If you’re a Milwaukeean who has never heard of Bittercube, now is the perfect time to get familiar. Not much more than three years ago, Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz were just two talented bartenders. But, they’ve evolved into a cocktail brand – and cocktail bitters making machine -- that has attracted national attention.
But, what are bitters? In a sense, they are nothing more than highly concentrated forms of liquid spice made from roots, barks, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. A bit like a spice cupboard for your bar, bitters impart a wide range of flavors to craft cocktails with what amounts to very little effort.
And Bittercube has gotten a little bit famous for theirs, which are made by hand from natural ingredients, with no extracts, artificial colors or flavors.
To give you a taste of just how influential they’ve become, their work has been featured in "Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food," "Playboy," "Imbibe Magazine," "Timeout," "Chicago Tribune," "Bloomberg BusinessWeek," "GO – AirTran Inflight Magazine," "NPR" and "Daily Candy," among others. Their bitters are distributed in eight states, and exported to Australia. And European distribution is next on the list.
"We started as a consulting company and then slowly started developing cocktail bitters," says Kosevich. "I was making bitters at the Town Talk, and Ira was making bitters at the Violet Hour, which is where he was bartending, and so we joined forces in 2009, moved to Milwaukee, started consulting there, and then launched the bitters in 2010."
In 2010, they also signed their first six-month consulting contract with Bacchus restaurant.
"Those six months are when we really started the bitters line," says Koplowitz. "We did seven- to eight-gallon jars of bitters and perfected the recipes during that time. After that, we got some seed money and upped our production."
For Bittercube, a standard consulting gig consists of coming into an existing bar that wants to add craft cocktails. They write a menu, help the establishment to curate a spirits list that’s in balance with craft cocktails, train staff and give the managers the tools to keep the program going. Establishments then have the option to sign a year contract, with return visits scheduled seasonally.
Next up, the two took on a project in Minneapolis, assisting the newly opened Eat Street Social with their cocktail and beverage offerings.
"Nick had known one of the owners of Eat Street from the restaurant world in Minneapolis," Koplowitz tells me. "They’d been following us. When they opened their second restaurant, they wanted to do cocktails, so they contacted Nick. It evolved into a partnership."
Kosevich makes an appearance at the restaurant up to four or five days a week to check on how things are going, and works behind the bar probably once a week. Together, the two partners handle scheduling, trouble shooting and cocktail menu writing.
In an effort to keep things fresh, Koplowitz says they’ve started making their own sodas and offering a seasonal soda jerk menu. Options include classics like maple egg creams, raspberry Rickys and the Bronx.
"We also make up our own," he says. "Like the Island Phosphate – pineapple vanilla soda. We also introduced a vanilla dream. Coffee soda is probably on tap for the spring. And we’ve been talking about the possibility of a hops soda."
And just in case you’re wondering how popular the soda program is, Koplowitz says it’s going strong.
"People drink them at brunch. Pregnant women and children… Sometimes people spike them. They become a sort of a fizz," he says. "Initially we wondered how they would do. But, they’ve done pretty well."
Koplowitz hopes to bring the same level of excitement to a new project they’re working on here in Milwaukee with the soon-to-open Blue Jacket, 135 E. National Ave.
Bittercube began working with owners, Laura and Tom Van Heijningen in fall 2012.
"They saw us on Wisconsin Foodie, and said ‘Wow, we need to do cocktails at our new restaurant,’" Koplowitz explains, with a smile. "We had a few meetings, and we clicked really well. It’s definitely one of the biggest consulting jobs we have had," Koplowitz noted. "We have a long term consulting contract, and we’ll be there on an ongoing basis."
As part of their work, they helped to bring Milwaukee chef Karen Bell on board to design the Blue Jacket menu and decide which direction it should go. The team has also been hard at work, designing the bar from the ground up.
"Nick and I designed the bar, the functionality of the bar, how it looks and works," Koplowitz explains. "So many bars are designed by architects who have never worked behind one. A bartender is walking from one side of the bar to another just to do simple tasks. Some things might look good, but be very unfunctional."
The team will hire front end staff, as well as take charge of curating the spirits, cocktails, beer and wine.
"The whole restaurant is built around the theme of the Third Coast, the Great Lakes. It’s a maritime theme," he explains. "We’re pulling that into all elements of the cocktail menu."
That means a focus on gin- and rum- forward cocktails, with local beers from the Great Lakes States, including New York, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
"It’s sorta kitsch, but I think it will work really well," Koplowitz remarks. "It also helps to give focus to the wine list, instead of being completely random. So, we’re going to focus on coastal wines – wines made within 30 miles of the coast."
In addition to great cocktail offerings, the team plans to implement a high-end coffee program with to-order coffee.
"We’ll be using a new machine that does a Chemex," Koplowitz elaborates. "We’ll have three or four different coffees from Alterra, with a focus on seasonal varieties. The idea is to have really good coffee, so Alterra will be training all the bartenders in the craft."
As far as the bitters end of their business is concerned, the team is making an effort to create one or two seasonal or limited edition batches every year.
"It creates a bit of buzz, some demand, and it’s really fun for us to work on new things," Koplowitz explains. "So far we have done lemon tree and barrel-aged blood orange."
They’re currently finishing up their latest project – a Door County hop bitters. Set to be released this month, the bitters will capture the aromatic and bitter flavors of Cascade and Chinook hops.
"We worked with Door Peninsula Hops in Door County," he explains. "They hand delivered 50 pounds of fresh hops right off the vine. That was really exciting. That’s when the hops are at their best. We immediately put them on neutral grain spirits (Everclear) to extract the flavors."
The idea was to use classic beer ingredients in the bitters. So, the pair looked to add-ins like feverfew, yarrow and honey to balance out the flavor profile of the bitters.
"We also used some flowers for aromatics’ sake, along with apricots," Koplowitz elaborates. "We sampled and made tinctures. We made test batches and created this awesome floral, hoppy bitters."
Bittercube is also working on a barrel-aged cherry bitters that is likely to be released this summer.
"We got cherry pits from a cherry producer out of Illinois. We extracted the flavors," Koplowitz says. "They’re really different from the cherry bark vanilla – more fruit forward. And we’re putting them on oak this next week."
Next on the list will be the production of cherry bark, orange and Jamaican #1 bitters in 5-ounce bottles, specifically for the service industry and bar market.
But, that’s not all. These Bittercube guys are busy folks.
"We’ve been in talks with Lakefront and Leinenkugels to do a collaboration," Koplowitz tells me. "They’d like to do a Berlinweiser, a low-proof beer to which you add a syrup. They contacted us about doing the syrup. We’re hoping to do a Door County cherry syrup."
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.