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Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulasby Brad Parsons
Cocktail culture has come a long way since I last worked behind the bar, which was in the early 1990s at Harpoon Eddie’s in Sylvan Beach, New York, a town optimistically billed as “the Coney Island of Central New York.” During college summer vacations I spent most of my shifts whipping up rum runners and strawberry daiquiris (by pressing a button on a constantly whirring machine that was eerily similar to the Slurpee station at a 7-Eleven), pulling endless pitchers of beer, and mixing innumerable Cape Codders. Our sour mix came out of a sticky soda gun, there was no such thing as simple syrup, and citrus juices were delivered to us in oversized cans from Sysco. I do remember a rarely reached-for bottle of Angostura bitters, with its distinctive yellow cap and oversized label, which was tucked away behind the house copy of Mr. Boston: Official Bartender’s Guide. The only time I reached for the bitters was when Maurie, one of our regulars, ordered the occasional Manhattan, which I served in one of the four cocktail glasses we kept hanging on the rack (most of the beach-bound drinks were served in plastic cups). Granted, slinging drinks during your college years at a popular beach bar has its allure: 25-cent hot wing Wednesdays, beach volleyball tournaments, a prime seat for Fourth of July fireworks, plenty of bikinis, and decent tips. I try to make it back to Harpoon Eddie’s at least once a summer when I’m back home, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the same bottle of bitters might still be behind the bar.
Most college students will drink whatever they can get their hands on--often to disastrous results (think grain alcohol holiday punch served from a Hefty bag–lined trash bin, spiked with peppermint schnapps and stained red from the box of candy canes the host dumped in as a garnish). In those days, my experience with what is now considered “speakeasy chic” was limited to the evenings when I would swing by the bar at the local members-only American Legion to ask my dad a favor (usually to borrow the car or twenty dollars; sometimes both). There the bartender would peer through the mirrored glass window to see who was at the door and buzz you in.
After several semesters of these ill-advised punches, fake IDs, and an excess of drinks that will never touch my lips again (I’m talking to you, Kahlúa and cream--and to any other cream-based drink that was pressed into my hands), it took me a long time to come to appreciate and understand the balance required of a proper cocktail. After college I cut my teeth on vodka martinis and vodka gimlets, but eventually I embraced brown spirits, especially bourbon and rye, and then, as a fully formed adult, I moved onto the pleasures of aperitifs and digestifs flavored with bitters, herbs, and botanicals.
* * * *
Aromatic cocktail bitters--the kind you don’t sip but add in dashes to enliven a drink--were an essential ingredient in classic cocktails, and are now back and bigger than ever. Just as restaurant menus herald the local farmer who grew the heirloom carrots featured in that night’s special, cocktail menus increasingly single out house-made bitters and those made by artisanal producers. And indeed, seeking out the best bitters can become as much of an obsession as finding the freshest locally sourced ingredients. The same DIY ethos that made growing tomatoes on your apartment’s rooftop, making your own seasonal preserves, curing charcuterie on your fire escape, and all sorts of other hands-on kitchen projects so popular over the past five or so years has rolled out to bars. Today listing house-made bitters on the menu and displaying dozens of homemade tinctures is a benchmark for most serious bar programs. Once I’ve sized up a joint, I’ll ask the bartender, “Do you make your own bitters?” More often than not the answer is yes: orange, grapefruit, coffee, barley, cherry-vanilla, plum, rhubarb, rosemary, and lavender, to name just a few.
Asking that simple question makes me feel connected to an ongoing conversation about the history of the American cocktail. And it’s not just because the bartender is decked out in his nineteenth-century best and most likely sporting a Civil War–era beard or artfully waxed mustache. It’s because that simple old-fashioned--the one made with rye, simple syrup, bitters, and a lemon twist--is practically what you would be holding in your hand if you walked into a bar in the late 1800s and Jerry Thomas served you himself.
* * * *
In 2009 I wrote a short piece on homemade bitters for Seattle Met magazine. I quickly geeked out on the topic, and sharing my enthusiasm with so many bartenders who were also on the bitters trail only increased my obsession. At the bar Spur in Seattle, where David Nelson was bartending when I wrote the piece (bartenders, like ballplayers, move around to other teams all the time), there were nearly two dozen squat glass bottles lining the bar, each filled with one of Nelson’s homemade bitters and tinctures. When David said, “You know, it would be pretty ingenious if someone wrote a book on bitters,” his words stuck with me, and I shared David’s sentiment with my friend A. J. Rathbun, who writes a new cocktail book nearly every year. He smiled and said, “Don’t look at me. That’s all you, my friend.” That night I revisited my dog-eared copy of Imbibe!, David Wondrich’s award-winning historical biography of Jerry Thomas, America’s first celebrity bartender and the man who in 1862 published the first known collection of cocktail recipes. I came across this quote in Wondrich’s book: “As for the bitters and syrups, were these to receive the attention they deserve, they would easily fill another volume the size of this one.” That sealed the deal for me. I was a man on a mission. It was fortunate that I got into the bitters game just as they were reclaiming their proper place behind the bar.
When I’m into something--a band, a book, a bourbon--I tend to get a bit obsessed. Growing up (and even well into adulthood), I collected Star Wars action figures. And that same completist spirit--needing to have every variation of every character--came back to me as I tracked down as many bitters as I could, both in stores and online. As soon as a new brand or flavor came on the market, I would scoop it up and take it home to experiment. I researched and tracked down old bitters recipes online and in vintage cocktail books to make my own bitters at home, and I scored samples of new releases and homemade bitters from bartending friends. Today I consider my bitters collection pretty impressive, but there’s still more out there, and more coming on the market every month. And there are still those holy grail bitters to track down, bitters that keep my quest alive: securing an unopened bottle of Suntory Hermes Orange Bitters from Japan is almost as impossible as finding the elusive 1979 mail-order rocket-firing Boba Fett.
* * * *
One evening at the Seattle bar Vessel, as bartenders Jim Romdall and Keith Waldbauer were passing me sample-size bottles of new bitters to try, Keith said to me, “You know, by the time your bitters book comes out, it’s already going to be out of date.” A lesser man might have been discouraged by Keith’s remark, or the idea that a book won’t be able to keep up with all the new bitters entering the marketplace, but I actually think his words point to something exciting. As recently as 2003, there were only a handful of bitters available commercially, and it had been that way for more than 150 years, but now there are dozens of new flavors just a mouse click away. To stay abreast of new bitters trends, visit my website www.btparsons.com, where I’ll keep you up to date on any new bitters that enter the marketplace.
After reading news about this book, a cocktail writer posted on Twitter, “A whole book on bitters? I’m incredulous and delighted.” If this book inspires you to dig out that bottle of Angostura from the back of your cupboard or seek out an orange or celery or grapefruit bitters to play around with at home, then I’ve done my job, and I will be equally delighted.
Because it is predated by the bittered sling, the old-fashioned may not be the “oldest” cocktail; however, it hews closest to the original definition of the word (spirits, bitters, sugar, and water). Its origin is typically traced back to the 1880s at the Pendennis Club of Louisville, Kentucky. From there it traveled to New York City, when club member Colonel James E. Pepper took it on the road and introduced it to the bar at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The original recipe is a thing of austere beauty: a lump of sugar dissolved with a little water and two dashes of bitters, whiskey, a bit of ice, and a lemon peel garnish.
Since then, many modern old-fashioned recipes have adopted the “fruit salad” approach, calling for an aggressively muddled pulp of sugary orange wheel and maraschino cherry, but the original is making a comeback. For me, tasting a supersweet old-fashioned with a bit of sugary grit on the tongue does invoke a memory of old-fashioneds past (mostly stolen sips from my father’s glass), but the historically accurate drink needs no more than the adornment of a lemon peel. Using simple syrup instead of a sugar cube takes the showy act of muddling out of the equation, but the syrup easily dissolves into the drink without leaving any residue.
The simplicity of the old-fashioned means that it lends itself to multiple variations. Just mix and match your bourbon or rye with different bitters, and the sugar can take the form of a flavored syrup or even maple syrup. I’m fond of putting an autumnal twist on the old-fashioned by using bourbon, cinnamon syrup, and apple bitters.
Combine the rye or bourbon, simple syrup, and bitters in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled double old-fashioned glass filled with large pieces of cracked ice or a large ice cube. Garnish with the lemon or orange zest.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces rye or bourbon
1/4 ounce simple syrup (page 92)
3 dashes Angostura or other aromatic bitters
Garnish: thick piece of lemon or orange zest
Better cocktail historians than I have presented and debunked endless accounts of how the Manhattan came to be, so I won’t waste ink here rehashing those colorful stories (see Gary Regan, William Grimes, and David Wondrich for that). While bourbon has become the de facto spirit in most Manhattans, the classic spirit for this drink is rye (though I would never turn down a bourbon Manhattan). Always stir this drink, never shake it. And a Manhattan isn’t a Manhattan without the bitters. Angostura is the way to go for a classic, but I personally like to split the difference and use one dash of aromatic bitters and one dash of orange. Going all orange tends to ramp up the sweetness without bringing the spice.
Combine the rye or bourbon, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with the cherry or lemon twist.
Makes 1 drink
2 ounces rye or bourbon
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura or other aromatic bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Garnish: amarena or marasca cherry or lemon twist
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