You wouldn’t expect a casual drink with friends to nearly kill you.
Some of the most common cocktails are made with ingredients that could trigger a serious reaction in those with an allergy: egg whites, in particular, are a traditional ingredient in drinks like sours and flips. After the son of his good friend ended up in the emergency room due to an allergic reaction—unwittingly drinking a cocktail made with egg—Philip Unger was inspired to create an allergen-free alternative: a foamer that acts the same way an egg does, but is comprised completely of vegan botanicals.
“It’s sort of a game changer for the industry: there are a couple of substitutes but they don’t really work that well, or they have really weird flavours,” says Unger, standing in front of the bar at the Alberta Hotel—and quite literally rubbing shoulders with a small crowd of individuals in Edmonton’s cocktail scene—during the recent launch of his vegan botanical foamer.
The foamer falls under the Ms Betters Bitters brand, a range of bitters that Unger has helped develop and market with Vancouver bartender and Edmonton native Tarquin Melnyk. While most people probably haven’t heard of Unger by name, anyone who’s eaten at Cactus Club, Earls or Joey will have probably tasted one of his products: Unger’s background is in food technology and he’s developed a huge range of products that are featured in some of the biggest chain restaurants across the country, everything from desserts and sauces to drinks and spice mixes.
It would be easy to lump this vegan botanical foamer under the broad (and ever-expanding) category of hopelessly niche products hurried to market with a view to capturing as much of a passing fad as possible. Even the description itself—vegan botanical foamer—carries some sense of ultra-hipster cachet. But unlike the vast majority of such products, this foamer is actually very useful for the industry: a shelf-stable alternative to a perishable, refrigeration-mandatory ingredient, that smells and tastes very similar to the real thing. I detected a slight musky vegetal aroma in a cocktail made with the foamer, and the taste of the drink was slightly more pronounced—which makes sense since egg whites actually mute your taste buds—but otherwise a cocktail made with the foamer was almost indistinguishable from one made from the real thing.
“I’m not just looking at the vegan opportunity here,” says Unger, who has been developing the foamer for almost seven years. “Of course there’s a lot of vegans that really do want to have a cocktail and can’t have [certain ones]. I actually don’t like the smell of egg whites in cocktails; I find them off-putting. From the perspective of the bartender, they have a container of egg whites … they don’t know how long that’s been there so it may not be that fresh. There’s a whole bunch of really icky aspects to egg whites and this makes it super easy.”
Unger and Melnyk are still in the process of launching the vegan botanical foamer. They’ve been taking wholesale orders through their Facebook page and industry contacts, and they are in the process of getting the website online. They are also continuing to expand the range of flavours offered under Ms Betters Bitters; most recently they’ve begun introducing a series of bitters named after famous mountains, made from botanicals from that particular area in the world.
“We consider ourselves very eclectic in what we do,” Unger says. “We want to create something that really works in the framework of what the bartender wants to do, and we give them materials to do that.”