Author and cocktail enthusiast Brad Parsons explains why he just can’t get enough of bitters.
“Walk into your local cocktail bar, and count how many cocktails on the menu use bitters,” says Brad Parsons, a self-described “cocktail enthusiast” and author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All. From classics like the Gin Martini and the Manhattan to more modern libations created in cocktail bars today, bitters are crucial to making your cocktails more delicious.
So what exactly are bitters, and why are bartenders so excited about them? Parsons gives us the simple version: bitters are essentially “high-proof alcohol — 45% alcohol — that is infused with barks, botanicals and seeds.” The concentrated flavors, he explains, act as “liquid seasonings” in cocktails. When bartenders use bitters in a cocktail, “you’re not tasting a bitterness; it’s an added spice and unifier of ingredients.”
The more complex version of what makes bitters so interesting is the reason that Parsons decided to write an entire book on the topic. “The first written definition of the word ‘cocktail’ from 1806 is ‘spirits, water, sugar and bitters,’” says Parsons, and bitters are “an essential part of American cocktails. It’s an American story.”
Story is important to Parsons. He has an MFA in writing and worked as a bookseller before becoming a senior book editor at Amazon in the cookbook category. He discovered the bitters story while writing an article for a Seattle magazine. “I totally over-researched it and interviewed every bartender and started making my own. I just couldn’t shake the topic,” he recalls.
The compelling part of story for Parsons is the dramatic demise of the bitters industry after Prohibition and its revival just a few years ago. “In the late 1800s, there were hundreds of different bitters. All these saloons and bars would make their own…we went from that to nothing after Prohibition.”
Interestingly, bitters themselves weren’t outlawed during Prohibition, despite their high alcohol content. The origin of bitters as a cure-all for “everything from malaria to headaches, to scurvy to stomach aches,” Parsons explains, meant that bitters were “still considered a food or medicinal product.”
What killed the bitters industry was that the craft of bartending “suddenly became illegal.” Bartenders fled to Paris and London, and the usage of bitters declined in the United States. From the end of Prohibition until the mid-2000s, Parsons says that only three bitters producers survived: Angostura, Peychaud’s, and Fee Brothers.
Today, Parsons believes we are in the midst of a “bitters boom” in the United States. “New bitters started coming out around 2004,” he says, “when Gary Regan put out his orange bitters, and that was the first new bitters on the market since the ‘50s.” The Bitter Truth from Munich, Germany also began making bitters around that time, and other makers soon followed suit. “Suddenly you went from having two or three brands of bitters — that were not always readily available — to having a choice.”
This new bounty of bitters is exciting for Parsons. His voice becomes more animated as he talks about it: “As opposed to that lonely bottle of Angostura at the grocery store, you can try literally 7 or 8 orange bitters. One might taste like burnt caramelized orange; one might be a spicy Christmas orange; one might be a very in-your-face fresh zesty orange. So if you’re making a Martini that calls for orange bitters, you can say, ‘which one do I use?’”
Parsons describes the cocktail bar as “a sort of front line” where drinkers encounter new spirits and ingredients, like bitters. His advice to bold bar-hoppers: “Be curious, be adventurous, ask questions, and observe…If I see a spirit I don’t recognize, I’ll ask about it.”