A.B. Smeby Bittering Company's Louis Smeby Talks Seasonal Bitters, Bartender Egotism, and the Brooklyn Gastro-Revolution
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.
Daniel Krieger Louis Smeby: a bitter guy.
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.