Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fun Behind Bars with Dy Mixes : Bitters

Bitters: Complexity's Secret Weapon

Next in this series featuring what's hot in Wisconsin, I am excited about the accomplishments of Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz, founders of Bittercube Bitters. Now, most people don't think much about bitters except when they grab the quotidian bottle of Angostura or Peychaud's for a Manhattan or a Sazerac.  This is a terrible injustice to the palate.

Bitters have been around for so long that they predate cocktails.  They were originally sold as patent medicines, particularly for the treatment of stomach maladies.  It can be difficult to know exactly who originated what in the history of cocktails, possibly because of the cocktails, but credit for the invention of bitters is generally given to Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, the surgeon-general of Simon Bolivar's Venezuelan Revolutionary Army.  Dr. Siegert formed the House of Angostura, and sold his medicine to sailors for the treatment of seasickness.  Thus, the spread of bitters began. The Royal Navy, you recall, gave its sailors gin.  Bitters and gin made a drink called Pink Gin which was popular at the time.  You remember that this was an era when the sun never set on the British Navy, and bitters went everywhere the Navy did, especially America and the Caribbean. 

Here in America, Peychaud's bitters sold so well that an innovative Louisiana bartender incorporated them into America's First Cocktail: The Sazerac. This visionary was Aaron Bird, and for many years a cocktail wasn't a cocktail unless it included bitters.  Remember when Nana said her afternoon tipple was "purely medicinal?"

Flash forward about 200 years... The paths of two more game-changing American bartenders were about to merge.  Nick Kosevich was chewing up the scenery in Minneapolis, winning practically every bartending award the city had to offer including Iron Bartender.  It was, however, his commitment to the locavore philosophy that truly cemented his future.  He honed his skills in the creation of house-made syrups and liqueurs and began making his own bitters.  Meanwhile, Ira Koplowitz was managing a Chicago bar that Details magazine called "ground zero for cocktail culture."  He, too, was crafting small batch additives like tonics, syrups and bitters, and was making a name for himself, even being published in the Rogue Cocktails book. 

They met in the middle and began working together in Milwaukee, ultimately producing six varieties that form the backbone of their enterprise.  Any loss suffered by Minneapolis and Chicago is surely our gain.  Their work is shining a light on our city, as the accolades come pouring in.  The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has featured them, but Bittercube's profile has grown at a rate which speaks volumes about the quality of their work. The duo has found an audience with Playboy, Martha Stewart's Everyday Food, Bloomberg Business Week -- but any list I make here will be outdated in a week as this company continues to expand its influence, so let's leave it here for now.

The Bittercube bitters are sufficiently different from each other that even the casual mixologist will find a use for them all, and your favorite will change with the season and your mood.  The Jamaican #2 and Cherry Bark Vanilla combine to add depth and dimension to my Rum Punch, and I'll be using Bolivar to generate added excitement to my champagne cocktails for Mother's Day.  You can add them to your arsenal by ordering them online at

If you like to get your hands in like I do, you might start a batch of your own bitters.  I recommend choosing which drink you wish to complement, and modify it to suit your palate.  The rules are simple: 2 c. grain alcohol combined with your flavoring agents and sweetened to taste.  For the first timer, I recommend a rum-based drink, not only because we're coming into summer, but also because its soft sweetness is easy to mix.  Here's a basic recipe that can be modified for this project:

Basic Bitters

2 cups grain alcohol, like Everclear
Zest of 9 oranges
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp coriander
3 c. water
.75 c.sugar

Combine the ingredients in a clean Mason jar and give them a good, hard shake everyday for 15 days.  Strain out the solids and put them in a pan with 3 c. water, saving the alcohol for a future step. Simmer the solids for 8 minutes and then strain, combining them with the alcohol.  Put the sugar in a pan over low heat and caramelize it, then let it cool before you add this to the mixture.  Strain it one last time and move it to its final bottle.  Cut it by adding an amount of water equal to half the amount of the mixture.  Your bitters can be stored for 12 months, and are suitable for holiday gift-giving.

More from DY at her blog: Fun Behind Bars

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