October 26, 2010
Photos by Erin Gleeson.
On a balmy, quiet Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, we had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Louis Smeby, founder of A.B. Smeby Bittering Co., for a tasting of his extensive line of bitters. When we all settled down in Quarter Bar‘s charming back yard, there was one glaring question on our minds: What exactly ARE bitters? Where do they come from? What do we do with them?
Ok fine, so three questions.
The event was so much more than what any of us had anticipated. Louis, a dashing, soft-spoken Brooklynite, patiently fielded our questions while we tasted his bitters (he brought over 15 kinds!), and went through the history of bitters. To put it in perspective, he discussed how bitters have a stronghold in the history of American soda fountains (think Coca-Cola!), which fascinated us (and opened up a whole other can of worms).
What exactly is a bitter? Simply put, it is a blend of herbs that historically, have been used as digestive aids. Louis explained the primary importance of potable vs. non-potable bitters. Potable bitters being Amaros, or Italian liqueurs like Fernet Branca or Campari, which you can sip to your heart’s content. On the other hand, non-potable bitters are of the Angostura or Peychaud variety, which can not be taken straight, and only dashes should be added to drinks, or whatever else you desire. Angostura was created in 1824 by a German living in Venezuela, so the origin of bitters is all over the map.
The earliest definition of a “cocktail” is that it MUST include bitters– demonstrating how essential this ingredient is within mixed drinks and cocktail culture from way back in the day.
Yes, all of this came out during out sit-down with Louis, who turned out to have a brain full of facts on botany, the spice trade, and alchemy. Louis fuses together his passion for seasonal, organic ingredients and botanicals to create his magical potions of bitters. He’s our modern day Herbalist!
And indeed, he comes up with some of the most intriguing flavor combination that frankly blew our minds. Some of these are an intricate blend of ten, fifteen, twenty ingredients and upwards. I’m talking Chai ‘n Rye. Lemon Verbena. Hibiscus Rose. Nasturium-Cumin. Martie’s Cherry Vanilla (named for his beloved grandfather).
Then, he’s got creations that are more mysterious. And sexy. Bitters with names like Diesel (citrus and spices). XXX (Louis’ interpretation of Angostura). Forbidden (30 spices, aged 12 months). Black & White (Mexican chocolate and vanilla).
Louis has a strong background in the food industry, as he has worked both as a chef, as well as in the front of the house. His bitters are now currently on the menus at several reputable bars and restaurants throughout New York City, including The Modern, PDT, Buttermilk Channel, Gotham Bar & Grill, and Quarter Bar. Louis created an exclusive line of bitters just for The Vanderbilt in Brooklyn, which is so special!
Alright, let’s taste, shall we?
Everything I tried tasted organic and complex. All of that said I think what I liked was: Hibiscus, Black & White, Lemon Verbena and XXX.
I never knew there could be so many kinds of bitters! Or that they could individually taste so different. Louis had some pretty innovative flavor combos.
Having so many bitters to sample was amazing– it actually got me a little buzzed, which surprised me.
Quarter Bar features several cocktails using Louis’ bitters. We took breaks throughout the afternoon to stretch our legs and re-up on our drinks.
I love Louis’ bitters for their imaginative flavors that bring a complexity to whatever you add to it. Chocolate might hit you in the back of the mouth; or more earthy hints of annis might linger throughout. I made fig jam and added Chai ‘n Rye bitters. It turned out really great– the bitters really adds a whole new dimension to the fruit.
I am super fascinated with the idea of using the bitters in vinaigrettes and marinades, and will try it soon.
I took home two bottles and wish I had gotten a lot more for gifts and for myself. I got the XXX and the Hibiscus-Rose. I’ve used the XXX in a Manhattan which was perfect, as well as in sparkling mineral water. I’ve used the Hibiscus-Rose in a mojito and in still water. I thought the XXX would have been my favorite because it’s darker, but actually the Hibiscus-Rose has won me over.
Louis is great– obviously passionate about the alchemy and world-wide history of bitters. I appreciate his serious entrepreneurship (as in he really does EVERYTHING himself): creating new recipes, cooking the bitters, bottling the bitters, designing labels, pasting said labels, making deliveries. Everything.
It’s true. Louis does EVERYTHING. He has a sharp eye for design, which I deeply appreciate.
Louis is a real trendsetter– ahead of his time. I can see this becoming really big. Yet it’s so interesting that making bitters is such an age-old tradition. I love that it started in monasteries!
A big huge THANK YOU to Louis for teaching us so much, and walking us through all your different bitters. The entire afternoon was so intimate and delightful– it was a memorable for all of us.
Also mucho thanks to Quarter Bar for letting us raid the back yard. You are wonderful hosts, and I’m so happy to see a serious cocktail bar in that neighborhood (there was nothing like it when I lived there eight years ago!).
And of course, last but not least, thanks to everyone who made it out to the Umamiventure! You know Brooklyn holds a special place in my heart, and it was awesome to reunite this way.
Check out the full line of A.B. Smeby bitters, and what’s new for the season, please check his website. To order, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
*Umamiventures are organized monthly, traveling far and wide to find good, cheap grub off the beaten path.
Past Umamiventures include:
1.) Ocean Jewel Restaurant – Flushing, NYC; June 2007
2.) Red Hook Ball Fields - NYC; June 2007
3.) Taste of Jackson Heights – NYC; October, 2007
4.) Sripraphai Restaurant – Woodside, NYC; November 2007
5.) WINTERMARKET – South St. Seaport; December 2007
6.) Jackson Diner- Jackson Heights, NYC; January 2008
7.) Pacificana – Sunset Park, NYC; February 2008
8.) Puerto Alegre – The Mission, SF; March 2008
9.) Dinosaur BBQ – Harlem, NYC; April 2008
10.) Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden – Astoria, NYC; May 2008
11.) Brooklyn Banh Mi Crawl – Sunset Park, NYC; August 2008
12.) Sheapshead Bay Lobster Crawl – NYC; September 2008
13.) Flushing Food Circuit – NYC; October 2008
14.) Strong Beer Month – SF; March 2009
15.) Loisaida Throwback Crawl – NYC; April 2009
16.) Harley Farms Goat Dairy – Pescadero, CA; June 2009
17.) Tomales Bay Oyster Farm – Marshall, CA; August 2009
18.) Din Tai Fung – LA; September 2009
19.) Din Tai Fung – Tokyo; September 2009
20.) Schroeder’s Oktoberfest – SF; October 2009
21.) Fish Taco Crawl – San Diego; November 2009
22.) St. George Spirits & Hangar One Vodka - Alameda; January 2010
22.5) Everett & Jones – OAK; January 2010
23.) Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse – NYC; February 2010
24.) Guerilla Ramen Night – SF; April 2010
25.) Knife Sharpening Workshop at Hida Tool & Hardware – Berkeley, May 2010
26.) San Pedro Fish Market - LA, June 2010
26.5.) Candytown – LA, June 2010
27.) The Trappist – Oakland, July 2010
28.) San Tung Restaurant – SF, August 2010