Bitters Are Big Business for Bittercube Founders
Photo: Bittercube Bitters proprietors Nicholas Kosevich, left, and Ira Koplowitz, right.
Bittercube Bitters was a company born of “sheer desperation”. The brainchild of two friends, Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, was founded in 2009 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When the duo launched its first bitters, they make 20-gallon batches of six flavors, with distribution in Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Now, the company makes 1,000-liter batches with distribution in 36 states as well as Canada, Australia, and Italy.
The bitters’ were created out of necessity; Kosevich and Koplowitz, both experienced mixologists, wanted to emulate classic cocktails. DIY was the only way available. “We started making all these bitters and tonics and liqueurs and vermouths, you name it,” Kosevich says. Most of Bittercube’s flavors, which span from orange to cherry bark vanilla to blackstrap, were a result of trial and error. “These bitters went through considerable tweaks and changes before they were ready for the public,” Kosevich says.
Two of the flavors, Jamaican #1 and #2, were the result of a happy accident. “Originally there was just one of the Jamaican bitters but I had made some error along the way and messed up a batch at the beginning of our business that could have been a detriment to our growth,” Kosevich recalls. Rather than scraping the whole idea, they decided to make two different varieties. “They have pretty much the same exact ingredient list but the recipes are drastically augmented. So you have the #2 that’s really bright and tropical citrus. And then you have the #1 which is all-spice, clove, black pepper, ginger. They work in opposition and really well together.”
The Trinity bitters were another unexpected success. That flavor came about while opening Eat Street Social in Minneapolis in 2012, where 24,000 old fashioneds (almost a quarter-million dollars’ worth) were sold during the first year of business. “The bitters that go into that old fashioned are cherry bark vanilla, orange, and Bolivar. But on a menu, it’s just too many words, so we would call it ‘the trinity of old-fashioned bitters,'” Kosevich says. Guests were taken with the flavor and wanted to know where they could buy the bitters. Kosevich would explain that they had to buy the three components and blend them together, to which most guests would respond, “I’m never going to do that. You should make that product for us.”
“We listened to the consumer and we put 50 gallons of this blend together and the end result is something magical,” Kosevich says. “You look at what bitters are, they’re suspension. They each have their own complex road map of what’s going on in them and when you combine three of those complex things together and let it rest for 45 days, the end result is something you couldn’t even imagine, so we were really surprised and delighted about the amalgamation of the three things that we had worked so hard on.”
The Corazón bitters came about by request from some of Bittercube’s distributors–especially those in California–that wanted something more savory and spicy to round out the portfolio.
Given the ubiquitous nature of Bittercube now, it’s surprising that the founders didn’t even consider the commercial landscape before launching their line of bitters. “We didn’t think about, ‘Are other people doing this? What’s the competition like? Is it even a feasible business?’ We just said, ‘We’re going to do it and figure it out along the way.’ We didn’t even really know there was competition in what we were doing until months after launching, which I think was a benefit to us, just putting the blinders on and not worrying about anybody else or anything else,” Kosevich says.
The founders weren’t even sure what their customer base would be. “When we started the company, we were convinced our big market was going to be craft cocktail bars around the country, but when we launched the bitters, everybody was doing what we were doing,” Kosevich recalls. “We quickly realized that was not going to be the most lucrative outlet for our product. We turned very quickly to the home consumer. That market has been growing exponentially over the last eight years, so it’s been a smart business decision for us to have done that. Just in December alone, we made 750 gallons of bitters. For something that’s used by the batch or the drop, there’s just not even enough cocktail bars in the country to support that amount. It really is the home consumer.”
To further connect with those who play mixologist at home, Bittercube has launched cocktail programs. The founders teach classes, host events, do demos, share recipes, and show people how to use the products at home. “The big thing we talk about with the consumer and with bartenders is that recipes for drinks aren’t really as individualized as we’d like to think. It’s really more formulaic, meaning that a gimlet is the same drink as a daiquiri but with different ingredients,” Kosevich explains. “We give this lesson on the Seven Pillars of Classic Cocktails and basically say, ‘Here are seven mother sauces, seven master formulas. You can take any spirit, and any citrus, and any sugar, and use them in these confines. When you do that, the end result is going to be something delicious.’ The same goes with the bitters. We kind of really show the home consumer how easy it can be to make really well-balanced cocktails and mix them different every time.”
Bitters aren’t just for cocktails, either. They can be used in non-alcoholic drinks and swirled into ice cream. They’re also a versatile cooking ingredient, punching up vinaigrettes, marinades, and sauces. Kosevich like to use the Corazón bitters for braising roasts. Bakers have extolled the virtues of adding cherry bark vanilla bitters to cookies or brownies. Chefs have even employed the bitters as aromatic garnishes on top of sea scallops.
Curious about, but overwhelmed by, the ways bitters can be used? Kosevich recommends the Bittercube variety pack, which includes 1-ounce bottles of six flavors, plus a recipe card. “That’s a great starting point. That allows you to explore,” he says.
Expect new bitters to be released soon–including those made in cahoots with Marvel Bar. “That will be the first collaboration we’ve ever launched,” Kosevich says. It took approximately 18 months of experimenting, tastings, discussions, and revisions to make them happen. But, just like the business itself, the wait will be worth it.
“To see where we’ve built it now, 19 employees and growing, and hundreds of bartenders we’re responsible for throughout the country, it’s a pretty broad stroke of work we’ve gotten done in less than a decade,” Kosevich says.
Next up? Big plans. While the bitters will continue to be the foundation of their business, these entrepreneurs are quickly building a boozy empire. In addition to the duo’s Modest Vodka brand (already on the market), they have a spice rum on the way and a line of liqueurs in progress. Bar tools are in the process of being launched. They’re also looking to expand their consulting portfolio and current partnerships with distilleries all over the country. Finally, expect an apothecary and a Bittercube Bar to pop up in the next 18 months.
“I think some of the best stories of how businesses started are built on ignorance and sheer desperation at times,” Kosevich concludes. “You’ve got to jump off the cliff to see how far down it is.”