An Interview with Cindy Capparelli

Portland Cocktail Week, with seven days of world class spirits education, started October 18, 2014 and runs through October 24th (http://portlandcocktailweek.com).

David caught up with Cindy Capparelli, the botanical mastermind behind Portland Bitters Project which creates cocktail bitters and herbal tinctures that are used in a variety of cocktails and snacks.

David: What would you like to tell the world about your products?

Cindy: There is a lack of modern bitter in our diet. In general, our eating habits have become pasty and beige at this point. My products introduce that important taste into the diet - in a good way. Other bitters use processed and refined ingredients. Sometimes their products are not vegan. I use raw sugar and other therapeutic-grade herbs.

David: What do you mean by "bitter in the diet"?

Cindy: Bitter as a sensation in the mouth starts the chain reaction through the digestive system. When your system gets stimulated, it helps to keep your insides healthier because there isn't stagnation happening.

David: What got you started thinking along these lines?

Cindy: I have a botanical background. All my jobs have been plant-based in one way or another. That led me into looking at different uses for plants that are out of the ordinary. I have been a tinkerer in the kitchen all of my life. When I got interested in cocktails, I found out bitters were a major component. I’ve always enjoyed challenging my palate, so I decided to give some a shot.

David: Did you do some research to get started?

Cindy: Yes. I did online research and also looked at old distilling books to get a sense of what people had done before and what the standards are. I had enough information to get going and once I started, things just snowballed.

David: It sounds like you’ve approached it from multiple perspectives.

Cindy: That’s accurate. It brings together a lot of things I like and am interested in. It’s the natural evolution of my background and experience. That may sound like I’m out to cure cancer or something. But some people say everything begins in the gut… so you never know.

David: You mentioned cocktails. How does that figure in?

Cindy: Great cocktails are so prevalent here. There’s no danger of that ending anytime soon. More people are experimenting at home and finding that it can be a lot of fun to experiment with different flavors and get away from the average party menu of beer, Two-Buck-Chuck and Schweppes mixers. Making an awesome Manhattan or Sazerac is about as easy as a whiskey soda.

David: What would you say is the most common use of your bitters?

Cindy: My first intent was to use them in cocktails. But digestive benefits are something many people are unfamiliar with, so if they get introduced to my bitters through cocktails, maybe they will see the other advantages and wider uses of them.

David: What is your personal favorite use of your bitters?

Cindy: It’s so hard to pick. My most frequent use is to take a bit straight from the dropper when I need it. My favorite is to experiment in a culinary way, like the “Swanky Nuts” on my website. And you can't go wrong with an Old Fashioned.

David: Have there been some of your experiments that just didn’t work?

Cindy: Oh yes. I’d tried to do an elder flower in an over-proofed brandy. It just came out like denatured alcohol. It was horrible. I still have it. Maybe I’ll use it for cleaning something sometime.

I’ve made a few iterations that are just too gentle. They’re good tasting, but when you put it in something, it just disappears. Others were so bitter, they were just unpleasant.

David: When did you decide to turn your interest into a business?

Cindy: I’ve always had an inkling that I would be in business for myself. With this project, I started experimenting and giving samples to people I knew and bartenders. I went into the Driftwood Room. Mike the head bartender said it was a good product and he thought I could do something with it.

I was ready for a shift in my life; ready to leave the world of competitive landscaping. A big bunch of factors fell into place that made it possible for me to give it a try.

David: When did you launch the business itself?

Cindy: I started experimenting in 2013 and launched the business in April of 2014.

David: You’re involved in all these creative elements, what has it been like to manage the business element?

Cindy: It’s been a learning curve. Some aspects come naturally. Others I find challenging. Having follow through, making good on the things I say – I have no trouble with that.

Doing the financials and bookkeeping and those kinds of picky things are harder.

I’m much more action oriented. Documenting and note taking is no problem. Recipe development is my favorite part. But the boring stuff is challenging. Focusing enough on what’s right in front of me rather than thinking about all the possibilities is something I'm working on.

Constantly putting myself out there as a small business person has caused me to grow a lot but it can be difficult. If you have a day when you’re not “on” then nothing happens.

David: Are there things you wish you had known from a business perspective when you started?

Cindy: I wish I had known how complicated it is to gather the right information. As a small business person, regardless of what field you’re in, there’s a lot of hunting and pecking in order to find the right way to do things. Whose approval do you need for this? What license do you need for this? As a niche product, that tends to be exacerbated.

David: Are there some things that are easier than you expected?

Cindy: I think sometimes it can be really easy to make connections. I found the spirits community is a lot more supportive than I thought. I found a lot of people that are really welcoming.

David: Before we sat down, you mentioned that cocktail week is starting soon. What is your involvement in that?

Cindy: I designed some cocktails for an event for a Canadian whiskey. I’ll be at the event as one of their artisans in their maker market.

David: Have you participated in Cocktail Week in the past?

Cindy: This will be my first year. They got interested in me through my website. They liked the recipes I came up with and got in touch with me.

David: What have you been working on lately?

At this point in our conversation, Cindy brought out two small amber glass bottles with eye-dropper type closures. One bottle was labelled simply, “F” and the other “B”. As she placed the bottles in front of me, she began instructing me on how to get the full effect when sampling bitters. “Place a couple of drops in one palm and then rub both hands together briskly. Open your hands near your face while inhaling through your nose to get the full essence. See if you can identify what these are.”

“After that, put a couple of drops on your tongue to taste the flavors fully.”

I did this with both samples and was struck by the powerful, yet delicate, flavors. While I couldn’t pinpoint the first one, the second one had unmistakable notes of cacao and orange. I won’t say more than this because Cindy hasn’t introduced them yet and I don’t want to give anything away.

Cindy’s products from Portland Bitters Project are exciting and I’m intrigued by the existing lineup of botanic bitters the new ones to follow. If you are interested in learning more, visit the Portland Bitters Project website at http://www.portlandbittersproject.com/.