Photo credit: Gael Hees

Growing up, there was always a mysterious bottle of Angostura Bitters in the liquor cabinet (the highest shelf in our kitchen). Mom and Dad were scotch and water drinkers (when they drank) and I don’t remember a huge number of “cocktail” drinking guests. That bottle sat there—waiting to flavor something—until the house was sold.

That lonely little bottle—developed in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert as a medicinal tincture—would have good company today. Bitters, following the way of hand-crafted beers, spirits and wine, are featuring natural raw ingredients produced in small batches. Small companies are finding faithful adherents in equally small restaurants across the country, and throughout the world.

So a little vocabulary lesson will help us here. Historically, homes of any size would have a still room where small amounts of alcohol could be distilled for use in medicines (or perhaps a recreational draught or two). An herbalist could give patients “medicines” from plants and herbs in the form of extracts or tinctures, teas, poultices or salves. Tinctures (also known as bitters) were made by macerating herbs in alcohol over a period of time. This allowed the healing components of the plant to be drawn up into the alcohol. Depending on the plant, the resulting tincture might be given directly to a patient by the dropperful or administered in a glass of water or other liquid. 

Enter the age of the cocktail beginning in the late 1800s, think Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Daiquiri. It was then that bitters moved out of the medicine room to the living room to give new flavors to drinks. According to Ira Koplowitz, cofounder of Bittercube, the current cocktail fad is more than that. He sees it as a reinvention of a long-standing American tradition that ground to a halt during Prohibition.

“Consumers are getting better recipes, producing cocktails at home,” Koplowitz said. “They’re getting much more savvy about product. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have imagined a culture where someone ordering a Manhattan would ask for a specific brand of rye and a specific type of bitter—it’s just amazing.”

Koplowitz and his partner, Nick Kosevich, started Bittercube in 2009 because they saw a gap in the market. They were both bartending and managing a restaurant and were watching the growing craft movement gain traction in the spirit and beer sectors. But they weren’t seeing the same focus on bitters.

“It’s funny, when we initially started making bitters, we were in some way making bitters for the cocktails we ourselves were creating,” said Koplowitz. “My business partner and I came together, started sharing recipes. We then started thinking more holistically and asked ourselves ‘Can we cover the style of cocktail anyone would want to make?’” 

“Bittercube” is named for the traditional way that bitters were often used in a cocktail: on a cube of sugar that was placed at the bottom of a glass with the other ingredients poured over it. It also speaks to how Koplowitz and Kosevich honor the spirit of hand-crafted products.

The company is dedicated to using all raw ingredients purchased as close to the source as possible. These include jasmine, hibiscus, kola nut, cubeb berries, coffee, chocolate and numerous spices; plus citrus and dried fruits. And, as you can imagine, the founders are very particular about the spirits they use for macerating these ingredients.

All of the prep work is done from scratch, such as decorticating the vanilla by hand. The small batch process can take up to 25 days depending on which of the nine flavors they are working on. 

Currently Bittercube produces approximately 1,000 gallons of bitters a month—enough for 100,000 cocktails. Six of the nine flavors come in one-ounce dropper bottles and regular five-ounce bottles, while the remaining three flavors come in five-ounce bottles only. The flavors themselves have great depth and definition and several, if not all, can be used in recipes for food as well as cocktails, especially Jamaican No. 1 (as noted on the website). 

The company, now only ten years old, is located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and employs 14 people. The headquarters includes offices and the apothecary where the bitters are crafted, a bar, and shopping area or bazaar. In addition to manufacturing bitters, the company has a consulting service for restaurants and bars as well.

Crafting cocktails? Looking for new tastes to use in cooking? Bittercube might just be the answer.