“Our biggest problem is that most consumers don’t know what it is, or what to do with it,” says Ben Leggett of the range of aromatic cocktail bitters made by his Marlborough boutique distillery, Elemental Bitters. Well, yes, that is a problem for a new business, but one that might be overcome after the company’s recent success, winning two gold medals and a silver at the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition 2018.
Added by just a drop or a dash to a cocktail, bitters are aromatic essences that enhance flavours and aromas, accentuating the character of the building blocks of the cocktail and bringing nuance to the drink. “Bitters are used like seasoning in food,” explains Ben. “They help to lift flavours and turn up tastes.” While a bit of a mystery to the general drinking public, bitters are coveted by bartenders, spurred by the renaissance in classic cocktails.
In tiny, wax-topped bottles with hand-drawn labels, Ben has crafted three flavour combinations: grapefruit and hops, coffee and pimento, and blackberry and balsamic.
And all this is currently done out of Ben’s garage in Renwick in the time he can spare from his day job. ”It’s a classic Kiwi garage project,” he says.
Not content with producing the first cocktail bitters to be made in New Zealand, Ben and partner Simon Kelly, are proud that the core ingredients are all natural, sourced from New Zealand family-run farms and cooperatives or foraged locally, and the bitters are made entirely by hand in batches of less than 250 bottles.
Sustainability is vital to the business. Bitters are made by macerating botanicals, fruit, nuts or seeds in a highproof spirit. For their base, Elemental Distillers use a spirit distilled from whey, a byproduct of the dairy industry. “It’s very Kiwi,” says Ben. “It comes from grass-fed cows and it’s fully sustainable.”
Traceability of ingredients is a key tenet of the business, with every element fully traceable from the root to the glass. “The real heroes are our suppliers,” Ben says, telling of a father-and-son team who travel to Macedonia to hand-forage for the wild juniper that flavours Elemental Distillers’ gin.
Hang on, gin, you say, I thought we were talking about bitters? Ben laughs, “Gin was always ‘the project’.” So alongside developing prizewinning bitters, Ben has been tinkering away in his garage with a tiny, 3-litre Portuguese still, perfecting the recipe for Roots Marlborough Dry Gin. It’s flavoured with that wild, foraged juniper, coriander seed, ‘Golden Special’ grapefruit from Gisborne, foraged kawakawa fruit, Motueka hops and gorse flowers foraged in Marlborough (probably by Ben himself). Full-scale production of the gin is awaiting completion of a bespoke distillery, currently being built among the Marlborough vines. What better place to mix up a perfect Kiwi cocktail? elementaldistillers.com