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Tonic time

Photos by Matt Haas

December 2015

When it comes to tonic, Nicholas Kosevich and Ira Koplowitz of Bittercube know all about this value-added drink delight. Kosevich and Koplowitz founded Bittercube in 2009 after developing, formulating and tweaking a lineup that currently consists of eight varieties of bitters. Since then, the business has grown, with product now being distributed in more than 30 states.

Beyond creating bitters, Bittercube has always been on the lookout for other business opportunities, including consulting with restaurants and bars around the country to create interesting cocktails. Hence, their parallel quest for the perfect tonic.

"We generally don’t use the word ‘mixologist’ for us, as it implies some form of degree," says Koplowitz. "At heart, we are bartenders or cocktail craftsmen. Experimentation and that ‘ah-ha’ moment when you’ve stumbled across a new idea or concept is my favorite aspect of this profession."

The partners had long discussed the plight of house-made tonics, a base for many cocktails that can turn brownish due to the quinine extracted through cinchona bark. Subsequently, in early 2015, Bittercube teamed up with Bombay Sapphire East to craft tailor-made tonics for 100 bars in 10 cities nationwide. At these "labs," bartenders could craft unique tonics for bar guests using high-quality extracts.

So far, Bittercube’s tonic labs have been held in Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Miami, Houston, Portland, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Austin and Atlanta, as well as at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. A lab was also a big part of Milwaukee Cocktail Week in September, an event launched by Koplowitz, Paul Fredrich of Milwaukee Foodies and Brian West of the Alcoholmanac.

At the latter, the first 50 attendees to sign up for the Cocktail College worked with Kosevich, with each attendee receiving a 32-ounce bottle of their own tailor-made tonic.

The tonic-training process for bartenders takes about 30 minutes. The consumer session runs around 15 minutes. As part of the program, the students delve deeply into understanding gin botanicals and how they interact with other ingredients like tonic. So far, upward of 140 bartenders and several thousand consumers have taken the tonic course. Professional bartenders usually know tonic fairly well and understand their customers’ wants. They are more hands-on and generally desire more control over the process, while most home consumers seek guidance, the pair say.

At the labs, attendees taste various ingredients that go into the making of tonics and sample a finalized gin and tonic from one of Bittercube’s tried-and-true formulas. Once they develop a formula for themselves, Bittercube helps fine-tune the recipes.

"Most people find something they love the first run, though sometimes it takes a couple of tries," says Koplowitz, adding that the test batches consist of only a few ounces because discarded attempts are tossed.

"I don’t know if I’d say tonic is specific to region," says Kosevich, Minneapolis chapter president of the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG). "Perhaps people have gravitated to different flavor profiles based on location. However, warmer climates look at bright and refreshing tonics, while colder climates might focus on more intense wintry flavors."

Although Wisconsin remains largely a brandy/beer state, its collective palate has been elevated over the past five years, the two Bittercubers point out. They see consumers becoming excited about the blossoming cocktail movement and are becoming much more adventurous, following a trend starting with food, beer and wine.

Multiple generations are interested in the tonic lab experience, Koplowitz emphasizes. "Someone who may generally just drink wine when going to such restaurants as Braise or Odd Duck is often extremely interested in tinkering with a tonic. Home experimental cooks and bakers love the do-it-yourself aspect of tonic-making as well," he indicates.

Bittercube’s goal for this winter is to acclimate 500 new bars with the tonic program, again working with Bombay Sapphire East. According to Koplowitz, the lab program is also being launched in London early in 2016. The Milwaukee-based company is undoubtedly growing, evolving and becoming more exciting with each new launch.


This story ran in the December 2015 issue of: