This week we sit down with Eric Kozlik from Embitterment Bitters. Eric is someone we’ve got to know as his business has continued to grow from its humble Washington, DC-based roots. He’s become a friend of ours, and we waited to have this conversation until he got back from Tales of the Cocktail, one of the biggest events in the cocktail world, so he could share his experience. Long-time listeners will also see and hopefully be pleasantly entertained when this conversation veer a bit more abstract than usual, while still maintaining whatever the “Speaking Easy experience” has become. We hope you enjoy this conversation, which we are sure will not be our last with Eric. Be sure to check out Embitterment’s website for their current and upcoming products, and be sure to let us know what you think of this conversation. Cheers to being a better drinker!
What’s the first cocktail you remember really enjoying?
Looking back, my first true cocktail experience was pretty emotional. I was 21 years old, and I spent the summer before my senior year of college working at a strange and wonderful farm-to-table restaurant in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. The chef was a young guy who made traditional Spanish tapas using a wood-fired oven.
One evening, he and I were in the 110 degree kitchen and I complained about my tips being low that shift. He turned to me and said, “Do you realize you make more in a shift than I do?” Turns out, he was right–he was running this amazing kitchen for someone else, who was paying him $100 per day. At 28 years old, he had a wife, two children, and another child on the way. It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced.
The next day, I stopped at the liquor store before my shift, and I used my limited knowledge of bourbon to pick out a bottle of Maker’s Mark, which I presented to him as an apology. He immediately sent me out to the restaurant’s garden to pick a bunch of mint, which he used to make a mint syrup. He infused the bourbon with the mint syrup, and stuck everything in the freezer.
That night after the restaurant was closed and cleaned and quiet, we pulled two chairs out to the patio, where I enjoyed my first cocktail–a mint julep. It tasted of smooth, mellow bourbon, cool mint, and redemption. It was proof that I had somehow done the right thing.
What do you like to make most at home?
At home, I go either very simple or very complex. I also like to follow the seasons. Right now, I’m deeply in love with the Vesper cocktail, which is a type of gin martini. It’s simple to make and perfect for the hot summer nights in Washington, D.C. In the winter, I often turn my attention to darker spirits. At least once a year, I make a batch of coquito, which is a coconut-based Puerto Rican eggnog made with rum.
What would you suggest reading or watching to a new home bartender? What skills should they pick up?
I was a lifeguard, and I always had to yell at kids for climbing into the deep end of the pool the wrong way. The safest way is to descend the ladder backwards, and the same is true of cocktail literature. I would recommend that, for every cocktail recipe book you enjoy, also look for something that ranges a bit more widely, or perhaps only applies to one particular aspect of cocktails.
For science-inclined folks, I’d recommend “Neurogastronomy” by Gordon Shepherd, which explains how we process flavor at the neural level. If you can wade through a bit of science jargon, you’re rewarded with a much richer understanding of sensory experiences. For culinary history buffs, I’d recommend “The Physiology of Taste, or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy” by the French polymath Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin. This book is one of the earliest and most complete cultural and scientific analyses of how people eat. The author was a guy who witnessed colonial America, as well as pre- and post-revolution France, and he is an absolute riot.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
My favorite cocktail is The Last Word, which is a 1:1:1:1 mixture of gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice. It has a flavor that won’t sit still, and an opalescent green color that seems to match your mood. The botanicals in the gin and Chartreuse swim around and flash like a school of mackerel, while the sweet, mellow maraschino liqueur and the bracing lime juice balance this drink on its flavor fulcrum. It’s incredible. I drink it on a single large rock.
What cocktail do you just not understand why people drink it?
The mimosa is normally the target of my most vicious cocktail rants. D.C. is mimosa crazy, which is to say that D.C. is brunch-crazy. If I’m hung over at brunch and someone tries to shove a mimosa at me, I freak. Most of the time, they don’t understand.
Them: “Have this sugary liquid made with the cheapest possible orange drink and the cheapest possible fizzy wine! Wanna know a secret? We paid twelve extra dollars to enjoy an ENDLESS STREAM of this disrespectful liquid!”
Me: “I don’t like mimosas.”
Them: “Why are you hating on mimosas? They’re AMAZING!!!”
Me: “We are no longer friends.”
What cocktail trends to you love?
I love pretty much any trend that makes cocktails more accessible to folks. There will always be fancy bartenders who can nerd out with elite groups of very knowledgeable people, but it’s actually harder to come across a bartender or beverage program that’s more interested in helping people to enjoy simple, classic cocktails at a reasonable price. To that end, $5 happy hour punch bowls are great, as are programs that offer a reasonably-priced Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Martini.
What cocktail trends do you hate?
I hate when people are overly-focused on making arbitrary connections with history, and assuming that there’s just tons and tons of value in doing so. For example, branding a bar or a product using some Pre-Prohibition or Speakeasy theme without really considering what value that’s going to give consumers and patrons.
It’s critically important to understand history if you’re going to give people a good cocktail or bar experience. However, I think that the best way to participate in history is to focus on making things new and intrinsically valuable so that years down the road people can look back at what you’re doing and say, “wow, that was really important.”
If you have one (or a few), what would you say is your “signature drink”?
One drink I make really well, and that I haven’t really seen anywhere else, is the Corpse Reviver Spritz. It’s crazy simple. You make a Corpse Reviver #2 (Gin, Lemon Juice, Orange Liqueur, Absinthe), and then you hit that bad boy with some sparkling water. It’s great for hangovers, day drinking, and really anytime you’re looking for something fruity and refreshing. It allows you to moderate your alcohol intake while hydrating.
Can you share with us one of your favorite toasts?
I have a background in poetry. One of my favorite poems to teach is “This is just to say,” by William Carlos Williams, which is written in the form of an intimate note.
This is just to say
I turned this poem into a toast that goes like this:
This is just to say
Where to find Eric and Embitterment
Eric Kozlik’s Instagram: @quixologist