Interview – with Kate & Jessie Poole of E. Smith Mercantile – Seattle, WA

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Flavors Produced to Date

Cardamom ~ Grapefruit ~ Lavender ~Smoke ~ Spiced Chocolate

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Bitters Hub  – What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production ?

Kate – I learned how to make plant extracts years ago in the early 1980’s. Alcohol extractions are a great way to obtain flavors to preserve the taste. Using extractions of herbs is a really beautiful, really old way to take in the medicinal qualities of the plants. The alcohol extracts almost all of the plant’s properties and the extracts are very concentrated tonics.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave you inspiration to enter into this product?  You’ve tended bar for some years, right?

Kate – I have been an herbalist literally all my life. I was picking fresh herbs when I was just a child and somehow I knew how to use them. By the time I was in high school, I was studying in earnest. I raised my family on herbal medicines and avoided the whole western medicine model. I learned how to garden from a great aunt, who used organic farming methods: deep digging the soil, composting, crop rotations… Growing, harvesting, drying or tincturing fresh herbs, for their medicinal uses has been a lifelong occupation.

Jessie – We were a unique business model in that we had a clear brand concept and visual identity rooted in a family history of makers, builders and healers that have been in the “old west” of the US for many generations. However, we had limited industry experience, never having worked on the management side of things. Our education and experience came from the side of the consumer, so where that really supports a customer-service-centric business, there has been a learning curve on everything else.  I had been bartending in a next-level home bartender way before we opened E. Smith, and have always done recipe development finding ways to combine unusual ingredients in beautiful ways.

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BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything?

Jessie – I’m sure you hear all of the time what a competitive market it is right now! We find our niche is for people that are attracted to a unique flavor profile first, a higher quality of ingredients next and then really loyal to a family owned and operated small business above all.

BH –  Knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor, is there a possibility or interest for larger productions on a regular basis, or is there not quite a need for that at this point, or are you already there ?

Jessie – We’re definitely a boutique brand. Our experience has been that most bars of a good caliber primarily stick to the standard classics for bitters (Angostura, Regan’s orange & Peychaud’s) and/or are making their own. I find the most room for improvement in the market is with home bartenders.

BH – What kind of feedback do you get from professional bartenders, and do you wish that more bartenders would get involved in regards to upping their game with a wider range of bitters usage?

Jessie – See above, haha.

BH – Have you ever thought about a way to reach bar/restaurant/hotel owners, bar managers, GM’s, F & B Directors in regards to getting them involved with more understanding of the immense value of bitters for their establishments, since they’re mainly the buyers and decision-makers?

Jessie – Of course! We work with a local distributor in Seattle and love to make visits to bars using our product to help educate how to make the most of them.

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BH – It seems like Seattle has the craft in culinary going on in a good way currently. What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in the heart of the city’s historic Pioneer Square ?

Kate – Seattle does indeed have a very innovative and creative culinary story. Part of the reason is, we have access to some of the most abundant, fresh, and interesting ingredients. Seattlites are connoisseurs who enjoy indulging in new and creative cocktails and cuisine. To be competitive in the industry, makers need to be offering something exciting and interesting to their guests. Pioneer Square still has a ways to go to be a great draw for innovative cocktails and food. Most of the people come there for work, go back to their hoods for food and drinks. The crowds who fill the streets up for game days are heading to the stadiums for their indulgences.

BH – Though you recently closed your Brick and Mortar shop on June 20th after five years in business, you sold many different products, not only bitters, but salts, spiced sugar pecans, spicy burnt sugar popcorn, cards, books, jewelry, clothing, teas, coffees, gift items, antiques. You still have an online presence and your wholesale business growing with your products. How do you think this transition will work out for you ?

Jessie – Only time will tell, but we’re excited to have some time to focus on tightening our story and creating new ways to share our products with the people!

BH – And by the way, the drinks and eats you had available in your shop/restaurant were two of the most super creative menus I’ve ever seen. I’ll bet your customers will miss that.

Kate – We had a lot of sad customers, who will miss us for sure. So many said, “we are so excited to see what you will do next.”

Jessie – Thank you so much! The most consistent feedback we got from our employees was that they appreciated the creative freedom. It truly was a group effort, but we prided ourselves for pushing the envelope and really creating newness each season.

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BH – The Heritage Room in your shop looked like a real nice space for classes, weddings, events and celebrations. Was that put to some good use ?

Jessie – Not as much as it could have!

BH – What is the longest maceration process for any of the bitters flavors you’ve produced to date?

Kate – We macerate our herbs for a full moon cycle, around 28 days.

BH – What is the facility like in which you create your various bitters ?

Kate – We make all of our bitters in our commissary kitchen. Knowing we were closing the business, we made enough to get us through several months of sales. We will be looking for a new location to continue making our bitters in the next few months.

BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?  

Kate – We purchase organically grown ingredients from a bulk supplier. We also wildcraft some the seasonal ingredients on our own.

BH – What are your storage and temperature necessities that you feel equate to the best results for your products?

Kate – Our bitters are made in large glass (not plastic!) jars. The herbs are weighted out (for a consistent product), and shaken daily. We keep a calendar to keep track of the maceration time. Each batch is then pressed and filtered in fine cloth, and then bottled. We use brown bottles to protect the extractions from the sun.

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BH – Is all of your bottling and labeling done in-house?

Kate – We have a small bottling machine that mostly helps with consistent quantity, and yes, every label is put on by hand.

BH – How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, flask-style etc?

Jessie – We buy our bottles from a local bottle source so we were limited in what was available. Especially as a start-up without a budget to explore custom bottle options… We do use an amber glass that helps protect the more delicate plant extracts from sun damage.

BH – How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz., 2oz., 4oz?  

Jessie – After some market research we determined the 2oz. bottle was most common. We’ve talked a lot about offering a larger size for bar use.

BH – Do you have any new flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point?

Jessie – Nothing that’s ready for market, but we’d like to be able to offer a limited edition/seasonal collection just with wild crafted herbs.

BH – What was your debut flavor and when was it released?

Jessie – Smoke is our signature flavor and the first we released along with lavender, cardamom grapefruit, and BBQ (which we evolved into spiced chocolate). All on the shelves in our first year of business in 2013.

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BH –   I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far.  When I saw the flavor name of SMOKE, I was curious about what type or profile you would come up with for that. Can you talk with us a little about how the essence and spirit of that idea came about?

Jessie – One of the first cocktails on our menu was the Miner’s Campfire. Designed because of mom’s go-to cocktail, a tequila grapefruit, but with a smoke twist since it’s our signature. We developed the bitters as a necessary component to our “new classic” cocktail.

1 oz tequila

1 oz blended scotch

1 oz grapefruit

½ oz honey

1 dropper smoke bitters

light shake and dump into a smoke salt rimmed glass

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BH –  What are the most samples and least samples of trial and error testing you had to go through to get the flavor profile you wanted with a couple of your releases ?

Kate– Because I have been extracting herbs for so long, there honestly wasn’t much trial and error. I have a very sensitive palate and sense of smell, which really helps when it comes to creating new formulations. After the first batch, a few of them needed slight adjustments.  

BH – I like your brand name and logo/label design on your bitters bottles? May I ask what the inspiration was?

Jessie –   We wanted a look and feel that matched our heritage/early Americana vibe but would still be equally at home in a more modern aesthetic. My friend Chas (chaschasdesign.com) helped design them.

BH – Jessie and Kate, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. I’m sure the visitors here on Bitters Hub will appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating E. Smith Mercantile and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brand. Cheers!

Jessie & Kate –  Thank YOU for sharing!!

Website – http://www.esmithmercantile.com

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E. Smith Mercantile in Seattle, WA

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