Sunday, November 26th, 2016
B I T T E R C U B E
From L-R: Nick Kosevich, Ira Koplowitz, Marco Zappia
Those dapper gentlemen of Bittercube Bitters - what more can be said that has not already been whispered (okay, shouted) from the rooftops of every trendy bar in the Twin Cities? They’re charming, hilarious, generous, and whip-smart - not to mention masters of the cocktail. Bittercube created the cocktail program for Alma’s new full bar - and Nick and Ira kindly sat down with the Alma blog to talk about it. Fair warning: hilarity ensues below.
AB: How did originally come to be involved at Alma?
NK: Ira would like to be in control of the conversation.
IK: I would like to talk about your camera first. Just kidding. Well, Alex and Nick go way back - they’re kind of like two peas in pod. They do what they do really well: Alex on the food, Nick on the drinks. Nick can explain that relationship a lot better than I can, but that’s what it started with.
NK: Yeah, so in 2009, Alex would come to Town Talk Diner after work and talk to me about flavors - I remember this gazpacho drink that we did. I was making this drink: tequila and gazpacho, and we ended up talking about onions and oxidization, and how you have to put the onions in fresh, but the other ingredients need time...when he’d come in and I’d make him different drinks and he’d always be talking about balance and flavor. I’ve always had a wild amount of respect for him. He’s such a good human being. From there, we continued to become close friends. We did a couple off-sites with Alex, for charity events and stuff like that. Then, it must have been two years ago - we started talking seriously about something maybe happening here with the bar. First we did the low-proof program at the Restaurant, and the way that we worked together was very cohesive. I’m from Minnesota. I grew up here. My restaurant roots are here. Alma, and Alex, are extremely important to this community - and they’re extremely important to me. The work that I got to have him taste and test early on in my career were very pivotal experiences.
AB: What’s the philosophy behind Bittercube, and what you do?
NK: I’ll relate it to Alma. When I think about the food here I think: there’s local, organic, natural, regional-specific, cultural stories. The plates are telling stories, and it’s not like “oh, here’s a Thai dish”, it’s like “oh there’s a village in Thailand, and they do this dish, and this is our interpretation of it.” I find that really exciting. Alex talks a lot about history: everything they’re doing is historical, using techniques from the last hundreds of years - and, well, the cocktails are the same way.
IK: If we just came in and put the same Bittercube cocktail program in every place - we wouldn’t be as dynamic and interesting as we’ve become. Every place we go has an identity. This place stretched our identity. It forced us to do something new that we haven’t done before. This was a place where had to take the idea of truly fresh ingredients, of local ingredients, and incorporate them in a way we haven’t done before. And I think that’s because we really, really respected the food.
NK: There’s a certain level of responsibility...it has to make sense.
AB: So what does the program look like, taking all those things into mind?
NK: If you look at the menu - there’s two sides: one side is like, classic cocktails. All drinks that are a hundred years old. There are variations, but they’re pretty rooted in the classical formulas. Side B is Alma inspirations of those same classics. So you have a daiquiri here that’s a classic daiquiri, and then you have one over here that’s made with peppermint extract and cotton candy. A sidecar here, and then over here a butternut squash drink. They’re the same drink. The same roots - but they’re looked at differently. The seasonality is really exciting. We have a few more pieces of equipment coming that’s going to allow us to utilize seasonal produce in the winter: squashes, that sort of thing. We really want to have the menu be ever-changing, just like the food menu. This bar is also so beautiful to workout! Ira designed the layout, so it’s really good to work in, and we have this amazing team coming together. It’s been really exciting.
AB: What does the future of the cocktail program look like?
NK: I think we’re off to a really good start. It makes sense, hopefully. It ties into everything. The classics will probably stay pretty close to the book, and on the other side of the menu we’ll be seeing a change every month of so.
IK: I’m really excited about the bar team. Nick kind of said it earlier - but the staff is great here. We feel really good about this staff, and everywhere we do a program we want the bartenders to be involved. The first step is getting everything down, being able to make the drinks at a timely clip, seeing the bar...but once that’s mastered, we get on to them starting to express their identity and power and flavors. I think it’ll be exciting because this menu will change seasonally. Right now it’s squash, it’s root vegetables, but once spring hits it’s going to be an entirely different type of program because we’ll be utilizing the produce that becomes available. I’m excited for the bartenders to give us their input. Their drinks are going to make it on the menu. This menu is not about Bittercube - it’s about Alma. Once we get into the second and third season...it’ll be theirs.
NK: That’s the hope: we set it up, we educate, and then we hand it over.
IK: When we start programs, I think there’s this misconception that we’re like - egomaniacs. And we’re telling them they have to stir counter-clockwise because we’re assholes. But in a few months, it’s not going to be our drinks! And we’ll always be around to curate and to make sure, but one of the best parts for me, for us, is seeing the staff take ownership. That will be so great here.
AB: Craft cocktails are something that can be very intimidating to a lot of people. What are some resources you can suggest for understanding the drink?
(A bartender comes over and places a drink in front of Ira)
IK: (sung) Breakfast is serrrrrrved!
NK: The best place to start is a great bar with educated bartenders - who are eager and happy to share their knowledge. The craft cocktail world has such a juxtaposition of things happening in it, where you have these amazing bars that have reputations of arrogance and bad attitudes and long ticket times -
IK: You want some? I’ll hold it for you.
A pause while they share the drink.
IK: That’s f-ing delicious.
NK: It’s on tap!
IK: That’s sherry cobbler.
NK: Wait, where were we?
AB: You were talking about great bars with great bartenders - do you ask questions? Do you buy a book?
IK: So in our mind, it’s all about finding pillars in cocktails You can get a cocktail book that has like five thousand recipes. You can read a flavor bible that has seventy thousand connections. That’s all great, really, but in our mind it’s about pillars. Find some formulas and ideas that work and make sense. Once you have that you can find new colors to put into those pillars. You have a canvas, right? It’s like: here’s the canvas, don’t go outside of it. Here’s a recipe. One recipe. Don’t go outside of the canvas, just find new colors to paint on it. That’s another thing we teach bartenders: don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel. It’s the same in food, right? Mirepoix is mirepoix for a reason. A daiquiri is a daiquiri for a reason. We’re not going to re-invent it. We can put squash in it and elevate it - but at the end of the day? It’s a daiquiri. Find the pillars. Understand a few drinks. Make those drinks until you feel like you can add some things you have lying around. That’s going to be an infinite amount of cocktails right there! Right at home! In your spice cabinet! Just with what you have around. For us...it’s simplicity.
NK: ...which is a funny thing to say when you have a drink that has edible glitter inside of it.
IK: Or activated charcoal.
NK: Winter perfume.
IK: Twenty-two ingredients.
NK: But you can break down those crazy things. Like the starry night drink: at the end of the day it’s just a French 75. Really manipulated, but it’s a French 75. It helps bartenders to, because it helps them be able to educate their guests. If you can connect it to something historically, it kind of removes the arrogance - the “I created something!” Our true job is to be hospitalitarians. Not mixologists.
IK: ...the straw should go right in the middle. Right in the middle. So. God.