Photo by Katherine Harris
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
Easy & Oskey
What about bitters in the home kitchen? This would have seemed like a foolish question even last spring, but since then a well-known name in local bartending has been taking it in that direction. Dan Oskey. He’s the bartender at St. Paul’s Strip Club Meat & Fish and the flavor guy behind the adventurous Joia Sodas (now nationally distributed and very big in California and Hawaii).
A few years ago Oskey put together some baskets for the home bitters maker and sold them in a local market. One of his most loyal customers at the Strip Club, an IT guy named Erik Eastman, bought the kits, made the bitters at home, and asked Oskey: “Can we do this as a business?” Easy & Oskey was born and currently sells the most ingenious little kits for making bitters at home.
Buy a box and you get a big Mason jar for making your bitters, different bags of botanicals, and a series of clear-as-a-bell instructions for what to toast, what to pound, and what to add when to your Mason jar. After your ingredients have steeped for long enough, you turn to the kit for filters and a funnel with five little eyedropper bottles for your completed bitters. The kits come in different flavors, including habanero, cacao, and a “naked” kit, which allows you to make bitters of any darn thing you want—fresh lavender? Curry and fennel? A whole Juicy Lucy? Follow your bliss, and if some of your friends get kits and follow their bliss, you can all get together and trade bitters for a spectacular cocktail party—or purely for culinary use.
Oskey notes that chefs and cooks are the ones taking to the kits the most, doing things like using cocoa bitters in a Mexican mole sauce, putting black pepper bitters on gazpacho or potato chowder, and using habanero bitters on scallops or chicken. Local brewery Bad Weather Brewing has been making beer using Easy & Oskey bitters, such as a Migration Ale with habanero bitters, for a sort of exceedingly subtle michelada.
Easy & Oskey also is planning on releasing completed bitters and other cocktail concoctions. “We’re not a bitters company, we’re a flavor company,” explains Easy. “And as far as flavors go, it’s a big world.” Available at South Lyndale Liquors, Kitchen in the Market, martinpatrick3, and more; easyandoskey.com
But where does this unexpected bitters boom come from? Probably from the base human desire to tinker. Lee Egbert has that desire more than most. He used to be a mild-mannered HVAC project manager until he started experimenting in his home basement workshop with cocktail ingredients. “I couldn’t find a great orange bitters I liked,” he explains. “And one day I just thought, ‘Darn tootin’ I’m gonna try this.’” Soon enough he had 200 little vials of tinctures of herbs, spices, barks, and fruits in his basement. He started exploring the differences between a tincture made from ground, dried orange peel versus one made from toasted orange peel versus one made from fresh tangerine zest. He released Dashfire Vintage No. 1 Orange, an almost inconceivably vivid rendering of the layers of fragrance and energy possible in an orange, and he began carrying bottles to bartenders around town. The stuff caught on like free money, and Egbert decided to pay tribute to his time spent living in China with a bitters called Mr. Lee’s Ancient Chinese Secret, made with tamarind and mandarin orange rind and designed for cocktails with an Asian focus, like those in Chinese restaurants or sushi bars.
Egbert next released a line of tinctures, like one made from hibiscus and another made with grapefruit. These are bitters without the bitter component and can be added to drinks or food—for instance, a few drops of lemon tincture finishing a cauliflower soup or on gravlax. These tinctures, and all the bitters here, are considered non-potable (non-drinkable) by government agencies that regulate alcohol, so they can be sold, like vanilla extract, nearly anywhere. Could grapefruit tincture be a part of the future everyday spice pantry? We’ll see. We’ll also see what happens when a flavor tinkerer gets into the biggest laboratory. Egbert has partnered with Mill City Distilling, the start-up St. Paul craft distiller.
The company will now be incorporating Egbert’s expertise to create their own rum, which they believe will be out early next year. Egbert imagines they will eventually release their own whiskey and liqueurs as well. What about Dashfire’s extant expertise with oranges, could they do a craft orange curaçao? Egbert says they will try. It’s more fuel on the fire heating up the argument that Minnesota is indeed the Silicon Valley of food, and we may be forced to convene a cities-wide meeting to decide that Mill City was a good name for Minneapolis in the 19th century, but for the 21st we might have to go with Flavor Metropolitan Area. Available at France 44, Potters’ Pasties, and Haskell’s; dashfirebitters.com