Does anyone remember the dark ages when cocktails were neither culinary nor artisanal but were off-the-shelf, quasi-medical concoctions designed to dull pain and/or create merriment?
No, of course not. No one remembers that in a cocktail-visionary pair of cities such as ours, where bars at places such as Eat Street Social, Parlour, Marvel Bar, La Belle Vie, Bradstreet Craftshouse, Saffron, and The Strip Club are in an ever-escalating arms race to get bacon-infused bourbon, rose powder, and ice sourced straight from a samurai sword’s single chop at an ancient Japanese glacier into our Friday night.
What are bitters, exactly?
They’re flavor, presented in alcohol, including a bitterness. One of the earliest surviving definitions of a cocktail, from 1806, was basically any drink combining alcohol, water, sugar, and bitters.
But now that we have artisanal Zombies (Eat Street’s Torpedo Room), a $200 bowl of punch (Marvel Bar), and farm-driven aquavit (Gamle Ode)—what’s next? Strap on your seat belts, because we ain’t seen nothing yet. The local cocktail boom has now created an echo-boom of bitters companies, which are themselves planning a third echo-boom of new gins, amaros, syrups, and other flavor-packed drinkables.
What are the iconic international Minnesota food brands: Cheerios, SPAM, Yoplait, Land O’Lakes? How about Bittercube, the little bitters company that started behind the bar at the dearly departed Town Talk Diner when then-bartender and rock-and-roll guy and now-co-owner of Bittercube Nick Kosevich decided to try to make bitters from scratch.
“There just weren’t as many options as we wanted,” he explains now, of his bartending world in 2007. “We wanted to make bitters which were 100 percent natural, with nothing fake in them, just to make better drinks.”
He turned to the Internet and started tinkering with the bitters process, which is essentially figuring out how to get the best flavors into suspension in alcohol. “There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of trying to understand the various botanicals. I remember one early batch, we were trying to make orange bitters, and four weeks later: Uh-oh. We have caraway bitters.”
But that was then. One day Ira Koplowitz walked into Town Talk, visiting from Chicago, where he was working at another leading cocktail spot called The Violet Hour, and the friendship was born that led to the two starting Bittercube. Now the company consults and has ownership stakes in bars and restaurants in three states, including a most prominent involvement in Minneapolis’s Eat Street Social; Norman, Oklahoma’s Scratch, Kitchen & Cocktails; and Milwaukee’s Blue Jacket. Their Bittercube line of bitters is distributed in 13 states, Canada, and Australia, and they’re about to launch in Europe.
“We send pallets of bitters to California routinely,” says Kosevich. “We never saw this coming. I remember when we would make a 20-gallon batch and think, ‘We will never sell all of this.’”
The most popular Bittercube bitters are the cherry bark vanilla, made with 130-proof white whiskey that the team ages with oak, wild cherry tree bark, Madagascar vanilla, and a whole host of secret ingredients, including the Syrian cherry pits used to make the Mediterranean baking spice mahlab. Bittercube’s orange bitters are nearly as popular, made by soaking and then removing successive batches of different varieties of fresh orange zest in a neutral grain spirit, then adding coriander, different types of cardamom, and a little burnt sugar. The cherry bark vanilla is like a bit of sorcerer’s magic dust across the bow of a manhattan or an old-fashioned. They’re so popular that Bittercube is rolling out five-ounce bottles. Who needs five ounces of artisanal bitters made in Madison, Wisconsin, by a couple of bartenders? Evidently people in 13 states, Australia, and Europe.
If bitters are going to be the next Cheerios, we’re all going to have to get comfortable with one definition. Bitters are flavor, presented in alcohol, including a bitterness. One of the earliest definitions of a cocktail, from 1806, was basically any drink combining alcohol, water, sugar, and bitters. The sugar and bitterness act as the two counterpoints in the drink. But bitters allow people to consume things we ordinarily could not, such as barks, flowers, leaves, and seeds. The culinary logic is this: If you have something hard that you can’t eat, such as cherry bark, you can get that flavor by letting the bark soak in alcohol, then throwing away the bark.
The most familiar thing in the American pantry using this “flavor in alcohol” technique is vanilla extract, which is typically vanilla beans soaked in alcohol. The difference between bitters and vanilla extract is threefold. One, bitters have a bitter component. Two, bitters can have as many ingredients as the bitter maker wants to add—a handful or several hundred. Three, the underlying alcohol is a meaningful part of the flavor of modern bitters—bourbon, for instance, as the base spirit to an orange bitters, or rum in something using Caribbean spice. But talk to Kosevich under the influence of a few of his fragrant cocktails at Eat Street, and it comes to light that Bittercube is deep in R&D for a whole line of new Bittercube products, such as liqueurs, vermouths, and even amaros, those bitter liqueurs known to most of us by their brand names such as Cynar, Fernet-Branca, and Jägermeister. What would a Midwestern amaro be like? Keep drinking and you will certainly find out. Available at Surdyks, Byerly’s, Zipp’s, and online at amazon.com; bittercube.com