Brooklynites, these days, have forged a reputation for making just about everything needed for a bar from scratch. Beer, spirits, wine, not to mention the various infusions, potions, sweeteners and such that one finds behind the best bars. The only this missing from the borough-wide, liquor-industrial complex is bitters. Oh, yes, many bars make there own house bitters. But there's no non-bar-owning entrepreneur that specializes in bitters production.
Louis Smeby, a 28-year-old from Minnesota with a newsboy's youthful face, is out to seize that territory. A waiter at The Modern who lives in the South Slope, he has been whipping an alarming number of original bitters in his kitchen, and has managed to place them at such estimable watering holes as Gotham bar & Grill, Braeburn, PDT, The Vanderbuilt, Buttermilk Channel, Quarter bar, White Star, and The Modern, among others.
The bitters are sold under the name A.B. Smeby Bittering Company. Smeby had the interested idea of applying the now-entrenched dining and drinking notion of seasonal menus to the world of bitters. He produces different potions based around the flavors found in each season. So the bitters available from him in the winter may not be the ones available in the spring. "Also important to the concept is the size of the bottle that I sell the product in," he said in a recent interview with Off the Presses. "It is a 2 ounce bottle. Bitters have a shelf life, especially when they are made with all-natural products."
Smeby says that most of the brands of bitters sold commercially are full of adjuncts, additives, and artificial ingredients that help maintain their shelf life, "but also offer a very synthetic tasting product. To add to this, they are all sold in bottle sizes too large for their flavor to be maintained before the product is finished, leading to inferior product at the end of the day."
The bars using Smeby's bitters so far seem to be taking them on a drink-by-drink basis, as they find applications for them. The Modern has used his Spiced Cranberry, Black and White (which actually tasted like a classic New York Black and White cookie), Vanilla and Forbidden Bitters in specialty cocktails. PDT has used only the Lemon Verbena bitters on the menu, but owner Jim Meehan thinks the Hibiscus Rose are great, too.
Some of the flavors Smeby comes up with boggle the brain. Apple Cinnamon with Molasses; Licorice-Nectarine (a favorite of mine, though, as of yet, I have no idea how to use it in a cocktail); Highland Heather; and Cherry Vanilla. Semby puts the most stock behind his Forbidden and Diesel bitters. The latter he promotes as a possible substitution for Angostura. I made an Old-Fashioned with it and found the result striking. It added a certain punch to the drink, familiar yet persuasive in its own way.
Smeby's ingredients are mainly locally sources (Lemon Verbana comes from Long Island), but he does go out of his way for some vitals. His cranberries come from Wisconsin; Buddahs Hand Lemons from California; nectarines from the west coast. Most of his spices and seasonings are bought from very small companies that specialize in only two to six products.
The Modern sent over the following original recipe, which I found equally winning:
Devil in White
1.5 oz. Death's Door White Whiskey
1.5 oz. Dolin Vermouth Blanc (not the dry!)
5 dashes A.B. Smeby Black & White Bitters
Stir all ingredients over ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with two cherries.
Smeby has recently started filling orders to clients in Eugene, Oregon, and Albuquerque. He hopes to take his bitters to the retail market sometime in the future. In the meantime, you'll have to visit one of the above bars to sample his wears.