Nick Kosevich is a cocktail connoisseur. Not only had he worked for years as a bar manager at the Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis, an establishment on the forefront of the craft cocktail movement, but in 2009, he joined forces with Ira Koplowitz, formerly of the James Beard Award-nominated Violet Hour in Chicago, to found Bittercube Bitters.
Producing some 1,000 gallons of slow-crafted bitters per month, Bittercube’s reach also extends beyond the bottle. Kosevich and Koplowitz lead bartending courses that consult and train on everything from staff to technique to menu.
“We saw the landscape changing. We saw an opportunity. We saw that we had this really unique set of skills that could create programs that were above average and unique to each market,” Kosevich says. “The craft cocktail world in 2009, 2010, to where it is today, we were kind of on the forefront of that in that we were creating products that no one had had before. We were really pushing this higher level, higher quality program, which starts with educated bartenders.”
Since securing their first consulting client in Milwaukee in 2010, during which time they set up a six-month cocktail residency program, Bittercube has grown to 24 staff members who have trained more than 400 bartenders at approximately 20 bars.
Most renowned bartenders have stories of the mentors that helped guide them and educate them about the craft, Kosevich says. “There are still more bartenders who just don’t have that, so a big part of what we do is that education piece, and it’s really rewarding,” he says, remembering one former student-turned-bartending competition finalists who came up to him to say, “Thank you so much. I’m only here because of you and everything you did and taught us.”
Why Bartender Education Matters
Educated bartenders lead to educated consumers, Kosevich says, who in turn respect the effort that goes into each drink and are willing to pay a premium price. But the bar staff has to hold up their end of the bargain.
“Bartending is a craft, right? Just like woodworking, you can’t give somebody some wood and some nails and a hammer and say, ‘Make me a bookshelf.’ Somebody has to show you how to do these things,” he says. “Bartending is a craft; it’s repetition. You get better at it the more you do it. You can focus on the subtleties and the intricacies, and then cocktail creation can be an art form, but those two things kind of need to be separated because during service, our number one job is hospitality.”
“Bartending is a craft, right? Just like woodworking, you can’t give somebody some wood and some nails and a hammer and say, ‘Make me a bookshelf.’” – Nick Kosevich
Bittercube’s program begins with the foundation of a three-day master class that gets back to basics to build a quality program from the ground up.
The Bartending Basics You Need to Know
- “It comes down to fresh ingredients, knowing all your ingredients,” Kosevich says. “The biggest thing is that if you go to a bar and they’re not squeezing juice fresh every day, that generally gives you a sign that they’re probably making cocktails in more of a conventional way…like the ‘90s or early 2000s.”
- “I think when you walk into 90 percent of bars and restaurants in North America today, the odds that the people behind the bar can speak about every bottle they have is probably really low,” he says. “Having an educated bar staff is a really big thing that can separate programs.”
- “The restaurant world is very competitive, and at this point in 2018, you can’t really open a restaurant without having a beverage plan,” Kosevich says. “It doesn’t have to be the hoity-toity vest-and-tie cocktail program, but you have to have an agenda.”
- “The longer you can keep a staff together, the better it’s going to be, and the more creativity is going to come out if it. You entice people by that continued learning,” he says, noting that the Bittercube program divvies up a long spirits list and has each bartender write a paragraph about five or six. “We’re never done learning. We can always be better and faster and smarter.”
- “Constantly tasting spirits, constantly working on new ideas–those are the things that I think are really important for that continued growth,” he says.
- “Practice consistency,” Kosevich says. “Every drink is jiggered every single time. That’s not for cost, or saving cost. It’s for consistency. Cocktail-making is more like baking than it is like cooking. You can’t just wing how much baking soda you’re going to put in something when you’re baking. It’s got to be that precise. That’s how cocktails are, as well. Everybody has to use the same tools and taste every drink before it goes to a guest.”
Once bartenders master the basics, they can move on to more creative pursuits. Kosevich offers his insights into the latest trends on the scene.
Bartending Trends on the Rise
- “Playfulness is a really important one, tops right now. Nostalgia. I want cocktails that are time-traveling. I want drinks that kind of make you feel something, not just taste something,” Kosevich says, noting a program that serves drinks in terra cotta pots with edible dirt and baby carrots. “I want the drinks to be an experience. … We still want to do high quality classic cocktails, but I think that right now, the thing that’s setting people apart is the question of, Can people take photos of the drinks and put them on Instagram? A Manhattan isn’t going to do that, so what can we do to elevate them? We’re really focused on visual a lot right now.”
- “Efficiency. … A lot of people are tapping cocktails,” he says, noting that Bittercube’s On the Fly Elixirs are shipped across the U.S. to make it easier for restaurants to get on board. “You can’t use fresh juice in a drink you’re going to batch 100 of and put in a keg. The acid will fall apart, the drink will change over time. We make these all-natural elixirs that have the acidy and sugar needed for a cocktail, and then you just add spirits, water, bitters, whatever, to dilute it, and then you have 100 drinks that’ll go in a keg. … We really want things that are super efficient, super delicious and super vibrant.”
The Future of Bartending
“Sometimes there are these negative connotations of craft cocktail bartenders, like they’re kind of arrogant,” Kosevich says. “We try to keep that away by really talking to them about the history of cocktails.”
After all, no bartender really owns any one concoction, he notes.
“If I make lavender syrup, I put it with gin and lime and call it Lavender Sky, I’m not doing anything other than making a gimlet with a little bit of lavender in it, and that drink’s 104 years old,” Kosevich says. “Having that kind of concept, I think, is the way to keep the ego away, keep that education forward, respect the past, and look to the future.”