Catching the Bitters Bug
Talking with author Brad Thomas Parsons about his new book on bitters
In the book, you have a great index of the various new brands that have come onto the scene. Any advice for home bartenders looking to navigate the bitters aisle? Essential bitters to stock in your home bar?
I would say the holy trinity for a well-stocked liquor cabinet would be: Angostura (it's really versatile), and then Peychaud's (it's a little more limiting but you can't make a Sazerac without it), and then an orange bitters. And these days there are dozens of varieties of orange bitters — Reagan's Orange Bitters No. 6 is really heady, and Angostura's version tastes like an orange that's just been zested right in front of you. After those three essential bitters I would add another citrus, like a grapefruit, and then a mole bitters. Those are really spicy and aromatic, and really open up some other options for drinks made with tequila, scotch, and rum.
Speaking of tasting bitters, is there a technique you recommend for sampling them to get an idea of a particular variety's flavor?
One option is to put a drop on your hand and taste — you're going to taste you're own skin, of course, and bitters aren't meant to be consumed that way, but it's one way to go. I like to put a couple dashes in the palm of my hand, rub them together, and then cup it around my nose and smell. You don't have to get all wine geek on it, but you can pick up specific notes of, say, roasted pecans or juniper, and that will help you think about how you want to use it in a cocktail. The other way I recommend is to add a couple drops to a short glass of seltzer. It allows you to see how it dissipates, and you get a sense of the bitters' aroma and taste in a liquid.
Let's talk favorite drinks. Did you have a formative cocktail experience that really turned you on to bitters? What are some of your favorite cocktails that use bitters?
Of course I started with Angostura, but when I settled into what I liked to drink, bourbon was my spirit of choice and my house drink turned into Maker's Mark with a splash of spicy ginger ale and whiskey barrel-aged bitters from Fee Brothers. Beyond the bourbon, my go-to is the Old-Fashioned variation of the bittered sling — not the one with muddled orange and cherry but the rye, simple syrup, bitters, and lemon peel version. That one won me over. I also really got hooked on the Negroni, which is made with Campari, a potable bitters. And then when I started researching the book, I discovered a drink Don Lee created for Momofuku Ssäm Bar called the Sawyer (named after chef Wylie Dufresne's not-yet-born-at-the-time daughter). It calls for a total of 28 dashes of bitters — it's a really bitter drink but is also really refreshing and a great end-of-meal closer.