Let’s try a little verbal rorschach test before we start. I’m gonna say a short phrase. You say what comes to mind.
“Artisanal small batch locally-made bitters”
When I gave myself this test, a few choice words came to mind. Pretentious. New-age. Unnecessary. Gimmicky.
However, after a long conversation with Crude Bitters & Sodas founder Craig Rudewicz, I walked away with an impression less of a character from a rejected Portlandia sketch and more of a guy who just really wants to make drinking tastier and more fun.
Rudewicz manages to make a potentially alienating and easily lampooned product idea into something fun and playful. His product mission statement is “for cocktails with or without suspenders”. You’re not going to see him wearing American Apparel or twiddling a wispy mustache, nor will you find him lecturing you on the “correct” way to make an Old Fashioned while brushing back an intimately maintained undercut.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a mixologist or a young adult trying your hand at your first cocktail, he says he’s just happy you’re “going to go out and experiment.“
What makes Rudewicz’ story and product so exciting, and the context surrounding it so interesting, is that he’s among several local food and drink startups breaking the mold of the Triangle as just a tech hub. Companies like Crude, Mati Energy, Sangha, Ello Raw and others are all creating unique and edible products gaining prominence and popularity in the area.
In Rudewicz’ case, just a few years after realizing he could make some money selling bitters in tiny dropper bottles on the side for fun, he’s got his own production facility and retail space in Raleigh and is making headlines in Southern Living Magazine.
His story and branding are compelling and endearing—a rejection of both the snootiness in craft foods and the intensity of tech and bio businesses. While I could ramble on and on about this, what it comes down to is that Rudewicz like to drink, likes to serve, and likes to make both of these things as fun and interesting as possible.
Or, you can just sum it up the way he does, “I’ve always been an avid drinker… Whether it's beer or wine or cocktails, you got a little bit of alcohol in there and I enjoy it. I can't cook to save my life, but I could always make a drink.”
Craft bitters startups take on a giant
Craft bitters are a relatively new phenomenon, and some of the less experienced drinkers might benefit from a bit of background bitters and on just how craft bitters movement began.
In fact, despite trying my hand at an Old Fashioned or Manhattan a few times, I had to do a bit of research on what exactly constitutes bitters. Wikipedia defines it as “traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavored with botanical matter such that the end result is characterized by a bitter, sour or bittersweet flavor. Numerous longstanding brands of bitters were originally developed as patent medicines, but are now sold as digestifs and cocktail flavorings.”
Basically, you combine herbs, botanicals and other flavors and use alcohol as a substrate to create a tincture to use in slightly modifying the taste of various alcoholic beverages.
Angostura Bitters is the biggest name in the bitters game—the “Coca-Cola or Pepsi” of the cocktail industry. When the cocktail movement began to resurge in the early 2000s and demand could not meet supply, Angostura bitters faced a serious shortage
of product in 2009. This company’s misfortune left an open window for competitors to enter the scene. While industry-wide stats are hard to find, some sources cite companies with record growth following the unfortunate bottle shortage fiasco.
Small companies began to flood the market to fill the niche. Crude, based in Raleigh, was one of them. But while the company was officially founded in the wake of the shortage in 2009, Rudewicz’ passion for food, drink and service goes back several years.
Rudewicz left college and shortly thereafter entered the 9-to-5 life, working in the IT sector. As an IT professional, he had a regular schedule, a good salary and an opportunity to travel the country for work. However, the only enjoyment he found in this position was not out of passion for his work, but “because [the travel] would take me into cool new bars.”
Sometimes you’ve just gotta say screw it to a productive and prosperous life if it’s absent of joy, and that’s just what he did. Rudewicz quit his job and started tending bar at the Little Hen in Apex.
Not everyone in his life approved.
“When are you going to get a real job?”, he heard frequently.
He openly snapped back if someone felt like offering an unwarranted opinion on his decision to leave a position of unfulfilling safety.
“Bartending and managing a bar or waiting tables are part the hospitality industry, and the people that do that for a living are those that like the social aspects, whether it's serving or crafting. That's what I loved the most,” he says.
Everyone knows someone who, at a dinner or potluck or party, spends the vast majority of the event cooking or making drinks, only joining the festivities once everyone has a full plate or fresh drink. It might be your friend, your doting mother, or your partner, but there are some people out there who thrive on cultivating an atmosphere of comfort through food and drink. Rudewicz is that guy, and it’s paid off.
He started by experimenting with drinks when it was slow at the bar. He'd make new cocktails or slightly modified ones for regulars at the Little Hen and, much to his pleasure, he found that they enjoyed this back and forth nature of ideation, experimentation and taste-testing as much as he did.
“They were interested in different flavors, I was interested in serving them,” he says.
Rudewicz decided to start making his own tinctures instead of playing with the ones already available at the bar, and the reception was warm.
Realizing that he might have a knack for the bitters business, he started selling at farmers markets around the area. Eventually, a business license became necessary “so I wouldn’t get in trouble .”
Still, he admits, “I had no idea what I was doing. To a degree, I still really don't have an idea of what I'm doing.”
It’s hard to blame him for being confused about how to start a bitters business in the state given the laws on alcohol production and consumption here, especially since he was the first to do it in North Carolina.
“No one really knew what to do with me... When I started here no one at the NC ABC had any answers for me. No one at the Department of Ag had any answers for me. I had to read the statutes from front to back.” While Rudewicz didn’t cite exact pieces of the law, Bullet 18B-103 section 10 from this bill
seems to touch on the use of alcohol in spiritous extracts, but makes no mentions of bitters or other flavoring extracts used in cocktails by name.
Rudewicz eventually realized, due to the lack of specifics governing the production and consumption of extracts, that in North Carolina bitters were treated legally much in the same way as vanilla extracts. They’re non-potable intoxicating beverages, i.e. things with an ABV but that at the same time “you would never open a bottle and drink it because you’d get sick before you got drunk,” Rudewicz says.
Unlike producers of potable spirits in the state, he wasn’t hampered by complicated and stringent legislation. In his Raleigh production facility, Rudewicz combines botanicals, fruits, spices, and natural flavoring agents, steeps the ingredients in high proof grain alcohol, then strains and bottles the tinctures you see on his shelf as bitters - all without the heavy hand of the law looking at his process under a microscope. He works with his hands, producing both a line of mainstays year round, and introducing seasonal bitters when his creative streak strikes. This summer, he released a Roasted Pineapple and Vanilla bitters called “Tiki Two-Two”
in conjunction with Charlotte-based Dogwood Southern Table as part of a seasonal run.
While Angostura bitters are internationally famous for their role in two of the most famous cocktails in the world - the Old Fashioned and Manhattan - bitters aren’t limited to just these established drinks. Rudewicz produces dark bitters, like Big Bear
which are designed to be used with darker spirits, and more airy concoctions like the rosemary and grapefruit-based Rizzo
, which play nice with lighter spirits. The latter is what, it seems to me, he finds as his most exciting product. Bitters are synonymous with the drinks cemented in popularity half a century ago These lighter and more explorative creations allow him to create drinks both delicious and innovative, meaning he's not simply producing his own version of an established product for an established purpose, but flexing his creative muscle by creating entirely new flavors to be used in entirely new drinks.
While getting his business together and legal ducks in a row was a bit difficult, Rudewicz has managed well thanks to both a refined palette and a general sense for business.
Crude Bitters & Sodas as a business entity was established in 2012, and the physical shop in Raleigh opened two years later.
By the end of 2015, his Rizzo bitters had won a national Good Food Award. This is a pretty big deal no matter the sector of the food or drink industry, but especially because Crude’s were the first bitters ever to be recognized in the competition.
After the win, Rudewicz felt validated that Crude Bitters & Sodas had a future as a sustainable business. Since then, the company has expanded into about 15 other states where they sell and distribute their products. In terms of our home state, you can find Crude Bitters in “almost every major section of NC from the Outer banks to Asheville, and everywhere in between.”
If you're looking to pick up a bottle for yourself, you can check your local Whole Foods stores, spice shops both in NC and NYC, bottle shops in nearly every major town in the state, NC ABC stores and of course Crude Bitters and Sodas in Raleigh. Sizes of the bottles vary from about 60-100 mL, but most products can be purchased for $11-17 a pop.
In another vote of confidence in Crude Bitters, Rudewicz took home a Southern Living Food Award for his “Lindsay” bitters, which are an interesting mix of pecan, magnolia and habanero
More than just cocktails
In just a few short years, a bar stool brainstorm has turned into an award winning product—the first of its kind in the state. However, Crude Bitters & Sodas isn’t just a product-focused company.
Rudewicz spoke with excitement about his growing cocktail-making classes, where small groups reserve a ticket to come to the Crude shop and experiment with new liquors, bitters, flavors and drinks, with each series of sessions a different theme. This weekend’s sold-out class is on shrubs and shrub cocktails, and the next series of sessions will cover frozen cocktails (which I’m desperately hoping to attend).
He views the classes as a social event, “low key”, where you can come with friends for an afternoon relaxation and hopefully leave a little bit more knowledgeable about drink and the art of the cocktail. It’s providing a fun outing, advertising for the growing company, and a lesson in how to better understand and exist within the “growing cocktail culture in our state.” Not to mention, it sounds like a pretty incredible date night for the lovebirds out there.
Despite a clear tonal shift towards excitement when speaking of his growing cocktail courses, Rudewicz made clear that he’s “not interested in running a bar right now”, so don’t expect to see a Crude-inspired establishment popping up any time soon.
Crude shows the Triangle is a place for every entrepreneur
If you take away any verbiage hinting that Craig is making a culinary product, the story is a pretty familiar “man quits day job, man makes niche product, man finds success” story so common in entrepreneurial communities. It’s been done, and it’s been done to death especially in this area. What’s so exciting about Crude Bitters & Sodas is that it's something you imbibe; it’s not an app, a SaaS or B2B company, a biotech or pharma firm, or anything typical of the local startup scene.
Innovation isn’t always data-driven or described in acronyms and eye-roll inducing buzzwords, sometimes it’s just tasty and gets you buzzed. Sometimes, simpler is better.