This year for Christmas my wife gave me three books on cocktails. She knows that when I get interested in a subject I tend to go all in. I am not sure why I chose to read Brad Parsons’ “Bitters: a spirited history of a classic cure-all, with cocktails, recipes & formulas” but I am glad I did. Parsons covers a lot of territory in this book. The history of bitters, in cocktails and otherwise, turns out to be more interesting than I expected. Prohibition plays a big part in the story but bitters are much older than the cocktail hour.
Parsons includes recipes, to make your own bitters and for cocktails that use them. To demonstrate their importance, after all how much difference can a “dash” of something make in an entire cocktail? I found that it can make a lot of difference. Parsons offers a demonstration, make two of a simple cocktail recipe, one with and one without bitters. The difference between the two is more than noticeable.
A section titled “Setting up Your Bar” has the best advice I have seen for creating a home bar. It leads you through the tools you will need and those you might want, it discusses glassware, mixers, and even the spirits you might want to stock. Except for his endorsement of Mason jars for drinking I think the advice is sound. I was a little confused after looking up the word Amari, a subset used in his listing of spirits. It is just Italian for bitters. Sure they, mostly come in bigger bottles than the bitters pictured on the cover but I would have hoped for some discussion of them. I know it is always possible that I read over it so I checked the index. There was no listing. It is not a big problem but I have to wonder if something else was missed.
The recipes that I have tried were good. I have not tried to make my own bitters yet but the instructions were very straight forward. Parsons divided the cocktail recipes into three sections, Hall of Fame, Old Guard, and New Look. Often cocktail recipes suffer from demanding specific brand name spirits or exotic liquors that the home bar will only need once. That is not a problem here except for in the “New Look” section and needing a variety of flavored bitters. But then that, bitters, is what the book is about. The final section of recipes, Bitters in the Kitchen, looks very good. The Bitters Vinaigrette is on my to do list.
In appendices Parsons’ includes a list of web resources for spirits, liquors, mixers, bar supplies and the herbs to make your own bitters as well as a bibliography. I am hopeful that these will lead me to a source for mixers that are not syrupy sweet. I should also mention that the book won two awards, the 2012 James Beard Foundation Award and the 2012 International Association of Culinary Professionals (ICAP) Cookbook Award in their Wine, Beer, and Spirits category.