A dynamite idea
TNT Bitters takes root just over the state line
CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. — Beyond the license plates, it is difficult to identify commonalities between this village of about 1,800 and the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
In the production and office facility on the second floor of the Cambridge Food Co-op, Michael Shane and Anastasia Monaco laughed when juxtaposing West 114th Street in their home borough of New York City with West Main Street in Cambridge, about 20 minutes from Arlington, Vermont.
"It's very different up here," Monaco said. "Very."
"I was bartending in New York and just getting burned out on it," Shane said. "I've known the area up here forever."
Shane and Monaco, both 34 and friends since high school, are the owners and sole employees of Tonic & Tinctures Bitters Co. Inc., which they founded in 2017. The company sold its first products in December of last year.
Their work above the store involves the manufacture and marketing of bitters, highly concentrated alcoholic liquids which are added to cocktails.
"The goal, I always say, is to be in every cocktail bar within 150 miles of here," Shane said. This territory includes all of Vermont, most of New Hampshire, a sizeable part of upstate New York and parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Shane, with food service management experience, handles the marketing efforts. Monaco, a graduate of culinary school, is in charge of manufacturing and bottling.
The company, which trades as TNT Bitters Co., produces five flavors. The owners plan to add more.
"Bitters are really fun to play with," Monaco said. "They are that secret ingredient that makes a cocktail just a little bit different."
All five flavors are made with an alcohol base of grain neutral spirit that arrives in Cambridge inside a 55-gallon drum.
"It's 190 proof, so it's super, super strong," Monaco said. "It evaporates immediately when it touches your skin."
TNT's bitters are produced in batches using one-gallon glass jars and sold in 4-ounce bottles. .
Bittering agents, which are various roots, barks and leaves, are in every batch. Flavoring comes naturally. For TNT's Pink Mist, grapefruit peels are added to the jars.
"We take dry and fresh grapefruit peel, smoke that and combine it," Monaco said.
Another TNT brand, Napalm in the Morning, features espresso bitters.
"It's made with espresso from Iron Coffee, which is a local roaster in Hoosick Falls," Shane said.
Alibi has aromatic and citrus bitters. A Better Name than Kamikaze has horseradish and ginger bitters. Poblano pepper bitters are in Fire in the Hole.
The concoctions age in the jars for two weeks, and are shaken every few days. The bittering agents and other ingredients are then strained out.
"You add a little bit of simple syrup so it's not crazy bitter," Monaco said, "and a little bit of water to dilute it and then you're ready to bottle."
Three years ago, Shane, after professional stops in Austin and New Orleans, moved to the area to become the bar manager at Pangaea, a restaurant in North Bennington, Vermont. He knew the Cambridge area well. His parents taught at Bennington College in the 1970s and still owned a house on a secluded road outside the village.
Shane later called Monaco and invited her to relocate to upstate New York from Brooklyn, where she was living in a studio apartment and working in retail.
"He said he thought we could probably make one of our dozen or so business plans work up here," Monaco said.
Shane wanted the two Manhattan natives to open a restaurant. The cost for doing a proper opening, he said, would be $150,000 to $200,000. Shane and Monaco still hope to own a restaurant at some point, but TNT Bitters Co. cost $20,000 to get off the ground, with half raised through crowdfunding and half contributed by the two partners.
"Part of what attracted us to bitters was its low cost of entry into production," Shane said.
Tonic & Tinctures Bitters was incorporated in the fall of 2017. The Cambridge Food Co-op, at 1 West Main St., rented Shane and Monaco an upstairs suite. The monthly rent was $275, provided the pair cleaned up their leasehold.
"All of the wood that this desk and the bar and the wall were made out of was on the floor," Monaco said, pointing around the company's office and production space. "We insulated it and painted it."
Monaco and Shane installed a food service-grade sink, prep table and shelving. They obtained licenses from the federal government and the New York State Liquor Authority. TNT shipped its first bitters to customers during the final days of 2018.
Revenues began exceeding expenses in March, Monaco said, but TNT remains a sideline for its two owners. Shane bartends at Public eat+drink in North Adams, Massachusetts, while Monaco is a prep cook for the Brown's Brewing Co. restaurant in North Hoosick, a stone's throw from Bennington, Vermont.
The bar at Public uses bitters from TNT, as does the bar at Shane's former employer, Pangaea, in North Bennington. Five other drinking establishments carry TNT's product. The Bennington Beverage Outlet retails two of the flavors, and the Cambridge Food Co-op sells all five.
The company also sells bitters through its website, tntbitters.com, for $18 each. One recent customer ordered a shipment to Delaware.
"I don't know how this person heard of us, but it was awesome," Shane said.
With only a few shakes going into every cocktail, bitters sold for home use normally last a long time before they need replenishing. Bars are where the largest bitter business is found, because a busy bar can go through a bottle every week. When he's not bartending, Shane frequently makes sales calls on bars within 150 miles of Cambridge. He leaves behind business cards and product samples.
"What we have here is a great partnership," Shane said. "I like going out and being the salesman."
"And I'm terrible at that," Monaco said.
"I can't do the batches," Shane said. "I'm not a cook. She's a chef."
"All I want to do," said Monaco, "is produce."
Charles Erickson is a frequent contributor to Southern Vermont Landscapes.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.