creative crush Eric Kozlik
This month’s creative crush is bitters-maker and entrepreneur Eric Kozlik, co-founder of Embitterment Bitters. We first discovered Embitterment at a local makers market in DC and then spotted their bitters at Salt & Sundry. We’ve always wanted to learn more about bitters, being an essential cocktail ingredient, and caught up with Eric to learn more. We are thrilled that Embitterment will be teaching us all about bitters in our April workshop Manhattans & Bitters-Making!
What do you do?
I make bitters and teach people how to build liquid taste experiences.
When did you first discover bitters-making?
I got started when a friend and roommate of mine, Ethan Hall, started messing around making bitters and liqueurs in the kitchen. As his experiments got better and better, we started collaborating to develop new flavor combos, build a business model, and eventually found Embitterment Bitters. About a year ago, we jumped onboard with Union Kitchen, and we've been busy growing and experimenting ever since!
When did you decide to pursue your creative business?
Ethan and I sort of bluffed each other into business. At first, starting a bitters company was a half-serious joke. Then I made a website. Then Ethan started pricing out equipment...you know, just out of curiosity. Then we rented kitchen space and made a few test batches...you know, just on a whim. Then we started talking to local retailers, and before you know it we were signing our membership agreement with Union Kitchen. The rest is history.
How do you combine flavor profiles to make bitters?
There are a lot of factors that go into making flavors. Generally, one starts by looking at the classic cocktail canon and determines what types of bitters are essential to the most important drinks--that's what prompted us to make Aromatic and Orange Bitters.
In addition, when you start playing around with your recipes, you have to think about what other bitters companies out there are doing, and how you want to creatively respond. For example, most lavender bitters taste like soap because lavender tends to smell great...but taste like soap. When we started crafting our Lavender Bitters recipe, we decided that our end product should be a lavender product that does NOT taste like soap. This surprisingly revolutionary decision led us to play with a lot of new and strange flavor ingredients and extraction methods, but as a result, we have a fantastic product that fills a need we identified in the market.
Finally, one major decision point in bitters-making is the zaniness factor. A lot of bitters out there highlight bizarre or off-beat flavor combos, which, although compelling, can't be used in more than a few very specific flavor situations. We have so far avoided that approach in favor of a simpler one: give people flavors that do one thing better than the other products next to them on the shelves. Our Orange Bitters are a great example of this. They focus in on the bright, effervescent flavor of orange oil, avoiding the flavor clutter and artificial additives present in other products, and as a result people can't get enough of them. I'd say they're our most popular product.
What do you do to overcome a creative block?
Most of the time, my creative blocks come when I have to develop a cocktail for an event or a bar/restaurant customer. I get stuck when everything I come up with seems weird or played out. I have an MFA in poetry, so when this happens, I often turn to poems for inspiration. Some of my best and most inventive cocktails have been inspired by the places, voices, and ideas in poems I love.
Emily Dickinson is famous for saying, "tell the truth, but tell it slant," and I try to keep this directive always at the front of my mind when putting my signature spin on classic cocktails.
How do you define creativity?
Creativity is looking at the world as it is and saying, "Damn, there are a LOT of rules here...but I'm certain that not all of them apply to me."
What is one thing you have to do every day?
Every day, I have to taste something that makes the world a better place, if only for me, and if only for a moment. On days when I don't have the time to cook a good meal, make a great cup of coffee, or enjoy a really nice cocktail, I feel broken. Flavor is a way to participate in a world where sunlight and water and things that grow and breathe can be taken into your body and incorporated with the self. Who are we to reject that honor because it's simply inconvenient sometimes?
What is one piece of advice you would give an artist or entrepreneur who is just starting out?
Haters gonna hate. But when you wake up before the haters and do your work while they're asleep, the Angel of Obstinate Integrity comes and gives them bad dreams so that they're too exhausted to hate on you the next day.
What's your favorite cocktail?
My favorite cocktail is The Last Word. Interestingly enough, it doesn't use a single drop of bitters. I like it because the color is an eerie green, and each sip is a crazy trip into multiple worlds at once. I haven't yet found the right words to describe it, but here's the recipe (fair warning, the ingredients are very strong--there's a reason it's called The Last Word):
1 oz gin
1 oz Green Chartreuse
1 oz Maraschino Liqueur
1 oz Lime Juice (always use fresh!)
Combine ingredients in a mixing pint with ice, stir for 15-20 seconds until thoroughly chilled, then strain into a coupe glass. It can also be served in a tumbler with a single large ice cube.
JOIN ERIK AT OUR NEXT WORKSHOP WHERE HE’LL BE TEACHING US HOW TO MAKE BITTERS! RSVP HERE.
Bio: Eric Kozlik is the co-founder of Embitterment Bitters. He earned his B.A. in psychology from Gettysburg College and his M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Maryland, College Park. His poems have appeared in a few of off-beat places, and his bitters are behind a lot of bars here in Washington, D.C. Eric is deeply concerned with the matter of taste, especially as it pertains to cocktails and cocktail aesthetics. He writes extensively on the subject and believes that our current cocktail Renaissance can turn into a true Revolution if we put our minds to it.