A St. Paul bartender is making – and selling out of – do-it-yourself kits for bitters, a traditional type of cocktail flavoring.
A local design guru and his nephew have teamed up with a St. Paul bartender to produce homemade bitters kits. Riding the craft cocktail wave, locally made bitters have become a trend in the past few years after about a century of obsolescence. Erik Eastman and Dan Oskey (“Easy & Oskey” is their company name), along with Erik’s uncle James Eastman talked about their DIY kits at The Strip Club on Thursday on St. Paul’s East Side. James Eastman, Dan Oskey, and Erik Eastman, from left, stood for a portrait Thursday afternoon at The Strip Club.
In the Pinterest era, everyone is a bartender.
Chris Hatch, a business analyst at Target Corp., was all in when a revival of classic cocktails started a few years ago. He devoured books about turn-of-the-century mixology. He learned that bartenders back then made bitters — herbs steeped in alcohol — to add unique flavor to drinks.
So “I tried making my own homemade bitters,” he said. “They were kind of a disaster.”
That’s where the expert came in. Dan Oskey, who bartends at the Strip Club, a meat-and-fish restaurant in St. Paul, has been making bitters for years. With friends Erik and James Eastman, Oskey has put together a kit that has everything needed to make the perfect old-fashioned cocktail.
“We’re basically selling these to retailers as fast as we can,” said Erik Eastman, the “Easy” in Easy & Oskey’s Homemade Bitters Kits.
Oskey is the only one in the operation with bartending expertise. Erik Eastman works in information technology, and his uncle James Eastman contributes his expertise from his job with packaging and production company Schawk.
“It takes about 20 minutes of actual work,” Erik Eastman said. Users steep the herbs in alcohol (preferably a strong grain alcohol like Everclear) and shake the mixture in a Mason jar every day for two to six weeks. Then they would add sugar, strain the concoction and then it’s ready to imitate grandpa’s pre-Prohibition cocktails.
Easy & Oskey released the kits in late April, and retailers have been quick to pick them up. The company has sold about 300 kits, retailing at $40, to six stores around the Twin Cities.
Three of the retailers — South Lyndale Liquors, Cooks of Crocus Hill and Kitchen in the Market — have invited the men to teach classes on how to use bitters in seasonal cocktails and cooking.
Hatch started with a South Lyndale bitters seminar and has now tried three of the five kit varieties, which are orange, cocoa, cherry-vanilla, habañero and “naked,” which allows users to make their own flavors.
“For me, it’s about being creative,” Hatch said. “These ideas have been around for maybe 150 years, and little changes allow you to take the recipe and make it your own.”
Oskey said homemade bitters are part of a generational do-it-yourself trend that came out of the recession. Instead of buying a product, some people now would rather find a how-to on Pinterest and make it themselves.
Making bitters is also a social experience. Kelly Simon, a nurse at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, held a party where she served blueberry lemonade with lavender bitters she’d made with the “naked” kit.
“It’s been a fun social thing to get into,” Simon said. “It’s something that sounds intimidating and unfamiliar, but I was surprised at how easy it was to make.”
Simon went to a bitters swap at Foxy Falafel, one of the retailers that sells the kits, and traded her lavender bitters for flavors like toasted sesame, which her husband wants to use in his home-brewed beer.
Oskey and the Eastmans have dozens of ideas about how to expand their company. They’re hoping to sell pre-made bitters and kit refills soon. They also have grander plans, like offering consulting to bars that need to narrow down their menus.
“We’re not a bitters company,” Erik Eastman said. “This just happens to be our first product.”
Retailers in Milwaukee and Seattle have shown interest in selling the bitters kits. The trio hopes to someday get people across the country having fun with old-time flavors.
“People spend so much time watching cooking shows, reading books about food, reading restaurant reviews,” James Eastman said. “Get back into the kitchen. That’s the experience. That’s what it’s all about.”
Celia Ampel • 612-673-4642