An interview with Lee Egbert, Formulator for Dashfire Bitters
It was sometime this past winter, possibly December. I’d heard from multiple people that South Lyndale Liquors was a store that I needed to check out. (By the way, it is.) While I was there I saw a man mixing drinks for people. I found this a bit odd in the middle of a liquor store so, as is my way, I wandered over to find out what was going on.
It turns out that the man wasn’t making very big drinks. It was a liquor store, after all. What he was doing was giving tastes of his product, Dashfire Bitters, in the best way one can. In a drink. I was impressed enough to buy the Old Fashioned Bitters and an Applewood Smoked Sea Salt solution. That second one I bought because I had never seen a salt solution for sale before, it was cheap, and I figured I would be able to figure out what to do with it. I never did, in case you were curious.
After talking to the guy for a little bit, I asked for his card. Shook his hand and wandered off. It wasn’t until last week while I was once again trying to figure out just what I was supposed to do with the salt solution that I remembered that card. “Why not ask?” I thought to myself.
I also figured that while I was at it, I would find out more about Minnesota’s own Dashfire Bitters. Lee Egbert, Formulator for Dashfire Bitters and a principle in the soon-to-open 11 Wells Distillery in St. Paul, MN was generous enough to answer a few questions for us.
Let's start very general: What the Dashfire Bitters story? Why bitters?
I’ve always been a big spice and flavor guy, but it’s really during my travels to New York that I really started to understand this new focus on cocktails. Thanks to prohibition we really lost the art of cocktails, but the Japanese picked up where we left off and man did they take it and run with it. One of my favorite Speakeasies in New York is Angles Share, a Japanese speakeasy, and ever since I studied Japanese in Junior High I’ve always appreciated the effort the Japanese put into perfecting things - whether its sushi, robots, animation or cocktails. The Japanese really know how to obsess about a given subject, which is something I understand and appreciate. I too had been obsessing about craft cocktails, sparing no expense, making hard to find ingredients such as shrubs, gum syrups, tonics and of course bitters. Anyone who likes these old cocktails finds themselves reading books like Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide and soon realizes these ingredients can be hard to find. Even the ones you can find can seem chemically produced. For that reason I thought I’d try making my own products but using different base spirits. I’m certainly not the first to try this, there are lots of bartenders making their own in this way, but I found it odd that pretty much all products on the shelf were made with neutral grain spirits. Out of my first four test formulas, three bombed horribly, but one was a home run. That is now the exact formula for Dashfire Bourbon Barrel-Aged Vintage Orange No. 1. Since Orange is such a classic I was a little scared some wouldn’t like it but man did I have such a great response. With my first release I wanted to show my skill to earn some respect but my next release had a whole separate intention. With Mr. Lee’s Ancient Chinese Secret I wanted to introduce something that revealed my creativity and knowledge of unique ingredients. Between my time in China and love of travel this was an obvious choice for me. The rest as they say is history.
I've interviewed a few distillers now and I know you have a foot in that world as well. Can you talk about some of the differences between making cocktail ingredients and making spirits? Other than the obvious lack of distilling.
You know to me they are one in same. That’s not true for all distillers though. I think many are purely focused on the base spirit, but I do feel it is very important to understand how that base spirit will be applied in cocktails. I know as long as I’ve wanted to make bitters I’ve also wanted to produce spirits and really for the same reason. My dream has always been to make all the ingredients for a Manhattan. I’ve now have the bitters and I did make some crazy tasty brandied cranberries from last year’s cranberry harvest, so I guess now I just need to make the rye and vermouth. The rye is definitely in the works and I have a trip to France and Italy planned this fall to continue my education on vermouths.
From a production side it is very similar to the process of making a gin. I macerate my spices and ingredients in high proof alcohol for some time in a barrel and some times in glass depending on the flavor I’m after. Then instead of distilling I filter to keep all the flavors. Sometime I add sugar which is traditional in bitters but in the case of Vintage Orange I use natural ingredients such as fruits and flowers to add that slight bit of sweetness. That process is a bit unorthodox in bitters but for certain flavors I prefer the result.
You make a few different products, bitters, tinctures, cocktail salt solutions, etc. If someone were going to buy just one, where would you recommend they start?
They would definitely need to start with a bitter and I would suggest the Vintage Orange. There are literally hundreds of cocktails that call for it, last time I checked the Kindred Cocktails Database there were 350 or so. It’s also used in the primary classics like Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Martinis which makes it a great place to start.
I've purchased both your Old Fashioned Bitters and your Applewood Smoked Sea Salt. I understand how to use the bitters, but tell me what I should be doing with the salt solution?
Bartenders have been using salt for quite some time to balance cocktails. Similar to how you add a dash of salt to your cookies, salt balances flavors but also accentuates them. A specific application is to add a couple drops to the top of an Old Fashioned. Lately I’ve been making mine with Applejack, Maple Syrup, Old Fashioned bitters and the Applewood Salt. I’ve also noticed it seems to make a drink more complex and also easier to imbibe which could be a dangerous thing. So many cocktails are overly sweet and not really balanced and salt can help with that. Not every cocktail has to cover all the flavors, sour, sweet, savory, bitter, umami, but it’s good to have balance.
I'm local, I can find your products in quite a few of the liquor stores I frequent. But where can folks outside of the metro buy your products? Are they available in other states? Online?
Anything new on the horizon that we should watch out for?
I do have a couple new formulas I’m excited to release for Dashfire before the holidays, but right now I’m laser focused on spirits for 11 Wells. If we are lucky enough to get the cocktail room law passed we’ll need to start making a wide variety of spirits which I can’t wait to create. You will see some usual suspects but also some completely new stuff too.
Any advice for the home bitters maker?
I separate all my ingredients first and then blend them together after they’ve macerated. This saves you the disappointment of over flavoring something with one or more of the ingredients, especially the bittering agent. Also don’t bother filtering and just let it settle and siphon of the top. This saves the hassle of clogging up coffee filters.
I’d like to thank Lee for answering my questions. Check out Dashfire at dashfirebitters.com or on Facebook at: facebook.com/DashfireBitters. The Old Fashioned Bitters (now called the Brandy Old Fashioned Bitters) are quite good and I recommend them.