Kyle Branche is a Bartender/Mixologist in Los Angeles who also operates a bar education online course and who recently delved into the world of bitters creating Bitters Hub, an online reference guide for all things bitters.
Branche has been published 75 times in industry magazines, as well as an author of various bar books, including the most recent 10-book series titled Cocktail Hotel 1st Floor – 10th Floor.
We recently caught up with Kyle and dug deep to find out more about the world of bitters and his journey throughout his bartending career.
You are a bartender/mixologist in the Los Angeles area as well as operate a popular bar education course online. How did you break into this industry? What inspired you?
It started in Phoenix. After six years in the music business (three in retail in the old, classic record stores of the late 70’s, and three in distribution where I received sales awards from both Journey and Willie Nelson through Columbia Records) and one year as shipping/receiving manager of a computer warehouse, I realized that my best energy was at night. I’m a total nighthawk.
I wanted to get back working directly with the public. I’m also built for speed and had performed years of product inventory work. I really wasn’t much of a bar crawler, but I loved the energy, so I thought well, why not work in it? On weekends I would barback at a bar nearby where I lived. Tips were attractive to me. I then crash-coursed a bartending school in one week as part of a deal I made with an HR office manager at a brand new Embassy Suites Hotel that hired me as one of their original employees when it opened, as a barback and poolside and banquet bartender.
This was the 80’s and there wasn’t much action in town. At that time, the Marriot owned Embassy Suites, but they also owned the Black Angus restaurant chain. So, I asked for a transfer to the Angus in Burbank, CA. Luckily, there was a position open, and it was granted. My father worked at Lockheed Aircraft, so I had a place to stay. I drove to LA in the middle of the night where I had two jobs in the first week that I arrived. The other was at the Castaways restaurant up on the hill. The Angus was promoting their nightclub scene at the time so it was hopping. A new beginning for me!
You have to understand, I’m really a small town guy. Before moving out West at the age of 7, I was born and raised in upstate New York in a small, historic village called Sackets Harbor, right off the edge of Lake Ontario, on my grandparents dairy farm, about 70 miles upstate from Syracuse. So when the industry uses culinary movement slogans like “Farm to Table”, “Farm to Fork” or “From the Earth to the Bar”, I’m literally roots to branches.
You have also launched a website, Bitters Hub. It’s the first of its kind where bartenders/mixologists can research and find bitters by their flavor profile, brand, location and more. What made you start this detailed bitters reference and guide?
I launched the Bitters Hub in September of last year. Back in late 2014, I went on an online search for whatever current bitters I could find out there as I was interested in delving deep to learn something new and add to my knowledge, experience, and practice behind the bar. I had $400 saved up and set aside for bitters purchasing. But, what I found was much more than I thought available and there was nothing online solely for this product coverage. Even the few bitters books don’t cover it all, their content isn’t designed to.
In early 2015 after uncovering 60 brands and 360 flavor entries, I decided it was enough to put out a simple quick reference guide. I then went on another even more heavily researched pass two years later to find that everything had doubled to the point where I then decided to create the blog so everyone could have free and wide access to it as the global directory that it now is. The site is simple in nature and layout, currently housing 127 brands, 845 flavor entries, and 400 live links. With a simple Bitters A – Z page and monthly in-depth bitters brand owner interviews to give readers a richer experience in getting to know the multi-tasking artisans behind these great products.
Most bartenders, and chefs, still don’t know all of what’s available out there in the bitters world today because there’s never been an online source dedicated to it until now. The last five years has been the greatest growth period of brands and flavors of bitters to date.
What is the first thing you look for in a bitter?
The flavor profile, meaning if there’s one main flavor, I need to know how it comes across by smell, scent, and taste. If it’s a combination of flavors, I check for what balance the owner has created with it and why. If it comes across strong, I may use less. If it comes across mild, I may use more.
For example, Craig over at Crude Bitters and Sodas in North Carolina has one called Bitterless Marriage – a combination of hibiscus, lavender, and oak. When I first bought this I was hoping the lavender would be an undercurrent and not over the top, because that floral scent can take over very easily. And I was happy in that it came out that way. The oak is in the middle where it should be, nicely separating the two floral components.
When you work with bitters as much as I do, you get good at it after awhile. But, in order to get good at it, you have to work and experiment with them – there’s no way around it. It’s an investment, but a worthy and valuable one. Think in terms of Earthy – Herbal – Medicinal – Woodsy – Fruity – Floral – Nutty – Spicy. Let these terms be your guide in purchasing a varied selection that covers all the bases. Those flavor categories then make me think in terms of linking them to the main spirits – Vodka – Gin – Rum – Tequila – Bourbon – Whiskey – Scotch – Brandy/Cognac. Have a range of bitters to go with anything.
Has there been a notable bitter company that has a standout?
I have many favorites, but to name a quick baker’s dozen:
Black Cloud’s Charred Cedar out of Calgary; Napa Valley Bitters’ Toasted Oak, Bitter Elegance, Meyer Lemon Sage, and Tamarind Lime Chili; Apothecary’s Tialocan and Mason Dixon out of Vancouver; Crude Bitters and Sodas’ Cherry Walnut and “Rizzo”; Dashfire Bitters’ Bourbon Barrel-Aged Orange out of Minnesota; Miracle Mile Bitters Co.’s Forbidden and Yuzu out of Los Angeles; and Seven Stills‘ Blood Orange and Baking Spices out of San Francisco.
Has there been a notable bartender, cocktail, spirit, space and or experience that has inspired you throughout your journey?
I needed to expand my work experience and have more freedom, without management, and there’s no better place than Los Angeles to do so. Many celeb clients that have let me into their homes, one of them being a famous Hollywood PR guy that I used to work for at his parties every year at his home up on Mulholland Drive before he passed away in 2012. His client list included Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock, Shirley MacLaine, Clint Eastwood, Jean Stapleton, and dozens of more artists and creatives – and this is just one client. But, it’s all of the various experiences that keep you young and fresh and presenting anew each time out. You have to create your own hospitality from within.
This type of work style is what inspires me to continue, with a variety of people that understand and value what I bring to the gigs. An immersive, apothecary experience that no one else can duplicate in the way that I do it.
What are some trends relating to cocktails that you’re excited about? (sensory, technique, experience, garnish, etc.)
I have the largest bitters kit in town so I have a tendency to create trends more than follow them. Aside from the club I work at in Hollywood, I’m also a busy private freelance bartender. This allows me to bring my bar craft out to the people instead of waiting for them to come into my bar. This recipe takes you above and beyond into the realm of investment. We’re never going to improve if we’re not going to expand the horizon. A couple years ago I created a variation on a classic called a Cedar Peach Old Fashioned. But below is my new take on the classic cocktail.
Derby-style Walk in the Woods Old Fashioned
INGREDIENTS & TOOLS
Large Old Fashioned Tumbler
Ice, dome cubed
1 Orange Slice, sliced round at bottom of the glass
1 Luxardo Cherry OR 1 splash Perrier L’Orange, cold
1/8 to 1/4 oz. Fresh Mint-Infused Simple Syrup
4 drops Napa Valley Vintage Black Walnut Bitters
4 drops Apothecary Spirit Fire Cherry Cedar Bitters
3 drops Napa Valley Wild West Whiskey Sarsaparilla Bitters
2 drops Dashfire Old Fashioned Bitters
2 drops 18.21 Barrel-Aged Havana and Hide bitters
2 oz. of your choice Whiskey, Bourbon or Rye
- Place orange slice at bottom of the glass. Follow by either adding a Luxardo cherry on bottom of glass or a splash of cold Perrier L’Orange.
- Muddle All together
- Top atomized cascade with 1 spray each of the following bitters over the Ice:
- Dashfire Bourbon Barrel-Aged Orange
- Black Cloud Charred Cedar
- Napa Valley Toasted Oak
- Crude Spruce & Birch
- Crude Cherry Walnut
- Garnish with zest of orange peel.
There’s a variety of bitter brands now out there from all over the world. Would you say geographic location and culture has anything to do with the flavors and notes of bitters?
Oh yes, many bitters brand owners have a background and history that has led them to do what they do today, that includes using herbs and spices based in the cuisine and culture they grew up in or have the experience in as far as location. That’s where research comes in on our part and that’s why I do the brand owner interviews, to delve into that and get to know them better.
- Rob at Black Cloud has a flavor called Prairie Rose where rose petals and rose hips are blended with a collection of berries and botanicals to recreate the stoic aroma of the Canadian prairies.
- Cole at Apothecary created the Southern culture bitters called Mason Dixon which is a blend of pecans, peaches, sarsaparilla, black tea, and botanicals. His other new one is a North Africa bitters called Barbary Coast – lemon, cardamom, honey, saffron, ginger, dried fruits, and spices. This just a few of the many.
Finally, what are your ideal bitters, liqueur/spirit, garnish, atmosphere and music mashup?
A speakeasy-style bar atmosphere serving bitter-variations on classic cocktails in a perfectly dim-lit room with a jukebox filled with an ever-rotating selection of classic music from the American songbook, as well as classic rock and jazz from all eras, mixed with a little cool Brittania.