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 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 TheAtlantic.com 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.
To put it into practical terms: You will now be drying the peels of six oranges, dumping them into vodka with fresh orange peel, whole allspice berries, cardamom pods, cloves, coriander seeds, and gentian root , and shaking the mason jar full of botanicals once a day for two weeks. That's the first step, before you get to boiling the stuff in water.
The pre-first step, of course, is to find gentian root, which requires either an extensive Internet search (you apparently don't want the powdered stuff) or a trip to your nearest herbalist.
That's the rough summary of how you make orange bitters. In fact, the orange bitters are one of thirteen bitters one could make with Parsons's new book. The others are a little more obscure: you might drop out, for example, at Charred Cedar Bitters. Something about flaming cedar sheets with a torch just says "too much," even before you get to the three other types of wood chips involved in the recipe. Another formula, the one for Cherry-Hazelnut Bitters, offers the unbeatable ingredient list in which "1/2 teaspoon shizandra berries" follows "2 tablespoons devil's club root."
The cocktail recipes that follow, though, for classic and creative drinks involving bitters, certainly provide plenty of inspiration, not to mention a convenient point of entry for anyone willing to buy a bottle of Angostura but who balks at "chinchona bark." The inclusion of food recipes toward the end is likewise a nice touch. Tossing bitters into homemade Buffalo wings? Why not? Bitter granitas, meanwhile, might be positively chic at present, after lifestyle guru Gwyneth Paltrow's margarita granita in her cookbook last spring.
Is it worth the search for gentian root? That'll be up to you, but let's say this: Harry Potter fans should definitely try this stuff. The kitchen starts to look like an alchemist's lab, only one that actually smells good. Furthermore, if do-it-yourself projects must be subjected to the "Christmas present" test, it's worth pointing out that giving someone something they can put in a martini (the classic orange bitters, for example) is both less frumpy and less frightening than offering something from the recent home canning revival (also a fun trend in its own way). What home brew is to the hipster foodie contingent, bitters could well become to those more attached to their razors or simply less handy with tubes and thermometers.
Don't misunderstand: anyone bringing homemade bitters will definitely be classified a geek. But we all need our geekery here and there, and this is as good a place as any to indulge. Again: martini ingredient. It suggests a geek who showers, even if he or she's a little too citrus peel-laden for a James Bond.
Image: Heather Horn.