Serious Reads: Bitters, A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All by Brad Thomas Parsons


I'm a huge fan of using metaphor to help demystify alcohol. This is why I nearly leapt out of bed while reading Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas. Author Brad Thomas Parsons called bitters "An essential seasoning agent for drinks and even food." Think of them, he says, "as a bartender's salt and pepper."

Bitters—an alcoholic infusion made from various herbs, plants, roots, and barks—are essential to the modern cocktail mixer.

According to Parsons, bitters are the ultimate matchmaker for hard alcohols:

Just a dash or two [of bitters] can bring perfect balance to two seemingly incompatible spirits. Adding bitters can tamp down an overly sweet drink, help cut through richness, unite disparate ingredients, and add an aromatic spiciness."

But as most know, there's a cocktail renaissance happening. Most experienced bartenders understand how to use bitters to draw out or synthesize the flavors in a cocktail. But are they experimenting with various brands of bitters? Do they make their own? Do they know the history of this aromatic elixir? That's where Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas enters the haute DIY cocktail scene.

Part history, part project guide, and part recipe book, (there are recipes for both traditional and new cocktails as well as for food made with bitters) the book manages to do what most do not: wrap up centuries worth of information about a single subject into one book you'll be eager to dig in and out of.

There are several things about this book that make it so alluring. First, it's comprehensive. Some expert mixologists might not find themselves challenged enough, but for most, there's a host of interesting information. As recently as 2003, there were only a handful of bitters available commercially. Now there are dozens, with more appearing every day. Thus, the history, the descriptions of available bitters, and a list of dried herbs, spices, and botanicals that can be used to make bitters are both fascinating and useful.

But—and I cannot stress this enough—Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas isn't just pages of facts interspersed with the occasional cocktail recipe. The book is engaging. Shortly after beginning to read it, it occurred to me: This is a biography of bitters. Parsons is clearly smitten with his ingredient, and the book is fun to read.

Finally, the book is gorgeous. This shouldn't matter much, but for this book, it does. The pages are heavy, the photographs dark and brooding. The book practically begs for a dark leather chair, a roaring fireplace, and a Manhattan. For weeks it has sat on my coffee table alongside other lovely greats—M.F.K. Fisher and the new food issue of the New Yorker—and I've dipped in and out of it at whim, often getting up a few minutes later to mix a drink.

With December upon us, I'd recommend Bitters as a nearly ideal gift—especially when wrapped with a bottle of artisan bitters. Meanwhile, I'm anxious to spend a few nights at home getting to know those funny dark bottles perched at the edge of the bar.

Win A Copy!

Thanks to the generous folks over at Ten Speed Press, we are giving away five (5) copies of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All this week.

All you have to do is tell us which bottles of bitters you keep around at home in the comments section below.

The standard Serious Eats contest rules apply.

This contest is now closed.