Provenance Food & Wine Interview

Reposted from Provenance's blog.

What began as three friends making drinks together after class in college has led to quite the career for Texas natives Adam, Chris, and Robert. Since founding Liber & Co. in 2011, these guys have been introducing their customer base to fantastic syrups and fruit shrubs (preserving fruit with vinegar) to be used in cocktails like the classic Gin and Tonic. Provenance staffer Nathan was lucky enough to catch up with these busy guys to find out a little more about this Austin-based company. 

It goes without saying all of us at Provenance appreciate a cocktail, especially one that is made well using the best possible ingredients. Carrying small-batch artisan quality products such as yours lets us introduce to our customers ways to greatly improve their cocktails at home. Through your deep respect of cocktail history and tradition, what do you most hope to accomplish with your range of syrups and shrubs?

Our goals are very much in line with yours—we started out wanting to elevate the home bar. There has been an obvious resurgence in cocktail bars, and an interest in the rich history of the craft. We started as interested consumers before conceptualizing Liber & Co. Secondly, although the upper echelon of cocktail bars are capable of making some variation of these classic house ingredients that we’re offering, our goal in taking our products to market was to bring that level of quality to consumers who might be interested but otherwise underexposed. Additionally, as befitting a modern food manufacturer, our production methods afford our products a quality and consistency that cocktails bars rarely achieve.

With the three of you working together to create complex and high quality cocktail ingredients, there must be some history of bartending involved. Is that something you've all had a hand in at some point or was there some other way in which you got to experimenting and innovating tonic or fruit shrubs?

Our background with cocktails actually has culinary roots. In college, the three of us solidified an appreciation for fresh cocktails courtesy of our ill-weeded yet productive garden. In the afternoons when classes were finished, we’d often go home and muddle up sprigs of fresh mint for mojitos and typically fire up the grill. Basil and jalapeno smashes were had long before we knew what a “smash” cocktail actually was. This was when we learned how fresh ingredients can really transform a drink, and this is why we begin with raw, fresh ingredients for our products now. Once we all fell down the rabbit hole of cocktail history and geekery, it wasn’t long before we paired drinks with our collective entrepreneurial spirit and began Liber & Co.

Several of us on staff at Provenance have backgrounds in bartending, serving, catering and so on which eventually brought us to where we are today working with food and wine at the shop. Prior to founding Liber & Co. were the intricate botanicals and spices something any of you were working with or had previous exposure to?

No not really. Chris’s background is in biology, Adam’s is economics and Robert is political science. The turn toward drinks was more a labor of love than a derivative of any prior career track. Although, we’re all avid home cooks and barmen, none of us have had professional bar or restaurant experience. When crafting recipes, our first source of information is history. So we will research, for example, where shrubs originated and how they were made. From there it’s about trusting our palates.

On a crazy hot day it doesn't get much better than a gin and tonic. Using the best quality spirit and right ingredients can spark an inspiring lifetime love affair with this classic cocktail. Was there a “spark” moment that made you realize this was the industry and career path you wanted to head down?

There wasn’t really an “A-ha” moment, no. At the time we started, we were all living separately in either Austin, D.C. or Lawrence, KS. In addition to physical separation, our lack of beverage industry expertise suggested that we ought to test the waters before diving in head first. With floaties donned, we gently waded into the shallow end with just a small business credit card.

You’ve given the official Liber & Co. endorsement on what you've dubbed “a global cocktail revival” that is going on around the world. This return to traditional recipes and an ever expanding appreciation for artfully made craft cocktails has clearly inspired you to create the products that you do. What else comes as an inspiration to Liber & Co.?

Much of our inspiration comes from a deep appreciation for general craftsmanship, as both of our fathers are carpenters. We learned early on that if you make things honestly and with high effort, your product will have both a story and a quality you can be proud of.

Out of deep respect for their product, many of our other vendors at Provenance believe it requires much time and patience to develop and perfect their offerings. Would you say this is an outlook you share at Liber & Co.? Does this play a role in how quickly or steadily your business has been expanding?

Certainly. We don't wildly expand our product line because each new ingredient has a unique character and it takes time to make sure everything comes together in a stable, balanced way. Especially considering there are only three of us involved, we are pretty patient in developing new products. To your point, this patience probably has kept us from growing and expanding as quickly as we might otherwise be able to, but honestly we don't think too much about that. We really believe that as long as we're consistently offering high quality, flavorful products, there will continue to be a market for them.

We absolutely love your fruit shrub. When we have customers come into Provenance that have never tried, let alone heard of one before, we love being able to explain to them you’re making a product that follows age old traditions of preserving fruit for later. This respect for old-fashioned methods of food preservation is a huge benefit of using your products. What other benefits do you feel you offer to your customers?

There are definitely benefits to sticking with these heritage production techniques. Ask anyone's grandma-- things were better back then. While we all want to acquire things as cheaply and conveniently as possible, the compromise in quality that comes with the mass production and commercialization of any good reaches a point where it's just not worth it. I think that's why we're witnessing this pendulum swing back toward craftsmanship and artisanal production methods-- increasingly, the general public is realizing that there are huge benefits to seeking out those products that are made with care and attention.

Aside from enjoying your products in a cocktail at the end of the work day, what would you say is your favorite part of the job?

We get to meet some really great industry folks as well. Coincidentally, Chris toured Koval's distillery a year ago and that connection resulted in a Koval & Liber cocktail for Chicago's Green City Market Chef BBQ this past July. The emergence of this new "sub-industry" of small-batch distillers, breweries, mixers and the like, has brought about so many opportunities for us to make new relationships with people who understand what we're doing, because they're largely doing the same thing!

And aside from having to endure the occasional shot of grapefruit juice to the eye, what would you say is your least favorite part of the job?

Early on, with such limited collective experience, the biggest hurdle was simply navigating the pitfalls of a commercial kitchen. Becoming familiar with how, specifically, our process would be carried out with new equipment and an entirely new space took several batches. This resulted in multiple all-nighters in the kitchen (many of which bled over into the wee hours of the morning). Since then, our biggest challenge has been scaling our production. While it’s a good problem to have, to have to figure out how to make more of your product, we committed a long time ago to keeping as many of our processes as possible in-house. That said, this presents challenges at each every step of growth.

Finally, what are some favorite stand-out moments you've experienced over the years that contributed to the success of your tonic and shrubs? Or simply any great stories you’d care to share with our customers that left lasting impressions on you and your company. (A runaway grapefruit cart perhaps?)

We've had our fair share of snafus along the way to where we are now. One memorable episode quite early on in Liber & Co.'s development involved an ill-conceived attempt at sterilizing our glass bottles. Our first couple of batches were actually made in a commercial kitchen at a hotel in Lawrence, KS. They had this amazing 40 gallon steam tilt-kettle (as a side note, neither of the three of us ever imagined we would speak of commercial kitchen equipment so covetously) that was particularly well-suited for our purposes. At some point during the planning phase of that particular batch we arrived at the consensus conclusion that, rather than sanitize each bottle individually, we should simply boil all of the bottles in the kettle-- that way they'd all be sanitized at once and ready for filling after the batch was completed...right? Wrong. Disaster obviously ensued, as the heat made the bottles especially fragile. To make a long story short, we wound up wasting a comical amount of time fishing a couple hundred sunken glass bottles (several of which had shattered) off the bottom of a scalding-hot 40 gallon kettle. Thankfully our process has improved drastically since!