Sunday, October 30, 2011

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Bookshelf: Bitters

It has become a cliché of modern bartending that bitters are to cocktails as salt is to soup. They are the seasoning, the ingredient that can turn merely acceptable drinks into stellar ones. Or, as one Filipino friend explained to another in a turn close to my heart, “Bitters are to cocktails as bay leaves are to adobo.” You may or may not be able to pinpoint the taste, but without it, everything has a certain flatness.

If you already make your own cocktail bitters, chances are that Brad Thomas Parsons’ recent book on the subject holds little new for you. On the other hand, if you’re just starting to dabble or don’t know where to begin, Bitters conveniently brings together a lot of material in one place. With no other bitters manual in print, one might even call it indispensable for the DIY cocktail enthusiast.

After some introductory remarks and history, Parsons dives into the meat of the matter with short profiles of some two dozen players in today’s bitters boom: Fee Brothers, Bittermans, The Bitter Truth, Dr. Adam Elmegirab’s Bitters, Bar Keep Bitters, Scrappy’s, and more. Not a bad lineup considering that a decade ago, Angostura, Fee Brothers, and Peychaud’s were the three remaining bitters producers that survived Prohibition. He includes recipes for thirteen bitters such as apple, orange, rhubarb, coffee-pecan, and root beer bitters. A substantial collection of cocktail recipes using bitters — more than half the book — rounds out the pages.

Parsons clearly has spent much time obsessing over bitters; he interviews appropriate authorities and booze pundits, he includes the right companies and products, and he hits the high points of history. He’s done his homework. Yet there’s a clumsiness about his writing. After going on for some length about sassafras, for instance, Parsons calls for using it in a recipe — but what part of the plant? The powdered leaves he writes about? The root he mentions? They are as different as ham and bacon. Or consider this entry under Snake Oil Bitters: “Not much is known about this lineup of Brooklyn bitters or their creator...” Really? That’s either lazy or disingenuous.

The passage that prompted me to bark out in disbelief, though, is this:
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.
Oh, come on. Laudable as making bitters is, I guarantee you that the vast majority of American bartenders do no such thing. I can only imagine that this is a sampling error stemming from Parsons’ preference for places with what he deems “serious bar programs.” I like those places, too, but they're far from the only game in town.

While there are welcome lists of bittering and flavoring agents, there's no attempt to give them Linnaean names or even thumbnail descriptions. When plants' common names vary from place to place and related plants often parade under the same name, specifying genus and species is especially important, a convention one finds in the most useful gardening books and horticultural tomes. The lists entirely omit traditional bitters coloring agents such as sandalwood, Brazil wood, and cochineal. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad to own a copy. If you’re into cocktails, you should get one, too, if only to understand this core ingredient better. Even if you have no intention to macerate, infuse, percolate, and use homemade bitters, there’s a wealth of recipes for cocktails using commercial examples. It's just that I would prefer to have seen a stronger editorial hand here, a more rigorous historical and scientific review before Bitters had gone to print. If I sound disappointed, it’s because the book is merely good; it could have been great.

From Brad Thomas Parsons’ Bitters, here’s his twist on cherry bitters, inspired by time in the Pacific Northwest. “Devil's club, sometimes known as Pacific ginseng,” he writes, “is a shrub that grows in North American forests with a cool, wet climate, and for me it instantly evokes memories of hiking the trails around Snoqualmie Falls. Rounded out with the addition of Oregon hazelnuts, this aromatic bitters takes me back to Seattle every time I add a dash or two to a drink.

Cherry-Hazelnut Bitters

Makes about 20 ounces

½ cup lightly toasted and skinned hazelnuts
½ cup dried tart or sour cherries
2 tablespoons devil's club root
½ tsp schizandra [sic] berries [see note]
½ tsp wild cherry bark
½ tsp cinchona bark
½ tsp cassia chips
¼ tsp chopped dried orange peel
3 star anise
2 cups 101-proof bourbon, or more as needed
1 cup water
2 tablespoons rich [2:1] syrup

Place all of the ingredients except for the bourbon, water, and rich syrup in a quart-sized Mason jar or other large glass container with a lid. Pour in the 2 cups of bourbon, adding more if necessary so that all the ingredients are covered. Seal the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 2 weeks, shaking the jar once a day.

After 2 weeks, strain the liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized jar to remove the solids. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Squeeze the cheesecloth over the jar to release any excess liquid and transfer the solids to a small saucepan. Cover the jar and set aside.

Cover the solids in the saucepan with the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover the saucepan, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool completely. Once cooled, add the contents of the saucepan (both liquid and solids) to another quart-sized Mason jar. Cover the jar and store at room temperature out of direct sunlight for 1 week, shaking the jar daily.

After 1 week, strain the jar with the liquid and solids through a cheesecloth-lined funnel into a clean quart-sized Mason jar. Repeat until all of the sediment has been filtered out. Discard the solids. Add this liquid to the jar containing the original bourbon solution.

Add the rich syrup to the jar and stir to incorporate, then cover and shake to fully dissolve the syrup.

Allow the mixture to stand at room temperature for 3 days. At the end of the 3 days, skim off any debris that floats to the surface and pour the mixture through a cheesecloth-lined funnel one last time to remove any solids.

Using a funnel, decant the bitters into smaller jars and label. If there's any sediment left in the bottles, or if the liquid is cloudy, give the bottle a shake before using. The bitters will keep indefinitely, but for optimum flavor use within a year.

Note: The schizandra [sic] berries called for are from the plant Schisandra chinensis, widely used in traditional Chinese medicine. Look for deep red dried berries in health food stores, spice shops, online shops, and in Korean markets, where it is sold as an ingredient for tea under the name omija. Go for whole berries rather than powdered for an easier time filtering.

Brad Thomas Parsons (2011)
Photos by Ed Anderson
Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas
240 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 1580083595


Tiare said...

Great post, i need to get this book. Bitters is one thing i haven´t been doing very much, i`ve been more into making syrups and tinctures. Coffee-pecan sounds good...

Matthew Rowley said...

If you know about bitters, but haven't been making your own, then this is definitely a book you're going to want to look into. Despite the shortcomings I mentioned, it's still the single best printed book on the topic.

Speaking of syrups and tinctures, why don't you write a book about them? You always have such great recipes on your site…