Sweet Success in Bitters

El Guapo Bitters, Syrups and Tonics has become a fast favorite with home cocktail makers and James Beard Award-winning restaurants alike.
photos by sara essex bradley

El Guapo Bitters, Syrups and Tonics features craft cocktail accessories inspired by New Orleans flavors such as “Creole Pecan,” “Crawfish Boil,” “Lemonade” and “Gumbo.”


New Orleans and its residents have a long-storied history with the cocktail, from its fabled first beginning in the Crescent City, to the overall population’s matter-of-fact rejection of Prohibition, to New Orleans women storming the Sazerac Bar in 1949.

We take our spirits seriously. Follow that local love affair to a new national resurgence in the craft of cocktail making, and the time is ripe in New Orleans (and beyond) for a local company looking to cash in on quality-made cocktail products.

That local company is El Guapo Bitters, Syrups and Tonics, a line of hand-crafted bitters, tonics and syrups inspired by New Orleans flavors and experiences and created by Christa Cotton, CEO of New Orleans Beverage Group.

Cotton, a Leesburg, Georgia native, was born into the spirits business, and in college at Auburn University worked to help her family create 13th Colony Distillery, Georgia’s first craft distillery. She moved to New Orleans in 2010, where she married her public relations background with her love of craft cocktails. Cotton took on Trumpet Advertising’s Louisiana Office of Tourism account before establishing the New Orleans Beverage Group in 2017. She acquired the El Guapo brand that same year, with the goal of taking the already established bitters and tonics company to a new level of success.

“El Guapo started as a hobby,” she said. “Our first commercial kitchen began production in 2014, and we’ve been developing award-winning products ever since.”

Since its 2014 launch, Cotton said the company has garnered national recognition within the specialty food and beverage community.

“Our products have been recognized by the Good Food Awards. Our Chicory Pecan Bitters and Rose Cordial Syrup were both winners in 2018. El Guapo’s Sweet Potato Syrup and Tricentennial Bitters are finalists for the 2019 Good Food Awards as well,” she said.

The Good Food Awards is an annual small-batch, hand-crafted food and beverage product competition held by the Good Food Foundation in San Francisco. Finalists are selected from more than 2,000 total entries from across the United States, in more than 15 categories, such as spirits, elixirs, pantry, snacks and more.

Cotton said El Guapo’s mission is to fill the void between consumers looking to create a high-quality cocktail and the top-notch ingredients needed to create them.

“While consumers appreciate and are willing to pay more for the craftsmanship of well-made spirits, the same level of consideration isn’t always applied to the items needed to make quality libations,” she said. “We wanted to bring the same level of craftsmanship to bitters, syrups and pre-made drink mixers so that customers could easily create quality cocktails, both at home and commercially behind the bar.”

El Guapo includes a modest team of two full-time employees and three part-time employees and is headquartered in Gretna.

“To date, our products have been manufactured in an old catering facility located on the West Bank in Gretna,” Cotton said. “In spring 2019, we’ll more than double our square footage, 2,350 square feet to be exact, in order to quadruple our production capacity, and we’ll be adding event services and cocktail classes to our offerings. Our new office and production kitchen will be located in Uptown on Tchoupitoulas Street. The new location will also be home to our two mobile cocktail bars we use for weddings and events.”

Cotton stresses the importance of keeping the company’s batches of tonics and bitters small, using homegrown ingredients and businesses in the production of each El Guapo product.

“All El Guapo products are handmade, from the kitchen to the bottling line. Our products are created with locally sourced seasonal ingredients whenever possible, each of which are traceable to the farm level,” Cotton said. “We work with regional farmers like Covey Rise and Inglewood Farm to create many of our most popular products. If any raw materials aren’t available locally, they’re procured from third-party organic sources. Plus, every product is non-GMO, vegetarian, gluten-free and contains no added sugar.”

In addition to two dozen El Guapo products available in stores, Cotton works closely with restaurateurs, chefs and bartenders to produce custom orders or fulfill a special need.

“We have dozens of recipes that we produce exclusively in batches for private-label clients, celebrity chefs and restaurant groups nationwide,” Cotton said.

El Guapo’s target audience is split evenly between the home consumer and professional kitchens and bars, with a growing group of James Beard award-winning local establishments as fans, including Compere Lapin, Brennan’s, Arnaud’s, Cochon, Willa Jean and Saba, according to Cotton.

While sales remain strong from month to month, Cotton does see spikes during certain times of the year.

“There is some seasonality to our business as we batch several consumer variants monthly in addition to our private-client business,” she said. “We’re close to a 15 percent increase in sales year-over-year overall.”

With flavors such as “Creole Pecan,” “Crawfish Boil,” “Holiday Pie” and “Gumbo,” Cotton says the flavor makers at El Guapo are constantly inspired by the culinary landscape of south Louisiana, and beyond.

“We’re inspired primarily by our home of New Orleans,” she said. “The city has such a rich culture, history and incredible ingredients. El Guapo’s regionally inspired products have shown the most success, like our 2018 Good Food Award-winning Chicory Pecan Bitters, which are made with freshly roasted chicory coffee from Congregation Coffee Roasters and organic pecans from Inglewood Farms. We’re also traveling constantly for various trade shows, meetings and events which gives us the opportunity to try drinks in other regions and familiarize ourselves with ingredients that aren’t as popular or even available in New Orleans.”

Cotton says she has been surprised by the input from top chefs and home cooks alike who share their unconventional use of El Guapo products.

“Our favorites are cooking recipes. One of [New York celebrity chef] David Chang’s beverage managers makes a killer chocolate chip cookie with our Chicory Pecan bitters, and we now add a tablespoon of our Crawfish Boil bitters to pimento cheese after a customer raved about it and we decided to give it a try.”

In addition to a booming retail, private label and restaurant industry sales, El Guapo introduced on-site event cocktail preparation this past year, providing travelling bar service for weddings, corporate events, birthday parties and more. (Think taco trucks that dispense high-end cocktails and concoctions.)

“We’ve just started dipping our toes into the water with events and weddings,” Cotton said. “We are very excited about our mobile cocktail bars which are part of that [event] leg of the business. One of our bar carts is a 1971 Airstream with heart-pine herringbone floors, and another is a 1972 Citroen H-Van in mint condition. This is a beautiful addition to our business and will be a focus for our expansion in 2019.”

The company recently completed a re-branding, complete with a new logo and packaging.

“Last year, we were the only Louisiana company featured in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book,” said Cotton, “and we’re looking forward to furthering this momentum by expanding beyond the Gulf South region.”

El Guapo can be purchased nationwide, and in Australia and New Zealand, at select upscale liquor stores, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

New Orleanians can purchase El Guapo products at Coutelier, Keife & Co., NOLA Boards, Martin Wine Cellar, Whole Foods and Rouses Markets.


DID YOU KNOW?

Two top-selling historic bitters brands

Angostura
Established in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, who originally created the Angostura bitter tonic to help with digestive ailments, the cocktail bitters company that we recognize today as a cocktail and food accent came out of Trinidad in the 1870s.

Best known as an essential ingredient in the Manhattan cocktail.

Peychaud’s
The locally born and beloved Peychaud’s bitters were created around 1793 by Antoine Amedie Peychaud, who added the flavor concoction to cognac potions he mixed up for friends and family.

Best known as essential to the Sazerac and the Old-Fashioned.


Since its launch in 2014, El Guapo has garnered national recognition, including at the Good Food Awards in 2018 which recognized the company’s “Chicory Pecan Bitters” and “Rose Cordial Syrup.”


FYI

What are bitters…?

According to Merriam-Webster:
Bitter, noun

A usually alcoholic solution of bitter and often aromatic plant products used especially in preparing mixed drinks or as a mild tonic.

…And how do I use them?

According to cookbook author and cocktail expert Mark Bittman in a June 2016 article for Epicurious.com, bitters provide a unique accent to a cocktail, but should be used sparingly. “Bitters are to cocktails as salt is to food,” Bittman says. “They improve and align flavors just like salt does; they help to accentuate flavor and they bring their own flavors.”


Carnival Libations

Carnival Bloody Mary (winner of the 2018 NOLA Bloody Mary Festival)

2ounces Vodka (We used St. Roch, but any quality vodka will do)

4ounces Bloody Mary mix

El Guapo Crawfish Boil bitters

Worcestershire sauce

Hot sauce

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add vodka and top with your favorite Bloody Mary mix. Splash in El Guapo Crawfish Boil bitters, Worcestershire and hot sauce to taste. Stir well. Garnish with pickled okra, olives, lemon zest and other savory lagniappe.


 

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