Louis Smeby had always been a bit of a DIY guy. When he started experimenting with making his own bitters, the results quickly proved good enough to sell. His A.B. Smeby Bittering Company specializes in handcrafted, small-batch bitters sourced from local ingredients with a seasonal bent.
How did you get started making bitters?
I guess it came from a couple of different facets. One of them was my hobby of creating my own products at home — brewing my own beer and making my own cordials and liqueurs and such. One day, I decided to make my own batch of bitters. That stemmed from my own personal interest in botanicals. Botany and the extracts that can be derived from them [are of great interest to me].
How do you come up with different flavors?
A lot of it stems from working in professional kitchens with chefs and the creation of dishes [through collaboration]. I take very esoteric flavors and combine them so they’ll complement each other. I try to use interesting spices, for the most part, and introduce seasonal ingredients to the flavor profile.
Is your background in kitchens?
I cooked professionally for probably about nine years. I’ve been working in restaurants or around chefs for about 16 years … [at] a couple of defunct restaurants, like Hudson River Club.
I hear you make custom bitters for restaurants.
It’s actually [something I’m doing] for the beverage program over at the Vanderbilt. Once [beverage director Brian Floyd] got word of the bitters that I was selling, we sat down and tasted through some things and discussed what he was looking for. I tried to create [something that could work in a few of their drinks].
Is bespoke bitters something you’re open to doing for other people?
Yeah, I think it’s a great idea. So many restaurants and bars are into their own custom blends. Lots of breweries are doing beers especially for restaurants and wineries are making wines for them. I think bitters are next to follow.
What’s your favorite of all your bitters?
There’s a couple of spice-forward profiles that I like. Chai & Rye is one, Forbidden, cassia and spice, and the Lemon Verbena I also really like.
Is there more a feeling of rivalry or camaraderie between you and other bitters makers, like Gary Regan of Regan’s Bitters?
Quite frankly, I’ve never really had any encounters with anybody else who makes bitters.
Are you going to Tales of the Cocktail this year?
No, I’ve actually never gone. The bitters were a first for me and then I guess the cocktail culture, learning about that, was secondary. This year, I’m a little bit too caught up in production to go. But the bitters will be represented there. They’re actually being utilized by David Moo, who runs Quarter Bar, in a cocktail there.
Do you consciously avoid the cocktail scene?
Not necessarily. Like I said, bitters came first. Coming into the cocktail culture came second. It wasn’t because I was caught up in cocktails and loved the whole theatrics behind it and the community [that I started doing this]. That’s great, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that it’s secondary to bitters for me.
What do you see as the next big trend in cocktails?
For the really hardcore places that specialize in cocktails, we’ll probably see a lot of things that have already been done in the beverage industry. For instance, reaching out to distilleries to have custom products made for them. Also, I think they’re going to be doing more molecular mixology. In a broader spectrum, which is where my target market is, restaurants with fantastic food are going to be putting forth an effort to really bump up the quality of their cocktail programs.
Have you experimented with bitters in food at all?
Oh, yeah. These bitters I produce go great with food. They finish dishes, some chefs use them to sprinkle on a dish that will make the aromatics last longer. Also, there are some pastry chefs using them on ice cream. It’s a great topping, like a good chocolate sauce.
What might you like to see a little less of in the cocktail world?
Gee, I don’t know. Probably egotism.
On the part of bartenders?
I can’t really say that I’ve had a large connection with a lot of mixologists, but some of the people I’ve come across — it’s such a small culture — I guess sometimes it’s just good to remember what they do for a living, which is serve the public. No matter how creative you are, if you don’t have your customers, then you’re really not going to be the best in the long run.
What are some of your favorite bars?
I would have to say Quarter Bar in the South Slope. Do they have to be cocktail bars? Beer Table. I like that place a lot. I haven’t gone out in so long, but I like some of the things that Louis 649 is doing. I also like restaurants with rotating cocktail programs. Franny’s is one of those. They use a lot of fresh seasonal ingredients in their cocktails. And also Applewood. I’ve definitely gained some inspiration from their cocktail program.
What do you like to make at home?
Simple, for me, is usually the way to go. I like to explore different methods; for instance, I’ll take five different cocktails and make them all on crushed ice just to see how the bitters profiles work. I would say 99 percent of the cocktails I make at home include bitters.
You live in Brooklyn. What about the borough is making it such a hot spot these days?
I don’t really leave Brooklyn because I’m so caught up with work. It just has an artistic culture that is exploding right now. It’s like a regeneration of things that haven’t happened for at least 100 years. Nothing was created in Brooklyn [for a long time]. We’re seeing a renaissance of a lot of things, especially gastronomically, coming out of the borough. You see all these pop-up companies making chocolate, soda, and beer. That drive, that culture, it’s not only in the media of painting and drawing, but also in the culinary world.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made with the bitters so far?
I made a batch of these white peach bitters that was awful. I’ve actually made about five batches and it’s the only bitters that I haven’t released yet because I really can’t get the flavor profile down. Needless to say, it’s been a pretty costly experiment.
What do you have coming up?
I’m coming out with some new flavors. They’re going to be available on store shelves probably by late 2011. Or so I hope. I guess I should ask you to not quote me on that.