Bitters have a long and storied history. They came to prominence in this country as medicinal tinctures in the mid-nineteenth century, when tax laws and the temperance movement made traditional liquor consumption both pricey and unfashionable. Bitters producers marketed their alcohol-based concoctions as elixirs for every malady imaginable, allowing thirsty Americans to get their drink on without raising disapproving eyebrows.
A veritable Bitters bubble peaked in the late nineteenth century, when thousands of brands flooded the market. The passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906 regulated the sale of medicinal products whose efficacy was questionable, curtailing the boom and resulting in the much-depleted bitters landscape that we see today.
Louis Smeby, founder of South Slope-based A.B. Smeby Bittering Company, is working to spark a bitters revival in a quintessestially Brooklyn way. His seasonal, artisanal, and maybe even mad-scientist approach to bittering has won converts at some of the city’s finest cocktail houses and mixology enthusiasts.
Louis’ real passion is in developing unique, seasonally inspired varieties that he can make with locally-sourced ingredients. Some of his more creative concoctions include Nasturtium-Cumin, Buddahs Hand Lemon-Kaffir Lime, Martie’s Cherry-Vanilla; and Chai & Rye Bitters. The names speak for themselves.
We sat down with Louis this week to talk bitters and Brooklyn.
Nona: Let’s start right at the top. What are bitters?
Louis: Bitters are generally alcohol-based liquids that are flavored with herbs, spices and many other things. They’re usually used as a cocktail ingredient to add balance to a drink – To create a cocktail you have four major parts – a base spirit, a sweetener, an acid and a bitter that you want to carefully combine in a way that creates a harmonious balance. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that bitters are quite versatile. They can be used for lots of other things too.
Nona: How did you end up making bitters here in Brooklyn?
Louis: I grew up in St. Paul Minnesota and I moved to New York 11 years ago. My first memories of bitters are from when I was a kid back in Minnesota. My grandfather was a bit of a tippler – he liked his cocktails. We’d visit them all the time, and I always liked exploring behind his well-stocked bar. The obscure bottles that they’d brought back from their travels were fascinating, and for some reason I remember being particularly drawn to his bitters collection. His name was Alfred Bernard Smeby, so I named my company A.B. Smeby Bittering in honor of him.
I’ve always been driven to make everything I possibly can on my own. When it comes to food and drink, I make my own sauces, condiments, and ingredients of all sorts. Eventually that spread into homebrewing beer, making my own liqueurs and cordials…pretty much everything but distilling my own alcohol. I’ve also always been really interested in botany, since I was a kid.
Bitters were a logical extension of those interests and those childhood memories. The process of making bitters and the ways in which they can be used allow you to be very creative with flavors and extraction methods, which I love. I started dabbling first with orange bitters and some other basic varieties, and quickly realized there was so much more you could do – so many flavors that I thought could really work just weren’t being made by anyone. Once I got started I never turned back.
How do you come up with your flavors?
The whole concept and philosophy behind my bitters is to make unique seasonal flavors using locally-sourced natural ingredients. There are very few other bitters makers out there who adhere to that approach. Most use artificial synthetic flavorings, color additives, body additives and more.
I buy Verbena for my Lemon Verbena Bitters from Binder Farms in Sayville Long Island. I get my nectarines from Jersey, I use local peaches, cherries, cranberries, flowers and herbs. I get my Nasturtium flowers – an edible flower with a really nice natural acid and a high spice profile – from Locust Farms in upstate NY…I get anything that’s grown locally from regional farmers.
I cooked professionally for about nine years, working with other chefs, searching for and developing very specific, very unique flavor profiles, so I have a good base of knowledge regarding building flavors. I take that knowledge and combine it with a focus on local, seasonal ingredients to come up with new varieties.
It’s a creative process … sometimes I have to go back to the drawing board a few times to get things right, but I’m usually able to figure it out.
What’s the process for making bitters?
There are a couple of different approaches. One is called agitation extraction and one is called distillation extraction. I use a cold distillation approach because it’s a much more effective way to preserve the delicate flavors involved.
You start with a base spirit…a very high proof alcohol that acts as a vehicle to extract the flavors added to it. You add your ingredients, and then it goes through a process of filtering, resting, adding an adjunct to balance the flavor profile, and then goes into the bottle.
Most bitters should age a bit. I like to let mine age for at least a month, although some need longer. Like with wine…the flavors become more complex with age.
How do you use bitters?
Bitters are really very versatile. Most people obviously use them for cocktails. They’re traditionally used in common cocktails like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, but the level of creativity in the world of mixology today is amazing. I’ll often have a particular type of use in mind when I’m developing a bitter, and someone else will end up using it in a totally different way that works brilliantly.
But bitters don’t just have to be used for cocktails. Many people like adding a few drops to seltzer water – that’s a great way to enjoy the complex flavors without committing to a cocktail. I use them when cooking too – I’ve used my Celery Lovage and other bitters to finish vegetables and seafood – just a dash before serving can add great dimensions to a dish.
I like my Forbidden bitter on ice cream – that particular variety has so many levels of flavor – almond, cacao, vanilla, and a bunch of warm spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, clove…it’s much thinner than most sauces you’d put on an ice cream, but the flavors go really well. I’ll often just use a spoonful over vanilla.
What are some of your favorite things about Brooklyn?
I’ve got to give a shout out to Sixpoint Craft Ales. I worked there as a brewer a few days a week for about a year, and I grew to really admire and respect their philosophy and how they operate their business. Their commitment to quality and creativity translates into an amazing product. It’s a renegade process, and it has definitely inspired me – I’ve modeled my approach on theirs.
Brooklyn is just loaded with great food, drink and chefs. My favorite restaurants would have to be Roberta’s and Franny’s. They were really leaders in the movement to use good, local, sustainable ingredients to make great food, and they just keep nailing it. They both have a great philosophy about how they want to do things, and they make great food. If there were more places like those, the world would be a better place.
It’s going well. Word is getting out. It’s gotten to the point where I have to be careful with incoming orders – there are a lot of accounts and I make everything by hand, so I need to be sure I can source ingredients the way I want to while keeping up with demand. The majority of my sales comes from individual cocktail enthusiasts. About 30% comes from bars and restaurants.
Where can we find your bitters?
My bitters are not available in stores yet–they’re available through me at my website, or through cocktailkingdom.com, a website that offers things like rare bitters and cocktail paraphenalia.
NOTE: You can also taste Louis’ bitters at several Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants, including Buttermilk Channel, The Modern, Braeburn, PDT, Quarter Bar, The Vanderbilt, Gotham Bar & Grill, and Ward III.