Catching the Bitters Bug

Talking with author Brad Thomas Parsons about his new book on bitters

In today's age of the craft cocktail, there is no shortage of details to geek out over. The ice, the homemade infusions and syrups, the glassware — the list goes on.

Brad Thomas Parsons, renowned writer, blogger, and genuine cocktail enthusiast, got bit by the bitters bug. What began a couple years ago as research for a short article on the subject, has developed into an unshakable interest that inspired the just-released book, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas. In it, you'll not only find a brief and approachable history of the essential cocktail flavoring agent, but also a guide to today's most popular brands, as well as beautifully illustrated recipes for homemade bitters and cocktails to make with them.

We recently caught up with the author to talk bitters and the book.

 

So tell us a little about the book, the inspiration behind it, and your interest in the subject.

Well, I'm coming to this from a writer's perspective, not a bartender's. I had my hands in the community and noticed bitters popping up everywhere, so I started talking to bartenders and learning about them. A few years ago, I wrote this short piece for Seattle Met on the subject and just couldn't shake the interest. Eventually, someone said I should write a book on bitters, but at that point I still wasn't sold. Then I revisited a copy of David Wondrich's Imbibe! and read this part where he said something along the lines of, "If bitters were to get the attention they deserve, they could fill a whole book." That was my eureka moment. And when I started really researching I noticed that a lot of the books people were using were out of date, so I saw it as an opportunity and jumped on it. Bitters are a hot trend now, but if you look back to the original cocktail recipe, they're an elemental, essential part of the definition. My hope is that the book captures and demystifies the topic for people who don't know about them, but also speaks to the experts and the DIY crowd.

 

Speaking of the DIY crowd, I think that's something that really surprised me the most, how relatively easy bitters are to make.

That's the big secret: Making your own bitters is not that scary — there is an artistry to it though. But the recipes I present in the book I hope people riff on. Orange bitters is a gateway recipe, for example, and especially now that it's citrus season you can do things like blood orange or satsuma, or even a citrus blend. Sourcing some of the more exotic ingredients — the roots and herbs, etc. — can scare people off, but they're relatively affordable and it's just a matter of tracking them down.

 

What are some of your favorite bitters flavoring agents? Any fails, ingredients that didn't really work for making bitters?

Not to be all Johnny Locavore, but I like to take a cue from the season — so, you know, citrus in the winter. I wanted to nail down a Concord grape bitters but it turned out weak, not bitter enough, and more wine-like in character because the grapes overpowered. I wouldn't call it a fail, just an experiment that didn't make it to prime-time. Berry bitters and sweeter ingredients can be tough, that's why you don't see a lot of peach and strawberry-flavored bitters. Generally speaking, though, I think it's important to start with the cocktail first. It's not necessarily about saying, "I have this crazy bitters, what can I make with it?" But more more about what does this drink need to acheive balance? I recommend walking around your city's international district or local farmers' market and seeing what you find and what inspires you.

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.

 

Click here for the Apple Bitters recipe.

Click here for the Autumn Sweater Cocktail recipe.

Click here for the Pisco Sour recipe.

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