Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas
Sub Category: Drink books
Brad Thomas Parsons
Published: December 2011
Publisher: Crown Publishing
Cookbook, project guide and barman's manifesto this is a compendium of more than 100 cocktail recipes, featuring traditional favourites as well as gems from author Brad Thomas Parsons' own repertoire. In addition to the recipes, Bitters sheds light on the history and mystery of the alcoholic infusion's origins, profiles artisanal producers, gives step-by-step instructions for making customised blends, and offers a dozen food recipes for bitters-infused dishes.
Time was that Angostura was the only brand of bitters most bars carried, or had even heard of.
But then the market exploded, and in addition to ever-expanding ranges of existing makers, more and more bars are making their own, seeking out lost and forgotten flavours and even reformulating discontinued recipes.
In Bitters, A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, Brad Thomas Parsons focuses on this new bartender obsession with OCD-like intricacy. The first half of his book deftly define, describes and demystifies the category with a dictionary level of detail, listing how to taste them, where to buy them and how to make them.
Bartender turned writer and blogger Parsons then segues into a large cocktails section that lists historically significant bitters drinks in a Bitters Hall of Fame and an 'A-V' of Old Guard Cocktails, and then catalogues some modern classics in a New-Look section of more modern drinks. Each comes with some biographical, or at least, some product information. There's even a section where he crosses from bar to kitchen, offering up sweet and savoury recipes containing bitters, from ribs to ice cream.
The book itself is rather beautiful, from photography that's none too airbrushed (and all the better for it) to the graphic end-papers (the inside covers) and pretty binding.
Is there more here for cocktail enthusiasts than professional bartenders? Yes. Why wouldn't it be? The market of foodies and cocktail amateurs is much bigger than the professional market and the fact it holds your hand into the world of bitters, bars, cocktails and equipment has no shame in it.
Astute bartenders will probably say yes, thank you, of course they're aware of the bitters phenomenon, they carry a huge range that they offer for tasting, they probably already make their own and don't need to be told how to do so or where to buy them, let alone what they are.
But let's face it, 90% of the world's bars still only have one old bottle of Angostura gathering dust on the shelves, and many don't know what they're for or how to use them. They should read this. And even the most ardent homemade bitters makers would benefit from recapping on the whats, whys and hows.
This then is a great snapshot of bitters, and bars and bartenders' appreciation of them that marks out this era as bitterly defining. You'll certainly be hard-pressed to find more comprehensive coverage of the subject.
Parsons is clearly well-connected, and his anecdotal prose style name-drops the great and the good from the world of contemporary bartending. However, a journalistic style that relentlessly quotes others rather than presenting the author's own conclusions is sometimes irritating.
But that's a minor irritation and, as we said above, time was when stocking bitters meant only one brand. That time really wasn't that long ago, and if this book serves as a benchmark for future publications on the subject, the standard is high.