I had heard good words about this book. I imagined with excitement learning lots of new information. Unfortunately, I now wish I had used the money on something else.
Firstly, this is not a scholarly book. The author tends to assert that something happened or changed at around some year, and then goes on without giving any supporting documentation or providing any footnotes.
Secondly, true cocktails (bittered slings) should be the type of drink that is most central to any serious work on bitters that involves mixed drinks. It seems the author may be aware of what a true cocktail is, but does not explain why bitters are so important to the true cocktail. In a drink where the liquor is the star of the show, un-occluded by juices or sodas, the bitters will remove most of the sensation of the fumatic harshness of alcohol.
Thirdly, the author divides bitters into those that are “aromatic” and those that are “potable.” Drink books of yore reveal no consensus on the names of the two types of bitters, so the author and everyone else today are using whatever terms that they like. I would say that petite bitters are also potable, especially when mixed into drinks. I call the two types of bitters ‘petite bitters’ and ‘grand bitters.’ Either way, the main difference is that petite bitters should never be sweetened by the manufacturer, while grand bitters (sold in larger bottles) are almost always sweetened by the manufacturer and are thusly also appropriate for unmixed use. This important point is not mentioned by the author.
Fourthly, the author gives a number of recipes for making bitters that include relatively low-proof spirits. Traditionally, bitters were made by combining aromatic macerations with aromatic infusions. The maceration would be accomplished by placing aromatic material in and over-proof spirit of about 190 proof or higher. The higher proof the spirit, the better it macerates out alcohol-soluble compounds from the aromatic material. A separate treatment would be set up by placing aromatic material (usually the same as used in the maceration) in pure water infuse into it the water soluble compounds from the aromatic material. Since some aromatic compounds are best extracted by maceration in highly over-proof spirits while others are best extracted by infusion in pure water, traditional bitters are a combination of both. So, the final steps in making bitters must include the combination of a maceration and an infusion. This almost-perfectly-whole extraction and preservation or aromatic material is what the word ‘bitters’ should require. Unfortunately, many makers today use shortcuts, or maceration in vodka or whiskey. Such methods are simpler, but produce so-called bitters that are not fully functional at removing the sensation of the harshness of ethanol in true cocktails. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, since the ‘call-em-all-cocktails’ crowd seems to believe that petite bitters are nothing more than aromatic flavoring additives.
But even the above-mentioned recipes create nowhere near as poor a product as any so-called bitters by Fee Brothers. That company makes nothing that tradition would call bitters. Look at the label – they use no alcohol at all, and hence no maceration. Instead they suspend flavorings in glycerine. This should be no surprise – remember their motto, “don’t squeeze, use Fee’s.” Do you really want glycerine-based so-called bitters from a company that tells you that it’s better to use their sour mix than to squeeze lemon juice? Well, the author of “Bitters” apparently does. He recommends Fee Brothers bitters with seeming enthusiasm. A bottle of Fee Brothers bitters is even shown on the cover of the book with the word “glycerine” clearly visible in the ingredients listing. I suppose this should be no surprise since the next bottle in the photograph is Regan’s orange bitters. Just taste test Regan’s orange bitters versus Angostura orange bitters. Enough said.
I won’t bother going into the mixed drink recipes. I will just note that this book, like all others by the modern “call-em-all-cocktails” crowd, has no sense of a basic portion of liquor in any given drink, and is just as de-jiggered as books from the worst days of American bar books. Better, more-properly-jiggered, versions of almost all of the drinks the author presents can be found in the books they were originally published in. Imagine that.
So, what do I recommend? If you know nothing at all about bitters, or if you just want a coffee table book to assert your membership in the “hipster-bartenders-agog-over-bitters” club, go ahead and buy it (right after you put some more wax on your handlebar mustache and send out your vest and Ascot tie to be laundered). Otherwise, save your money.