The world is experiencing a full-on revival of cocktail culture, with bartenders (or rather, mixologists) gaining their well-deserved place in the world of gastronomy, and using their skills in drink alchemy to transform the ‘happy hour’ into a time of heavenly delight.
This kind of boom has created new needs for the ranks of mixologists − both amateur and professional − and John Dimitropoulos was quick to cater to them. An accomplished entrepreneur and experienced strategic advisor, he has been instrumental in the creation of many start-ups. Combining his business acumen with his love for a well-prepared drink, he created, along with his wife Sophia, The Bitters Lab, a haven for cocktail professionals and enthusiasts, who can spend hours sampling the vast array of bitters and syrups showcased. Speaking to Neos Kosmos, John shares the back story of this venture, which he traces back to his Spartan roots.
How did The Bitters Lab come to be?
Approximately four years ago, being cocktail enthusiasts, we were frustrated by the lack of selection we had in Australia for bitters. A few bartenders and enthusiasts were making their own bitters and syrups. Many enthusiasts would buy bitters from overseas and bring them back in their luggage. Shipping them from overseas was expensive. So we decided to start a small online business (www.onlybitters.com) to cater for this niche market.
We did not expect the business to be anything more than a little hobby business. Days after launching we started to see that there was latent unmet demand that was greater than we initially expected.
From there, the online business grew fast and big enough to employ four people. From starting with just 35 products for sale, we have since grown to more than 1,000 products, and in doing so have curated the greatest collection of bitters on the planet. Wherever I travel, and I travel 200+ days a year internationally for my day job in technology mergers and acquisitions, I take my business cards to bars and am constantly surprised by how many barmen around the world know of our website and its offerings.
A few years ago, we were getting so many hits from US customers we also started an online business in the US (www.onlybitters.us) to cater for the same market.
At about the same time, we co-invested with some young talented bar folks in Australia’s first Bitters Co, Mister Bitters (www.mr-bitters.com). We manufacture those products here in Melbourne and sell them around the world. As a matter of fact, we sell more in the US than we sell in Australia.
Early this year, we had outgrown our warehouse in Fairfield. We needed to move. We always thought a physical retail presence would be great for allowing customers (professionals, amateurs and novices) to come in and get to taste, try and see the products. The issue you get when you range 1,000-plus products is the tyranny of choice. Allowing a tasting facility allows customers to make better choices − and hence The Bitters Lab was born.
We found the shop using a Greek real estate agency (TCI Property) in Smith St Fitzroy that would suit our needs − three facilities in one, the retail shop, the online business warehouse and the bitters manufacturing business. We are now located in one facility at Shop 9, 397 Smith St Fitzroy.
Is The Bitters Lab addressed to amateurs or professionals?
The Bitters Lab addresses the needs of amateurs, professionals and novices. We recently launched a master class program for both professionals and amateurs. We run classes every month specialising in different elements (bitters, tonics, shrubs, vermouths etc). In these classes we try to educate, entertain and inspire participants to use the different product categories we bring to make better cocktails and drinks.
We see our role not just as retailers but as educators in this burgeoning field on mixology and better drinking.
Each group gains from the shop. The professionals can come in during the day when they are not working and try different things when they are preparing their cocktail lists. We show them our new products, we help many out with their cocktail competitions in getting things in that are slightly unusual. The amateurs love coming and trying and buying things they have had in bars and restaurants. The novices are the most fun, because they are usually completely unaware of ANY of our product offerings. Watching their gears turn when they start to taste things is always fun.
Our ideal customer is one that buys a cross-section of products from our store; some bitters, some syrups, some amaros, shrubs, barware etc. One that shares ideas with us and listens to recommendations too. One that inspires us to bring something in that we do not have. One that we can learn from too. And let’s not forget, one with a big wallet would be nice, too!
In what way are you inspired by Melbourne’s status as a city of high-quality hospitality?
In Melbourne, the quality of the food and beverages is always rising, and because hospitality has become a serious and competitive industry, both chefs and bartenders are always striving for the highest level of product and service. We have cocktail bars here in Melbourne that compete regularly on the world stage. We have bartenders in the top 10 cocktail bartenders in the world each year. We are proud to call these bars and bartenders our customers and friends. They inspire us to bring in more variety and help them to higher standards. We inspire them with new finds and products that help them better their craft. We all become better through this interaction. As an analogy, a great steak restaurant is only as good as its quality meat supplier. A great cocktail bar is no different …
When the above is combined with the popularity of shows like MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules, which have inspired people at home to broaden their palates and try new things, we get a community which is open to explore the culinary and beverage world.
We want to be seen as a strong and creative partner in this exploration and in allowing the cocktail scene here to grow to new levels.
How would you describe the cocktail culture in Melbourne at the moment?
Melbourne has an elevated cocktail culture. One of the great things about Australians is that they travel. They work in bars around the world. They come back with their experiences. They seed the next bartenders. This cross-pollination has been happening forever in the bar scene here. You get some great innovators who take a very professional approach to their craft. Bartenders no longer see their roles as ‘just a job’ but a serious profession. We have had some of these pioneers early in Melbourne and have developed a cocktail cluster here similar to the likes of New York and London.
We have world-class bars, to name but a few at the forefront in no particular order: Eau De Vie, The Everleigh, Lily Blacks, Black Pearl, 1806, The Gin Palace, Boilermaker, Romeo Lane. Both Black Pearl and Eau De Vie are regularly in the running for prizes for best bar at Tales of the Cocktail awards each year.
Also, as an example, in last year’s Diageo World Championships (the Olympics of bartending), Jack Sotti (of Boilermaker) came in the top five in the world.
How does cocktail-making follow the gastronomic trends?
As bitters are to drinks what seasoning and spices are to food, anything that gets people to explore more spices assists in both the gastronomic world and the drinks world.
Bitters at the end of the day are an aromatic additive that either enhances a flavour already present in the drink, or changes the flavour of the drink. They are typically alcohol extracts or spices, fruits, herbs, and can be either flavoured with many ingredients, or just hero one particular flavour.
Sometimes, certain cocktails come into fashion and we get a whole bunch of orders for a bitters or a shrub (drinking vinegar). A good example of this is with a lot of people discovering Peruvian cooking, they have also discovered the wonderful pisco sour which requires Amargo Chuncho bitters. With many people enamoured with truffles at the moment, our unusual black truffle and white truffle bitters sell very well. Smokey flavours are doing nicely right now too.
But an aromatic and an orange bitters will never go out of style. They are the two most prescribed bitters in cocktail recipes.
How did you get involved in this industry?
My original involvement in the industry was by watching my parents drink at home. There was always vermouth in the house, gin and of course whisky. I started working at the Underground nightclub and at Inflation in the mid ’80s. I then went on to be a cocktail barman at Monsoons at the Hyatt. I left the industry in the ’80s to become a professional in the finance and telecoms world. I worked in London and New York for many years. Here in Australia, I helped to privatise the TAB to Tabcorp, was the 2IC of Optus Vision in Victoria and South Australia in the ’90s. I started the first prepaid mobile company and sold it to Vodafone … so I know what it is like operate a start-up business.
In the last 13 years, as a technology mergers and acquisitions specialist, I travel the world and in doing so, I end up drinking in countless high-end cocktail bars. I never lost my curiosity for a well-made drink. I loved the resurgence of the pre-prohibition era cocktail recipes.
It was during one of my down times (no deal in the works) that I started the online business. My wife Sophia, a Greek New Yorker, now runs the day-to-day business with a great, small staff of four. I still run the US online business and source all the products that we sell and get involved in distribution deals etc.
How has your Greek background influenced your professional development?
Being not only Greek, but a Spartan Greek, has imbued me with a sense of great self-confidence. Let’s call it Greek exceptionalism.
Being independent both financially and professionally is part of the mercantile instinct inherent in us Greeks. So choosing the independent mergers and acquisitions path made total sense.
Opening a business came naturally. Greece itself, for instance, has a massive self-employed culture and one of the highest per capita in the OECD.
Being Greek to me is to be a part of something very special. A great sense of pride in our amazing history, our culture, our rich language, our traditions, our
filoxenia and in the end, our indomitable spirit. ‘I tan i epi tas.’ Having Greek parents who pushed us to be a better version of ourselves and ultimately to honour their huge sacrifices to make us be better off than them. If this isn’t drive enough …
What is your favourite drink?
Of all the questions, this one is the hardest: which is your favourite child?
I like to drink the classics: Manhattan; Old Fashioned; Sazerac; whisky sour; Negroni; boulevardier. Sometimes I am in the mood for a mojito or pisco sour. And then there’s the classic gin and tonic, made with a traditional tonic syrup.