The Handsome One
After only five years in business, El Guapo’s bitters are now in 49 states and five countries — and growing fast.
Poppy Tooker has spent her life devoted to the cultural essence that food brings to Louisiana, a topic she explores weekly on her NPR-affiliated radio show, Louisiana Eats! From farmers markets to the homes and restaurants where our culinary traditions are revered and renewed, Poppy lends the voice of an insider to interested readers everywhere.
Christa Cotton of El Guapo is really going places! In just over five years, Cotton has grown the production of one of America’s hottest beverage brands from its original, leased commercial kitchen space in Gretna, to a 2,350-square-foot shotgun on Tchoupitoulas Street and most recently to spacious new digs on Gravier Street in New Orleans’ Mid-City. The company’s new 32,000-square-foot facility has allowed them to grow exponentially.
“Just 18 months ago we were only capable of processing 200 orders a week,” said Cotton. “Today, we’re handling 2,000 orders in the same amount of time.”
When the El Guapo trademark became available in 2017, Cotton formed the New Orleans Beverage Group before purchasing the original recipes and brand. She spent two years developing a proprietary brewing process yielding 100% alcohol-free bitters instead of using the high-proof grain spirits usually incorporated in bitters manufacturing.
From that original bitters assortment, Cotton has grown her offerings to include more than 10 core bitters flavors and seasonal selections. The company also produces syrups, cordials and mixer bases that result in professional craft cocktail results from any home bar. Bartenders and restaurateurs across the nation are fans of El Guapo’s impeccably sourced, all-natural production with gallon sizes of many items available especially for them.
A historic building, the company’s new home comes complete with a fascinating history. The sturdy, brick structure was first used as New Orleans’ original malaria hospital. By the late 1800s it became Bell South’s headquarters. Every telegram sent in New Orleans originated there, delivered via horse and carriage from the facility’s barn. Eventually, Bell South became AT&T and the company continued to use the building as its local headquarters until Hurricane Katrina.
“So many original components of this beautiful building were still here,” Cotton explained “like the 18-foot-tall, windowed barn doors that will allow semi-trailers to pull in and load shipments. We’ve scaled up from cases packed with 12 bottles each, to flats holding 96 bottles and soon, pallets with 1,000 units each.”
That production growth is possible thanks to new, 300-gallon brewing tanks capable of three production runs daily. El Guapo’s first automated filling machine replaces the original gravity-fed unit.
While Cotton looks forward to automated labeling too, she remains firmly committed to keeping the packaging sustainable. The company’s glass bottles have paper labels printed with black ink to allow for recycling. No matter how big El Guapo grows, however, the bottle’s red wax seals will remain — a choice that replaces the tiny, plastic tearaway seals more commonly used in the industry that end up in landfills.
Aside from the line’s beverage applications, chefs are discovering many food applications for El Guapo’s products.
“While we have chefs who serve raw oysters with a dash of our crawfish boil bitters, some home cooks report using them for boiling hot dogs and spicing up pimento cheese recipes,” said Cotton, who adds that she’s most excited about the baking applications for bitters. “When Chef David Chang’s team used our chicory pecan bitters to replace vanilla in his chocolate chip cookie recipe, it was a game changer. I love to use them to create scented whipped cream.”
As exciting as the growth has been, Cotton is over the moon about international opportunities headed her way. With products already available in 49 states and five countries, 2023 finds Cotton headed to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman to explore additional distribution opportunities.
Not long after acquiring the El Guapo trademark, Cotton became pregnant with her daughter, Flora, and alcohol in any form was off the table. Realizing the market potential for alcohol-free drinks, she focused on developing and marketing her completely alcohol-free product line.
“We were alcohol-free before it was cool to be!” Cotton laughed. This unique trait is opening doors for El Guapo in the Middle East, where bitters are popular, but alcohol is strictly controlled, and in most areas, expressly forbidden.
No matter where in the world El Guapo may lead the indomitable Christa Cotton, New Orleanians can rest assured that she will represent our beloved city as the cheerleading ambassador that she is!
Catch Poppy Tooker on her radio show, “Louisiana Eats!” Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Mondays at 8 p.m. on WWNO 89.9 FM.