Lee Egbert (above) was once a Boy Scout, enamored with identifying barks and plants out in the forest. He later spent 18 months in China, discovering the flavors in the herbs and roots of eastern medicine.
His botanical journey has come to a head with Dashfire, the new orange-bourbon cocktail bitters on the market, and the first bitters to be made in Minnesota.
With Midwestern spirits on the rise, it seems logical that it would only be a matter of time before a bitters company would emerge here to complement the terrific Bittercube line that’s made in Wisconsin. Egbert was initially pursuing a distillery, and in fact has become Bob McManus’ partner at Mill City Distilling.
But until that operation is up and running, he’s promoting his versatile new bitters. We chatted over happy hour at Saffron, where bartender Robb Jones (two photos down) sat us down with a classic martini: navy strength gin, Dolin dry and blanc vermouths, and Dashfire. Sophistication with a hint of citrus.
“I appreciate when someone puts the time in to do something better, so I don’t have to anymore,” says Jones (below). “I still enjoy making my own, but they’ll never come out like this. I think these are the best orange bitters on the market.”
It seems Egbert set out to correct some shortfalls he noticed in the other major brands. Fee Brothers, for example, uses glycerin and concentrated citrus oils. Tasting them side by side against Dashfire, which is flavored by fresh orange zest among other spices, there’s no contest.
“Almost all of them use dried orange rind,” says Egbert. “It’s vastly different, more of an orange soda flavor. It’s sweeter; I think Regan’s tastes more along the lines of Sunkist. I wanted to honor the flavor of the orange.”
Since orange is one of the original and most popular types of bitters, it’s called for in a number of classic whiskey cocktails. So Egbert thought to base his bitters on a quality bourbon, Old Weller Antique, instead of a neutral grain spirit.
His bitters are also distinct because they receive some barrel age. He lugged his 5-gallon barrel from Black Swan Cooperage into the bar, beeswax chipping around the rim, still fresh from draining batch number one, and emitting a powerful citrus-bourbon musk. The oak is both toasted and charred, producing Dashfire’s distinct woodsy-vanilla aftertaste.
Egbert’s beautifully labeled 1.7-ounce bottles are already on shelves around town for $20. Joining them soon, if not already, will be his second flavor: Mr. Lee’s Ancient Chinese Secret. Informed by his travels, it’s based on the concept of a balanced five-spice blend. It smells like anise and finishes spicy thanks to some Szechuan peppercorns.
Jones took the Ancient Chinese Secret and dreamed up a whiskey sour with apricot liqueur and toasted sesame oil that was as tasty as it was mind-boggling. Then, a captivating flip: Plantation 5-year Barbados rum, with a whole egg, heavy cream, Licor 43, demerara syrup, and a heavy dose of Ancient Chinese Secret. Have Jones make you that drink. It’s the eggnog of your dreams.
But perhaps even more quickly than bartenders, it’s been bakers and chefs making notable adoptions of Dashfire so far. Glam Doll Donuts has debuted the Dashfire doughnut (above) using the bitters in a sweet, boozy glaze on their classic raised doughnut. Potter’s Pasties (where Dashfire is on sale) went the dessert route as well, baking it into a pie with pears, dates, and cashews. Egbert is currently angling for a Dashfire ice cream at Izzy’s.
Stephanie Kochlin, chef at Pig & Fiddle in Edina, is using Dashfire in a nice gravlax preparation for her summer menu. “She’s done a different twist on it,” says Egbert, “so instead of dill, it’s with fennel, which does complement the orange really well. I’ve already had it twice.” His future plans include a line of tinctures that sound tailor made for chefs.
Once Mill City Distilling moves in to the old Hamm’s Brewery, Egbert will get Urban Organics to grow the botanicals for both his bitters and Mill City’s gin. For now, he’ll be tinkering with infusions and planning Mill City’s first run of spirits. One can envision cocktails with ingredients made entirely under the same St. Paul roof in the not too distant future.