Restaurant Reviews

Flavor Country

Minnesota is experiencing a bitters boom— but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

bitters
Photo by Katherine Harris

Easy & Oskey

What about bitters in the home kitchen? This would have seemed like a foolish question even last spring, but since then a well-known name in local bartending has been taking it in that direction. Dan Oskey. He’s the bartender at St. Paul’s Strip Club Meat & Fish and the flavor guy behind the adventurous Joia Sodas (now nationally distributed and very big in California and Hawaii).

A few years ago Oskey put together some baskets for the home bitters maker and sold them in a local market. One of his most loyal customers at the Strip Club, an IT guy named Erik Eastman, bought the kits, made the bitters at home, and asked Oskey: “Can we do this as a business?” Easy & Oskey was born and currently sells the most ingenious little kits for making bitters at home.

Buy a box and you get a big Mason jar for making your bitters, different bags of botanicals, and a series of clear-as-a-bell instructions for what to toast, what to pound, and what to add when to your Mason jar. After your ingredients have steeped for long enough, you turn to the kit for filters and a funnel with five little eyedropper bottles for your completed bitters. The kits come in different flavors, including habanero, cacao, and a “naked” kit, which allows you to make bitters of any darn thing you want—fresh lavender? Curry and fennel? A whole Juicy Lucy? Follow your bliss, and if some of your friends get kits and follow their bliss, you can all get together and trade bitters for a spectacular cocktail party—or purely for culinary use.

Oskey notes that chefs and cooks are the ones taking to the kits the most, doing things like using cocoa bitters in a Mexican mole sauce, putting black pepper bitters on gazpacho or potato chowder, and using habanero bitters on scallops or chicken. Local brewery Bad Weather Brewing has been making beer using Easy & Oskey bitters, such as a Migration Ale with habanero bitters, for a sort of exceedingly subtle michelada.

Easy & Oskey also is planning on releasing completed bitters and other cocktail concoctions. “We’re not a bitters company, we’re a flavor company,” explains Easy. “And as far as flavors go, it’s a big world.” Available at South Lyndale Liquors, Kitchen in the Market, martinpatrick3, and more; easyandoskey.com

Dashfire

But where does this unexpected bitters boom come from? Probably from the base human desire to tinker. Lee Egbert has that desire more than most. He used to be a mild-mannered HVAC project manager until he started experimenting in his home basement workshop with cocktail ingredients. “I couldn’t find a great orange bitters I liked,” he explains. “And one day I just thought, ‘Darn tootin’ I’m gonna try this.’” Soon enough he had 200 little vials of tinctures of herbs, spices, barks, and fruits in his basement. He started exploring the differences between a tincture made from ground, dried orange peel versus one made from toasted orange peel versus one made from fresh tangerine zest. He released Dashfire Vintage No. 1 Orange, an almost inconceivably vivid rendering of the layers of fragrance and energy possible in an orange, and he began carrying bottles to bartenders around town. The stuff caught on like free money, and Egbert decided to pay tribute to his time spent living in China with a bitters called Mr. Lee’s Ancient Chinese Secret, made with tamarind and mandarin orange rind and designed for cocktails with an Asian focus, like those in Chinese restaurants or sushi bars.

Egbert next released a line of tinctures, like one made from hibiscus and another made with grapefruit. These are bitters without the bitter component and can be added to drinks or food—for instance, a few drops of lemon tincture finishing a cauliflower soup or on gravlax. These tinctures, and all the bitters here, are considered non-potable (non-drinkable) by government agencies that regulate alcohol, so they can be sold, like vanilla extract, nearly anywhere. Could grapefruit tincture be a part of the future everyday spice pantry? We’ll see. We’ll also see what happens when a flavor tinkerer gets into the biggest laboratory. Egbert has partnered with Mill City Distilling, the start-up St. Paul craft distiller.

The company will now be incorporating Egbert’s expertise to create their own rum, which they believe will be out early next year. Egbert imagines they will eventually release their own whiskey and liqueurs as well. What about Dashfire’s extant expertise with oranges, could they do a craft orange curaçao? Egbert says they will try. It’s more fuel on the fire heating up the argument that Minnesota is indeed the Silicon Valley of food, and we may be forced to convene a cities-wide meeting to decide that Mill City was a good name for Minneapolis in the 19th century, but for the 21st we might have to go with Flavor Metropolitan Area. Available at France 44, Potters’ Pasties, and Haskell’s; dashfirebitters.com

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