Lee Egbert has a row of gorgeous copper stills arrayed against one wall of a Minnetonka warehouse. His bitters company, Dashfire LLC, has received its Distilled Spirits Permit (DSP) and, while many would start making spirits the moment the paperwork came through, Egbert’s stills aren’t even hooked up.
“The distillation is exciting, but I’ve done it before,” Egbert says, brushing past the stills. “Here’s what I’m really excited about.” He shows us to a row of plastic drums, where citrus rind and spices are macerating in a mixture of high-proof alcohol and water. Bitters-in-progress. Real exciting stuff, right?
“Five years ago, when I started, I’d say maybe 20 percent of people even knew what bitters were,” he recalls, “and now, I’d say that ratio has totally flipped.” Now we realize what’s so exciting. Considering that bitters get used one eyedropper at a time, this is a massive amount of inventory. Egbert is scaling up production because Dashfire’s 21 (and counting) formulations of cocktail bitters will now be traveling much further from home.
Dashfire inked a national distribution deal with Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, which increases their footprint from six states to 40 states next year, and 47 in 2019. “They’re going to quadruple our U.S. sales,” Egbert says. “It’s going to be insane.” Egbert projects Dashfire to be among the top 10 largest bitters companies in America next year.
“To have the bitters business grow, from starting it five years ago, to being able to quit my job, and not only that, but to expand, it’s incredible,” he says. “We got our loan with the bank approved and I literally cried.”
He’ll use that bank loan to purchase a new labeling machine and engineer some custom bottling equipment. Egbert has now positioned Dashfire as something of a flavor house and co-packer. Beyond expanding his own bitters business, people have already been contacting him to produce private-label bitters. “I did four quotes last month and I’m not even advertising it,” he says. “I think that means the bitters trend has turned mainstream.”
Photos by Aaron Davidson
Dashfire operates in the same space as the former alternating proprietorship that launched North Loop Brew Co., Badger Hill Brewing, Bad Weather Brewing, and Pryes Brewing. In the footprint of a former brewery, the space was pretty much turnkey for his operation. The building will soon also house production of Squarrel Square Barrels, a start-up company from Russ Karasch of Black Swan Cooperage, which was named a finalist in the 2017 Minnesota Cup. Egbert envisions a day when his distillery smells like toasted oak and the two businesses are collaborating on projects.
Egbert began his local distilling career with 11 Wells, where he remains a co-owner. But Dashfire’s success has begun demanding the lion’s share of his time. He’ll now be able to focus on growing his inventory, making sales, and expanding his library of flavors.
His distilling equipment will allow him to get deeper into the world of flavor extraction. Consider a barrel-full of orange peels, macerated for one month to make Dashfire’s Vintage Orange No. 1 Bitters, his flagship product. Well, what if Egbert put those peels in a still and made an orange spirit, and then used that spirit to macerate a new batch of bitters, say, a bunch of hibiscus petals for a floral-citrus taste? Or what about orange-clove? Orange-lemon-lime? The combinations of process and flavor are endless.
For the rest of this year and next, Egbert will be traveling the country, selling 34 new states on his bitters. And he’s not stopping at the border. Dashfire is starting distribution in Canada, Italy, and the U.K, with sights set on the rest of Europe as well.
With all this activity, it’s no wonder that Egbert isn’t rushing to distill any Dashfire Spirits. At the same time, though, he didn’t get that DSP just for fun. While in the process of ramping up bitters production, he is currently designing bottles for those spirits, but remains coy on what they might be. “Think Dashfire. Think botanical,” he says, promising to have at least one spirit on the shelf by the end of 2018.