Bitters are the new “it” ingredient at the bar, with flavors like BBQ, Aztec chocolate and Creole lining up on the shelf next to the old classics, Angostura and Peychaurd’s. But bitters, made from pungent plant extracts, have long been an elementary and essential part of a stand-up drink. Throughout history, bitters have been used to help sailors avoid seasickness, keep soldiers on their feet and cure hangovers. In the cocktail biz, some say they are the "salt and pepper" of the bar.
You don’t have to shell out big bucks to get a taste of the bitters boom. All you need is some high-proof spirits and flavorings from nature, including ingredients that you can grow in the garden. Think rhubarb, blueberry, lavender, rose hips, apple – the possibilities are endless. In his award-winning book Bitters, A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All Brad Thomas Parsons writes about the alchemy of using bitters to create tasty drinks that appeal to a wide range of audiences, from old-school barflies and wannabe bartenders to hobby chemists.
We recently caught up with Thomas Parsons at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York’s Hudson Valley, where he was pouring goblets of advice about how to make your own bitters and mixing up concoctions like the vintage Old Fashioned and the modern Sawyer.
Modern Farmer: Why are bitters an important ingredient in cocktails?
Brad Thomas Parsons: While you won’t find bitters employed in each and every cocktail, they’re an essential ingredient in many classic drinks — from the Old-Fashioned to the Champagne Cocktail to the Manhattan to the Sazerac to so many more. The original written definition of the word “cocktail” — spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters — spotlights bitters as a key ingredient. Bitters can bring a flat cocktail to life, unify disparate ingredients and help spotlight specific flavors and aromas.
Bitters can bring a flat cocktail to life, unify disparate ingredients and help spotlight specific flavors and aromas.
MF: Are bitters an acquired taste?
BTP: Non-potable cocktail bitters aren’t intended to be consumed on their own, but instead are added to a drink in dashes or drops. Unless you’re tasting them on their own, or they’re added with a very heavy hand, you won’t likely “taste” them in your drink. You’re more likely to notice when a not-so-balanced cocktail is missing bitters. But potable bitters, like Campari or Fernet Branca and other amaris are definitely bitter and range from bittersweet to bracingly medicinal. These, and bitter cocktails like the Negroni, can be divisive to some.
MF: When sampling bitters, it seems as if the smell is just as important as the taste?
BTP: Definitely. On their own bitters are very aromatic and that quality can be put to use when making cocktails. Think of a drink like the Pisco Sour, where bitters are added to the top strata of the drink — the egg white foam. In this case the bitters are decorative but their spicy aroma is also masking any potential off-putting smell from the egg whites.
MF: Is the bitters movement akin to some other gastronomic trend?
BTP: The resurgence of bitters is related to the ongoing historical interest in cocktails and spirits. Discovering older drinks or spending time with long out-of-print bar books leads one to start making their own syrups, shrubs and bitters among other things. But it also crosses over with the culinary DIY movement that has people exploring pickling, fermentation, home-brews, homemade charcuterie and other artisanal culinary pursuits.
MF: If you’re making your own bitters, how do you know when they’re done?
BTP: Making bitters is a weeks-long process of wait and see, but you should be tasting your bitters throughout the process. Just dip a cocktail straw in and try a drop or two for taste and rub between the palms of your hands to warm up and savor the aroma. Ingredients will infuse at different rates so it’s important to keep tasting. You want them to taste bitter but also pick up more detailed notes beyond tasting just the alcohol. Once you dilute with water or add some sugar you can’t go back, so you want to make sure your solution is where you want it to be before you take it to the final steps.
MF: If someone is trying to make bitters for the first time, what’s your recommendation for a good one to begin with?
BTP: I think orange bitters is good flavor to experiment with. It’s very aromatic and lively and can be put to use in many cocktails. And the recipe can serve as a jumping off point to play around with other oranges — like blood oranges or Seville oranges or satsumas — or even other citrus like tangerines or clementines.
Recipes reprinted with permission from Bitters by Brad Thomas Parsons, copyright © 2011. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photographs © 2011 by Ed Anderson.