Bitter is better: In conversation with Scot Maddox of El Guapo Bitters
Any decent Louisianan knows how much seasoning matters in the making of a memorable pot of gumbo. The same can also be said for the role of bitters in a great cocktail. “They are the salt and pepper of the cocktail world,” says Scot Maddox, founder of local company El Guapo Bitters. “Have you ever had a cocktail that is just missing a little something? Hit it with a couple of dashes of bitters and it brings everything else together.”
Bitters, for those unaware, are high-proof alcohols infused with various botanicals such as herbs, bark and fruit. Originally, the alcoholic concoctions were used for medicinal purposes, but the birth of the cocktail in the 19th century inspired more intricate uses. “You’ve got this bittering agent which will activate your taste buds and [also] acts as a flavor enhancer,” says Maddox, who began making his own bitters while working at the now shuttered bar Iris in the French Quarter. “I wanted to elevate the bar program and bring something unique for the people that we had coming in.”
The homemade bitters received great praise from customers and members of the bar community and in 2013 Maddox’s friend Ann Tuennerman (founder of Tales for the Cocktail) advised him to sell them at her bar-industry convention. “She really helped inspire me to do this as a career,” says Maddox, whose company now makes over twenty different products that are sold throughout the city and used in multiple bars.
So what makes a good bottle of bitters? “Not using artificial flavorings, using local produce whenever possible, and creating interesting flavors that are going to work with a multitude of spirits,” says Maddox, who has strived to utilize New Orleans’ unique culinary and drinking history in the making of his flavors, “We have nine different varieties of bitters now [including] Summer Berries bitters (which is made with local fruit), Crawfish Boil and Gumbo bitters, and Spiced Cocoa Tea bitters which is aged in LA 1 Whiskey barrels from Thibodaux.”
“The Gumbo bitters is a hyper local flavor and it creates a lot of interest in a cocktail. It's got filé in it that’s foraged, sun-dried and hand ground. The Crawfish Boil [is] based off of a boil recipe from J&J Seafood over on Franklin Avenue (in Gretna). Even the Love Potion bitters is inspired by all the great flower smells that we have at certain times of year, be it citrus blossoms or jasmine— which it contains— along with a variety of other flowers too,” says Maddox, who has also partnered with local roaster Congregation Coffee in the making of El Guapo’s Chicory Pecan bitters.
Before entering the brave new world of bitters, Maddox was a member of the United States Marines Corps and continues to support the armed services through his business: 10% of El Guapo’s profits are donated to the Semper Fi Fund for wounded and deceased veterans and their families. “I wanted to give back because I wouldn't be who I am now without my brothers and sisters. And I was lucky to come out with a couple of bad knees and some hearing loss…other people are not. And you know we need to make sure that we take care of them.” In fact, the name of the company comes from a nickname given to Maddox while serving in the military, “There are worse nicknames to have than ‘handsome’ so I just roll with it,” he says while chuckling.
The success of El Guapo has allowed Maddox to expand his lineup of products and he now makes cordials and syrups. He’s also been able to do a bit of traveling, recently going to Cuba, “I wanted to see some of these places where a lot of drinks were created and experience it with Cuban rum. And it was a great educational trip as far as that goes,” he says.
With the flourishing of the craft cocktail scene in New Orleans over the past ten years (and the 15th annual Tales of the Cocktail which kicks off next Tuesday July 18th), Maddox is just happy to be a part of it. “This has been a big renaissance, and I'm really glad to see it happen. Prohibition really kind of killed cocktail culture in America. And then after Prohibition, most of the people that had worked in the industry retired or moved on to other things. Many of them moved to other countries where they could still practice the craft. And when cocktails came back you ended up with kind of a shady cocktail culture where things were really syrupy sweet and drinks were not so great, “he says, adding, "Now we've gone back to having some of these cocktails that people were not familiar with, and I think it's great to see the look on peoples’ faces when they taste a real cocktail.”
For all the developments in cocktail culture, Maddox is still a traditionalist when it comes to his own “go-to” drink, “My all-time favorite cocktail is the Sazerac,” he says, though he has given the original recipe a bit of a zing with some of his own bitters, “So I do it half and half with our Crawfish Boil bitters [and the regular Peychaud’s bitters].”
“Drinking one of those is like you're drinking a Sazerac after you have just eaten a ton of crawfish. It's just all those spices and herbs that you would put into a boil, when you still have that flavor around your lips and in your mouth and you're drinking that cocktail and it's a great experience.”
El Guapo can be found online and locally at Keife and Co., Elio’s, Rouses, Dorignac’s, Martin’s Wine Cellar, Vieux Carre Wine and Spirts, as well as at Tales of the Cocktails Bitters’ Market next week You can find out more about Tales of the Cocktail at www.talesofthecocktail.com More information about Scott and El Guapo Bitters can be found at www.elguapobitters.com.
This interview shortened and edited for clarity.
David Benedetto is the Assistant Program Director and Marketing Director at WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired here in New Orleans, where he also hosts the weekly “Writer’s Forum” program and “Audio Portraits” podcast. He writes about culture for NolaVie’s “Notes From New Orleans” series and can be emailed at email@example.com.