It used to be that Angostura was the only bitters a bartender needed. Nowadays, it seems like the number of mysterious little brown vials on the bar just keeps multiplying. Brad Thomas Parsons, author of, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, With Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas, out next week, explains why.
Why did you decide to write a book about bitters?
I was living in Seattle, which has a stellar cocktail community, and wrote a short piece on housemade biters for Seattle Met magazine. I completely over-researched the article and interviewed way too many bartenders for a 450-word story. I just couldn’t shake the topic. I started trying and buying as many commercial and craft bitters I could find and experimenting with making my own concoctions. Cocktails and spirits are subjects that lend themselves to much obsessing over, and bitters is such an esoteric, yet essential, subject and it kicked me into full-on geek mode.
How did bitters become such a big deal?
I see it as a natural result of the classic and craft cocktail movements. The call for the use of quality ingredients, like fresh juices and homemade syrups, and reintroduction of long-lost classics — some of which called for hard-to-find or unfamiliar ingredients — coupled with the Internet giving people easy access to chase down out-of-print bar guides sparked spirited discussions and fostered a DIY attitude. For years, Angostura and, if you lived in New Orleans, Peychaud’s, were the only major commercial bitters readily available. Then, Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 came onto market, which allowed people to make vintage drinks that called for orange bitters.
Why did no one care about bitters for so long?
The 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act, which prohibited bitters makers from freely promoting their wares as cure-alls, knocked many bitters makers out of business. Then, Prohibition knee-capped the industry entirely, since producers were no longer allowed to tout their wares as “medicinal.” Of course, Prohibition devastated bartending as a profession. It’s taken decades to catch up from that. The classic drinks that survived, like the Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned, were the primary reason a bar would keep a dusty bottle of Angostura on the shelf. But even now I hear horror stories of bartenders making a Manhattan without bitters. That’s not the kind of place where I want to have a cocktail.
Is there any validity to bitters being medicinal?
A certified herbalist can certainly convince you so. But the promises of the “snake oil” days — that bitters will cure jaundice, fever, menstrual cramps, and purify your blood — probably not so valid. It’s true that, in nature, bitter flavors often trigger your salivary glands and digestive juices in an attempt to expel a potential toxin. But it’s that same sensation that makes bitters a great digestif. I’ve had several gut-busting marathon meals where a tall glass of bitters and soda saved my life. I will swear to that.
What sort of person is making their own bitters at home?
I had many bottles of homemade bitters pressed into my hands and got to try a lot of original samples of bitters that are now sold commercially. The front line of homemade bitters makers are mostly bartenders, but in terms of people who are now marketing and selling their own artisanal bitters, it’s current and former bartenders, food-industry folks, and the occasional former movie studio exec turned bitters maker. You have to have a good idea of how you want to use your bitters in a drink before you worry about coming up with a new exotic flavor. What’s the biggest myth your book busts?
I would say demystifying how one actually makes homemade bitters. Without dismissing the craftsmanship and individual spin one might bring to the table, the actual process is much easier than, say, canning tomatoes. Sourcing some of the harder-to-find ingredients can be the most difficult part, but from there it’s a lot of tasting and waiting.
Any particularly weird uses for bitters you came across?
This happened after I turned in the book, but Seattle barman Jamie Boudreau used three cases of Angostura (the large bottles) to stain the bar at his place, Canon, in Seattle.
What’s your go-to drink?
A decent bourbon on the rocks, or an Old-Fashioned. At home, Makers with a splash of Blenheim hot ginger ale over ice with a dash or two of whiskey-barrel bitters makes me very happy.
Where do you like to drink in New York?
I’m definitely a creature of habit. You’ll find me at PDT, Death & Co., and Amor y Amargo. And I practically have my mail delivered to Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Bar Bar next door. In Brooklyn, it’s Prime Meats, Clover Club, JakeWalk, Char No. 4, and Weather Up. I’m embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t been to Maison Premiere.
Ever thought of coming out with your own bitters?
Some folks have asked me about bottling and selling bitters. I would never rule out throwing some Parsons’ Bitters into the mix, but right now it’s a friends-and-family affair only. You have to be extremely consistent — in quality, production, and availability — and that’s a serious challenge for the novice bitters makers looking to take their game to the next level. I’ve been wrestling with finding the time to work on the proposal for book two, which would also be shelved in “Spirits.”