Marcel van Eeden has never worked behind a bar. Until recently, his work consisted of running his Dallas-based digital technology and design company, Chante Digital & Interactive. Yet when his wife, Megan, accepted an internal medicine residency at the University of Missouri’s Columbia Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital in Columbia, Missouri, he stumbled into a new side business: The Bitters Club. Based out of a commercial kitchen in nearby New Franklin, Missouri, The Bitters Club sells aromatic bitters, cocktail syrups and mixers and spice blends for making your own bitters at home.
“I started with things that are pretty easy, but I’m working my way up and helping people create just as good of cocktails at home as they’d get at a super nice bar,” van Eeden says.
Although not a bartender by trade, van Eeden is a cocktail enthusiast who has long enjoyed experimenting with drinks at home. “At family get-togethers, I’m always the bartender,” he says with a laugh. So far he’s built the company up from scratch, designing its logos and labels, building its website and hustling his products at the Columbia Farmers’ Market. “When we moved to Columbia, I made the decision to go full fledge [with the bitters business], because there’s no competition in this region; there’s no bitters manufacturer in Missouri.”
His earliest product was the aromatic bitters, made with a blend of 26 herbs, spices and fruits, plus bourbon, brandy and gin. Sold in five ounce bottles, the bitters start sweet on the palate and finish with a spicy kick. At 60 percent ABV, the bitters are almost the highest ABV option on the market. His other early product was the spice blends, which currently come in orange, lime and chile flavors, as well as Efflorescent, which van Eeden describes as having a floral character. The blends are sold with simple instructions printed on the back of the packaging: For example, the lime bitters are mixed in a Mason jar with vodka, rum and fresh lime zest.
“The DIY approach differentiates me on the market,” van Eeden says. “If you look at other [bitters] on the market, they charge an arm and a leg, which is ridiculous – spices cost like $2, and they’re charging $65. I typically put in more spices than they would, just because I want the outcome to be better. At home, people like to experiment with cocktails, and I want to give them that option.”
The aromatic bitters are currently being sold and used behind the bar at Barred Owl Butcher & Table in Columbia. Bar manager Andrew Ruth also uses The Bitters Club’s chile bitters spice blend to make bitters for a bourbon cocktail “to add just a little spice or spicy undertone,” van Eeden says, adding that he enjoys using it in Bloody Marys.
For the bar at Flyover in Columbia, van Eeden made a special batch of his floral Efflorescent bitters spice blend for a gin cocktail.
The Bitters Club’s most recent products are its lavender amaro syrup and smoked Old Fashioned mixer, both sold in eight-ounce bottles. “There’s nothing like the amaro syrup on the market,” he says. “It’s sweet up front, and then you have this bitter taste. You can add vodka, gin or really any alcohol and make an amaro yourself.”
Typically customers will run through the syrup and mixer much faster than they will bitters, which are only used as a dash, and van Eeden is hoping they will help build up the business. He’s now working on a hibiscus-whiskey sour mixer to hopefully debut this spring or summer.
“It’s an attempt to get some cash flow in the short-term, while still giving people an interesting flavor,” he says. “It’s a pain to make at home, because if you want to make a smoked Old Fashioned at home, you’re going to have to smoke some wood. This makes it easier while giving you the same flavor.”
Although his primary audience is bartenders (both professional and home), van Eeden also positions his products as pairings for nonalcoholic drinks. He says the smoked Old Fashioned mixer, for example, would pair well with ginger ale, while the lavender amaro syrup could be simply cut with water. He says one of his customers mixes his aromatic bitters with a little water for a “digestion booster.”
For those more interested in mixing the bitters with booze, van Eeden has developed a variety of cocktail recipes tailored to his products, including a Moscow Mule and Margarita with the lime bitters. The next step, according to van Eeden, is to develop bitters or flavoring products specifically for chefs, “and how they can use them to impart more flavor into their dishes.”
Look for The Bitters Club at the Columbia Farmers’ Market or shop online.
The Bitters Club, New Franklin, Missouri, bittersclub.com