Jennifer Colliau is someone who sweats the details. When it comes to making anything—from a great cocktail to a piece of furniture—she leaves no detail to chance, no stone unturned to make her product the best it can possibly be. To do less than that would compromise her integrity, and that’s something she refuses to do.
That level of commitment to quality is what is making her cocktail syrups a must-have ingredient for bartenders across the country looking to make delicious and authentic cocktails, particularly those from the pre-Prohibition era. A bartender herself for 18 years, Jennifer’s impetus for starting Small Hand Foods, her cocktail ingredient company, came as part of a quest to make the perfect historical Mai Tai (rum, lime juice, curacao, and orgeat) while she was tending bar at the Slanted Door.
“Basically my boss Erik Adkins and I just really loved to nerd out on cocktail history, and we didn’t have anything to make a Mai Tai with,” she said. “So when people would order a Mai Tai, we would give them a combination of rum and juice, and I kept getting on his case because I was like, ‘it’s not a Mai Tai if there’s no almond flavor in it.’”
To make a real Mai Tai—the kind that was created in 1944 at the original Trader Vic’s in Oakland—you need orgeat (pronounced ohr-zaht), which is an almond syrup traditionally made from a combination of sweet and bitter almonds.
“Orgeat has a really fascinating, centuries’ long history,” Jennifer says. “Orge is the Latin word for barley, and originally orgeat was kind of a sweetened barley milk that was used when cow’s milk wasn’t available back before refrigeration was available—we’re talking like the Middle Ages, this is a really ancient ingredient.”
According to Jennifer, at some point Europeans in Spain and France started to add almonds to the barley milk to make it taste better and eventually the barley was dropped altogether because the almonds just tasted better. She likens the consistency and texture of orgeat to other nut-based drinks. “Kind of like horchata,” she said.
After looking into the orgeat that was available on the market, Adkins didn’t think any of them were good enough to make the kind of drinks they wanted to make. So Jennifer did some research and started experimenting with different orgeat recipes so that they could make their customers a real Mai Tai.
“I spent a long time doing all that research and learning all that history,” she said.
Jennifer started looking into old bartending books from the 1800s and learned both the history of orgeat and different recipes for making it. Traditional recipes called for both sweet and bitter almonds, an ingredient that isn’t available on the market here in the U.S.
“What we know as almonds, those are sweet almonds,” she noted.
According to Jennifer, bitter almonds taste far more like almond extract than the nuts we might snack on. They have a medicinal quality and can be poisonous if eaten in excess. She also discovered that the orgeat that was on the market was not made of almonds anymore, but rather sugar and almond flavoring, so she set out to change that. Although it’s illegal to import bitter almonds, she discovered that other stone fruit compounds could produce a similar bitter flavor. Settling on apricot seeds as a substitute for bitter almonds, she created an orgeat recipe that she could use to give those Mai Tais the flavor and texture she was looking for.
In addition to making authentic Mai Tais, Erik and Jennifer began making other cocktails with orgeat, including the Japanese Cocktail (brandy, orgeat and bitters), a drink that was created to commemorate the first visit of the Japanese consulate to the U.S. embassy in 1860. At first neither drink appeared on the official cocktail menu – rather, they would make the drinks for other local bartenders when then came in to the Slanted Door. Soon other area bartenders started asking for her orgeat.
At the same time, her friend Thad Vogler was opening Beretta and he asked her for orgeat for his drink menu. Because he was also interested in putting an original Pisco Punch (pisco, pineapple gum syrup and lemon juice) on his drink menu, he asked Jennifer if she could make him a pineapple gum syrup, as well as a plain gum syrup. She went back to her research and experimented again.
“I came up with a couple versions that he liked, and he was like, ‘so if I put this on a cocktail list, can you make enough?’ and I was like “Yeah!’” she said.
Gum syrup is made from gum arabic, the resin from the acacia tree, which Jennifer says is not unlike sap. It’s used primarily for texture and viscosity, she said, because it’s sticky. It’s also what they used to use on the back of lickable stamps, she said. A plain gum syrup is made much like a simple syrup, she said, but with the resin added. It’s good for drinks such as Old Fashioneds or Sazeracs that are all booze because it gives them texture.
“Pisco Punch,” she said, “I never really understood the drink…there were all these light flavors…it wasn’t until I started making the pineapple gum syrup that I understood the drink…with the addition of the pineapple gum syrup it gives it a textural layer, so it makes this drink that has light flavors have an unctuous mouthful. It makes the drink substantial. That was when I really understood gum arabic and its use in cocktails”
Again, local bartenders got really excited because there were so many drinks from the late 1800s that call for gum syrup and no one was making it. Although she never intended for making cocktail syrups to become a business, it did because the demand was there.
“Thad wanted it, and I respect the hell out of Thad,” she said. “He’s incredible.”
After a couple of years of making her ingredients weekly by hand and delivering them while she was still bartending full.time, the demand became so great that Jennifer began working with a co-packer in Napa. Despite having outsourced her production and gotten a distributor, she keeps a tight reign on certain parts of the process, still making all the almond milk by hand before it goes to the bottler and making her own raspberry or pineapple juice for her syrups. “I’m still very particular about how the ingredients are handled and processed,” she said.
Jennifer subscribes to the same kind of “ingredient reverence” that can be found throughout the Bay Area. When restaurants practice following the integrity of seasonal ingredients, she says, it can’t help but spill over to the bar program. And for her, that means it all comes back to making the perfect drink.
“For me it’s not actually about the syrups, it’s about the cocktails, so every time I change or try something new, I have to make new drinks with that version to see how it comes out. It’s about making the best cocktails possible,” she said.
What drew you to food? Or maybe I should say bartending…
Yeah, but it is food though, and it’s all the same to me. This is going to sound silly but first of all I’ve always liked food. And I understand sugar pretty well, I’ve never taken any class, but when I was a kid I used to make candy. I loved making candy, I had such a sweet tooth as a kid. So we had two cookbooks growing up—“The Joy of Cooking” and “Sunset Collected Favorite Recipes,” and I made every single candy out of the candies and confections chapter in “Joy of Cooking.” I was like 9 years old trying to figure out where I could buy glycerin so I could make salt water taffy. That’s who I was. I’ve just always really liked to cook. I never thought about it being a career mostly because I was a vegetarian, and I thought that that was pretty limiting. I’m not vegetarian anymore so I guess I could have, but the other thing is that I first studied theater when I was younger when I first went to college, but then I got into woodworking and I worked as a cabinet maker and a refinisher for a while and ultimately went back to school and got my degree – I got a fine arts degree in woodworking. When I started Small Hand Foods I was teaching woodworking at The Crucible. So people find that really funny, but for me it’s all the same thing. I like making things with my hands, and I like experiencing things whether it’s a chair or a cocktail. It’s about pleasure. Not necessarily hedonistic pleasure but it’s about enjoying things – whether it’s visual or gustatory. It’s a way to bring more joy into your life. If I hadn’t started Small Hand Foods, I might have kept on teaching woodworking – it’s all the same to me. I’ve been really into textiles lately, I’ve made almost every piece of furniture in my house including carpets and sofas. I just make stuff all the time. I have to. I have to, whether it’s woodworking or otherwise.
And then bartending, I think certainly not today, but most people my age who have been in the industry for a while, I tended bar while I was pursuing something else. I liked it…it just seemed like fun and it was. But it was always like I did that while I was studying furniture. It wasn’t until after I graduated from CCA, and I did some gallery work and I sold some furniture [that I realized] I didn’t like the idea of just making furniture for a living. It’s pretty solitary. I love it, and I still really do, but it’s the way I decompress. It’s really rewarding to me, and to feel the pressure to build eight more of these benches because is the one piece that everyone seems to like, so I might be able to make a little bit of a living, even though I’ve already done all the creative work and now it’s just factory work making the same thing over and over, it’s not really creative anymore. So it didn’t seem like something I wanted to make a living doing, even though I absolutely adore it, I love doing it. So I was teaching at The Crucible and that’s when the stuff at Slanted Door starting happening with the orgeat, and I had no intention of getting it to this point. But I didn’t say no, it seemed really interesting.
And bartending suits me. I like the social aspect, but the other thing I really like is that you show up, you know what to do, you do it and then you leave. And you don’t take it home with you. You can talk about it, but you’re not stressing about, oh, you have this report you have to do. You’ve done your work–you’ve worked your ass off for nine hours and you’re exhausted and yet it’s really social and you know when you’re doing well. Like when you’re in the weeds and you’re four deep and everyone’s yelling at you and you’re going as fast as you can, it’s a very immediate sense of accomplishment, which is really valuable. I think if you can have a staff that feels that way, that feels like they’re doing something valuable and that they’re being valued for it, it makes a staff very happy. A happy staff is good to have.
Why cocktail ingredients?
I didn’t intend on doing it but for me it’s about, when I get to know people and they start to see why I’m respected in the field, a lot of times it has to do with, they’ll talk about my detail. For me it’s not enough to say, ‘oh, let’s make a drink with Pisco and apricots and basil. And to do that, let’s just muddle the apricots and muddle the basil and add the Pisco and maybe some lemon juice and some sugar.’ For me, I look at that and go, OK, that could very well be a very great tasting cocktail, but let’s look at every aspect of that and figure out what’s the best way of getting that flavor into the drink. Is it muddling the apricot or is it best to simmer it? Or is it to actually infuse it into the spirit—what are you getting from every option? Look at every option that’s on the plate and what qualities are coming from each one of those? What are the best ways of getting basil flavors in a drink? Again, should you make a syrup out of it? My answer is no, and if I see one more soft herb fucking syrup…it’s not the best way of accessing those flavors. They’re starting to be cooking the vegetal notes in soft drinks and it’s not. But do you infuse it into high proof spirits and make it into a tincture or do you infuse it into a more diluted spirit and possibly get different compounds? That’s where my skill comes in. When I started making these ingredients, it wasn’t about making the best tasting orgeat, it was about making the best tasting Mai Tai.
So I look at every way of dealing with those almonds, of handling them. Do you soak, do you not? Do you heat, do you not? Do you grind? How fine do you grind? Do you cook afterward, do you not? Every thing like that. And that is why I think people think that I’m really good at what I do, but for me that’s where I feel the integrity comes in. Think about all the details. If you’re not thinking about all the details, you’re being lazy. Or if it’s why do you do it that way and the answer is, that’s how I’ve always done it or my grandpappy taught me, you’re being limiting. You’re being lazy. That may be the best way to do it, but if you haven’t thought about every single option you are lacking in integrity.
I just like cocktails, and I started off when Bourbon and Branch opened up, and I would leave my shift at the Slanted Door and go sit at their bar and have a couple drinks. I loved going to Bourbon and Branch back then because with that whole reservations thing, it meant that I could actually sit at the bar and not get hit on and not be bothered by drunk people sloshing into me, and I could do some writing or I could draw furniture and they always had something interesting on their menu and I could taste things and experience different flavors together and think about that.
Where does your inspiration come from?
It wasn’t like I’m going to make the best syrups, it was let’s make a good Mai Tai. In doing so, it turned out I made a really awesome orgeat. And then Thad wanted the pineapple gum and those in turn made really great drinks. It’s never been about the syrup, it’s been about let’s make the best drinks possible. And I think it’s not just [about] the creative process, but being able to make those things consistently—having consistency in a bar program is huge. I try to explain to people that—like the pineapple gum syrup—go ahead and make your own, but I’ll tell you why mine’s better. It’s for two reasons, one, I press my pineapples and most people use a masticating juicer, and if you use a masticating juicer you actually break down the fruit cells, so you’re actually getting some of that fiber into your syrup and you get a lumpy syrup and you get that lumpy texture in your cocktail. The other thing you get with me is that quantity, so if you’re making your own syrup and making it two pineapples at a time, think about how much pineapples vary. Like sometimes you cut into them and they’re pale and tart and kind of sappy and sometimes you cut into them they’re like candy. I do usually between 3000-6000 pounds of pineapples at a time so it averages out, and I end up – without ever adding any citric acid – I end up with a very, very consistent pH level and very consistent Brix [sugar] level. So you don’t have to adjust your cocktails every time you make a batch of pineapple syrup. And that’s just sheer numbers, it’s not because I’m doing anything special, it’s the sheer advantage of scale.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
I didn’t intend on starting the business, I didn’t have anyone that I was emulating. It’s more been, instead of advice, I’ve gotten a lot of encouragement and that’s helped me to move forward. I’ve had people saying to me, ‘I so love what you do’ and that really kind of motivates me to keep going. People really appreciating the time and effort and energy that I’m putting into it.
I started doing it, and I have a good palate, and I know when a drink is good and when it’s not, so I just keep doing that. And having these people like Thad – Thad will never open a bar without carrying all my products, Eric will never open up a bar without carrying my products. Having these people who believe in me is what keeps me motivated.
And then what advice would I give? There’s a couple things I’d say, but the biggest one is don’t be an asshole. Like I was interviewed by this gentleman a while back and he was doing a series of interviews with different bartenders, and just one of the people that he interviewed, just the article, he just sounded so arrogant and he knew better than anyone else. I do know better and I do know more about my business than anyone else, but you can’t tell people what to do, people get very defensive about that. It’s not that I’m being disingenuous, because I’m truly a nice person, but if you go into a bar and sit down with the bartender and say, ‘wow it looks like they make really interesting drinks here, can you make me something? I normally drink Cosmos,’ and the bartender’s a dick to you, it doesn’t make you want to buy anything from them, it doesn’t make you feel comfortable there. It doesn’t make you believe in the bartender, so even then if he turns around and makes you a drink you like, it’s very off-putting. And that has nothing to do with the skill of the bartender in making you a drink, but if he’s like, “well, a Cosmo is essentially a daisy and there’s this whole family of drinks called daisies and do you particularly like cranberry juice, maybe there’s something I can make you or can a tempt you into something else like cassis which also has that red, rich berry with some tannic flavors? We can go in that direction.’
That’s kind of how it is to operate in this industry – just be nice. I’ve never done any marketing, I’ve never done any advertising. But when I travel to people’s towns, I talk to them and I’m interested in what they’re doing. It’s not disingenuous, but I recognize that that is different from me going in and doing a seminar and telling everyone what they’re doing wrong.
And also the other thing is running a business – even in a creative field – is not creative. You could make the best anything—like bitters—on the planet, but once you settle on a recipe, and if you want to turn it into a business and get your TTB [Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau] labels approved, you can’t divert from that ever because now you have that formula and once people start buying it, they’re basing their cocktail recipes based on the exact thing that’s in this bottle, so if that varies at all, now they have to start changing things. So now your job is just to make that repeatable. Your job is not to create new flavors—you can create new flavors but then you have to go through all of your approvals and permitting and that kind of thing, for your new flavor. What your job is now is cash flow, production schedules, inventory in, inventory out, managing your reps and your distributors, trying to make sure people know about your products—it’s not creative, it’s sales and it’s production. Just don’t think that if you like making this particular jam, and jam’s a bad example because you can make a different thing, but in the bar industry, if you make something, people are going to expect it to be this one thing. And now your job is just to repeat it, and it’s really hard.
I’ve been doing this for six years and I don’t make a living. I have to tend bar for money. I think at some point I will, but don’t expect to make a lot of money. Unless of course, you come at it from the right business perspective, I think you can. If you start off with the understanding of what the full scope of it is, what your day is going to look like everyday, Feb. 15 in 2014 I’m doing this, what am I going to be doing Feb. 15, 2015? You’re certainly not going to be dicking around in the kitchen. You’ll be running a business. I like to think of it as, the first two years I ran this as a hobby I didn’t make any money, I didn’t take any vacations, it was fun, but it’s not creative. The creativity is done and especially for something like working with a bottler or co-packer, they have minimums, so if I want to do something new [you have to plan ahead]. I recently released tonic syrup. It took about a year and a half to figure out the recipe for that, and not just that, once I got the recipe, to book a slot with my co-packer, say I want to produce March 1, on Feb. 1 I have to put 50 percent down and a run generally costs $18,000, so I have to give them $9,000. Then March 1, they make it and I have to give them the other $9000, and then it goes to my distributor and then they start selling it and I have another thirty days for them, and it’s two months later before I can recoup all that money. So understanding what that flow is, is really important. I would love to release a passion fruit syrup or a grapefruit cordial or crème of coconut, but each one of those is close to $30,000, what with doing test batches and giving out samples and that kind of thing. And for a small business—I have a small business loan now, but I didn’t start out that way—that kind of cash flow is really difficult.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Money. Cash flow. And also that as much as we have our California sensibilities with produce and all that, food production is still not geared toward that. Food production is geared toward repeatable, sustainable. For example, if I didn’t make my own pineapple juice, and I bought pineapple juice, even if I found a company that was selling pineapple juice that was pressed rather than masticated juice, they still are required to have the very same framework of acid and sugar levels, so if I was to buy a five gallon bucket of that juice, it more than likely would have citric acid in it because they need to hit the same pH levels. Our industry is geared toward industrial processes even though we’re handling organic ingredients, and I don’t mean organic without pesticides, I mean organic matter.
So trying to navigate that and trying to maintain integrity in the way that I handle my ingredients—I’m very good at looking at the loopholes. My co-packers kept telling me ‘there is no pomegranate juice that isn’t concentrate,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, but I can go to the farmer’s market and buy it,” and they said ‘yeah, but they don’t sell it in drums and we need it in drums,’ and I just refused to believe that. And now I have a farmer who juices specifically for me and gives it to me in drums because I demanded it, and they said this is the only month it’s available and I said that’s not what I want, so I make it. I think that brings integrity. But understanding why people are giving you the answers that they do, it’s learning everything you can, reading everything you can, don’t believe what people tell you right away, look up the laws yourself.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing?
My industry. I love my industry. I love the people in it. You know there’s cocktail weeks and seminars and all that kind of stuff around the country throughout the year now and it’s so amazing to go to them because, as bartenders, our job is to make people have a good time. You come into the bar and my job is to subtly read – and people who have been in the industry long enough just do it because they can do this – you come in and you sit at my bar, if you pull out a book immediately, then I’m not going to interfere with you much. I want to make sure that you have – whether it’s a cup of tea that you want to sip on for a while or you just want to get a couple martinis into you or you just want to linger over a glass of wine – I want to make sure that what I offer to you is the experience you want to have for the time that you’re at my bar. Some people want a friend, some people don’t. But our job is to make people have a good time, so you get a bunch of bartenders together and it is so much fun. ‘Cuz we all know how to make people have a good time and there’s no pressure of actual customers. It’s the most fun thing ever – crazy things happen—tattoos, skinny dipping, you know, four people in a bathtub–like it just happens, and it’s the best industry!
And people are super loyal. If you don’t have a big family or stuff like that, having this group of people that will have your back just feels awesome, it feels like a family. You have people you can lean on if things get difficult. It’s really a family culture. I could land in any decent sized city in the country and have a place to live or a job within three days – it’s just that sense of people looking out for me is remarkable and it’s something that a lot of people don’t get in their professions.
What’s your favorite item that you make?
Oh, it’s gotta be the orgeat, I mean that’s my baby. That stuff is so delicious. You can turn it into granita, you can put it into coffee, there’s so many cocktails that call for it. The thing that that I really like about it is that when you actually make orgeat from real almonds it has the protein and the fat from the nuts in it as opposed to just sugar syrup with almond extract added into it. Having that protein and that fat really lends a great structure, makes your drinks unctuous, it makes them just…oh, it’s so good. My god, that’s definitely my baby.
But I’m pretty enthusiastic about my tonic syrup, too. I didn’t make what I call a modern backyard tonic, which is what everyone’s doing now, and you go to a bar and they say, ‘house made tonic’ and it’s all murky and brown…they tend to be too sweet, not bitter enough and not refreshing, and I think a gin and tonic should be this refreshing thing that makes you salivate that you have before your dinner to get your digestive juices flowing. So I made it inspired by a recipe that I had from 1900, using actual ingredients, and I make mine with cinchona bark and as far as I can tell from the other companies that are making tonic syrup right now, I’m the only one who doesn’t use powdered cinchona–I buy it in big resinous chunks so I can keep as much of the essential oils in there as much as possible without being cloudy or super murky. Mine has some color – it looks like ginger ale – but it doesn’t look brown like some do.
What other local food artisans do you admire and why?
Avedano’s, that butcher in Bernal [Heights]. I have a lot of respect for their butchery. They have a really great kind of whole animal butchery, they offer cuts that chefs like that are different and their quality of meat is just outstanding. They are a sole shop, and they have so much integrity and their product is so good. Also, Chad Robertson at Tartine Bakery and his wife Elisabeth Prueitt – she makes the pastry, he makes the bread. I have a huge respect for what they do, their products are astonishing. Again, they have so much integrity. To be really admirable, I think you have to have both integrity and quality and they have both of that.
If you had to choose your meal, or maybe I should say drink, what would it be?
If I had a last drink, it would be a Manhattan. I love Manhattans. Not a weird, special Manhattan with special bitters or anything like that, just a really good Manhattan.
For food, cacio e pepe. With fresh pasta. Even though it’s not traditionally done with fresh pasta, I love fresh pasta.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef/bartender?
Oh, Erik Adkins is the best bartender – he’s the bar manager overseeing the entire Charles Phan group, so he’s not behind the bar very often but if you have the luxury of sitting in front of him, he has the best customer service on the planet and his drinks are perfect. He has the kind of customer service where you don’t notice it, except you leave and you realize what an amazing time you had, and you never wanted something that wasn’t provided to you. He’s astonishing. Also Justine Kelly. She was with the Slanted Door group for 17 years and is heading the kitchen at the Battery, the new private club in the financial district. She’s hands down the best chef I’ve ever worked with.
I love what Russ [Moore] and Allison [Hopelain] do over at Camino—that food has so much integrity, it’s fantastic. Have you ever hand brunch at Camino? They have the best brunch. Oh, and then of course Stuart Brioza at State Bird Provisions. Every time I go in there I’m astonished, and also that Stuart and Nicole [Krasinski]—she does the pastry, he does the savory food—and they are there almost every shift and they are the loveliest people. Their customer service is astonishing, you feel so special when you go in, it’s such a casual environment but the food is just amazing. I would eat there everyday if I could afford it. Or if I could get in! It’s phenomenal and they’re so nice…at State Bird Provisions, the food is astonishing and they make you feel so welcome.
Small Hand Foods