At-Home Bitters: A Do-It-Yourself Project for Cocktail Enthusiasts

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, a new book from Brad Thomas Parsons, will make your kitchen look like an alchemist's lab


It's a familiar party phenomenon: every once in a while around 3 or 4 a.m., when the dilettantes have gone home, things get really interesting with an old record player and a bunny suit, and halfway through the buzz wears off and the stragglers are left looking at each other wondering how to explain the photographs to their friends.

The same thing appears to be true of trends. Take the well-established cocktail revival and its lagging but equally vibrant counterpart in home cocktail books. Here's how the night has progressed: A few years back we went to a fantastic nostalgia-laden speakeasy. Then came the hours practicing artful citrus peels, and the insouciance concerning drinks of raw egg whites. Next thing we knew, someone found us elbow-deep in gentian root and mason jars, and all of the sudden it seems very hard to explain to the folks who were skeptical even when we were just boiling lime zest together with syrup for a decent gimlet.

The first step is to find gentian root, which requires either an extensive Internet search or a trip to your nearest herbalist.

The gentian root is clearly the bunny suit of this evening, and Brad Thomas Parsons is the author we have to thank for this genuinely enjoyable late-night episode. Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, just released, is the literary apotheosis of the bizarre and undeniably beautiful artisanal and historic cocktail trend. 

In the last decade alone, there's been an explosion in cocktail information. Just to name a few of the classic titles as data points to track the movement: There was Ted Haigh's Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, which brought us such dusty gems as "The Mother-in-Law Cocktail," "Milk Punch," and "The Monkey Gland." There was Imbibe!, a remarkable and fairly comprehensive cocktail history by David Wondrich, whom bartender, beverage expert, and contributor Derek Brown calls "the foremost researcher of cocktails by a mile." Imbibe! offered reproduced 19th-century cocktail formulae, and included a small section on bitters and syrups, though evidently largely for entertainment -- one of the recipes' inclusion of snakeroot makes it a matter of "historical interest only." (Snakeroot apparently causes liver failure.) Then there was Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric's Speakeasy, wherein the prominent bar managers urged readers to make their own lime cordial for gimlets (home experiment verdict: worth it, though readers should also know it takes a truckload of limes and some very sore hand muscles to produce four cups of fresh juice). The rationale was that the current option in cordial, Rose's sweetened lime juice, has gone a bit too far in the corn syrup direction -- "some of the nastiest artificial garbage you could put into your body."

Parsons's follow-up is therefore only natural, especially given Wayne Curtis's characterization of "America's ongoing cocktail revival" in The Atlantic's November issue as "a theme park composed of many small villages inhabited by historic reenactors." Bitters is a book purely about the history and making of a single category of ingredient, the stuff just used for a dash of flavoring here and there. Now you can dive straight back into the 19th century, not just using cocktail hero Jerry Thomas's 1862 recipes for cocktails, reproduced by Wondrich and dutifully mentioned by every book in this list, but producing even the ingredients the way an individual of that era would.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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