely had some help. I'd bring some of the stuff to other bars, and have other bartenders try it and just see what they thought. And I'm still honing the recipes. The thing I don’t think a lot of people realize is that natural ingredients vary. There's a lot of art in the manufacturing process. It's not like I can just throw a bag of botanicals in there and call it a day. It’s very much like cooking dishes at a restaurant because it's a little bit different every time.
Is this career proving to be slower paced than your previous one?
Oh yeah, a thousand percent. I'm not even working five days a week. There are certain weeks where we're bottling three days out of the week, and then there are some weeks where I'm just working from home all week because there's nothing that I physically have to do in the space.
Is it just you right now?
I have a number of people I call upon when it's time to bottle. There'll be nine of us at this point, because the batch sizes are so large that I need a lot of hands. But day-to-day, it's mostly me, and then I have one guy who is super part-time who I'll call to come and help me filter something or work on other processes, whether it's proofing something down, sweetening something, or honestly, if I just want a buddy. Because the thing that I miss the most with restaurants and kitchens is you have a built-in set of buddies, and this is just me.
Looking ahead, do you have plans to grow your scope of products and your team?
Yes to both. From last year to this year, I've grown 700%. It's been pretty wild. 700% is a real number. I think next year, we'll probably see a little more steady, less explosive growth, but whatever. If it is, it is. I would like to need to be there five days a week and put people on payroll. As places open up and in-person tastings become more regular and welcomed, I think there'll be more work for all of us.
Support Patrick Here:
- Find a stockist near you (Fun fact: Leon & Son, my local wine shop that I profiled at the beginning of COVID, has the full product lineup!)
- Shop merch
- Follow on IG
Until next time,