Initial Thoughts on Having Read “Bitters” by Brad Thomas Parsons

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.

4 thoughts on “Initial Thoughts on Having Read “Bitters” by Brad Thomas Parsons

  1. Unfortunately, most book reviews are positive as a show of thanks for the writer receiving the book for free. The only one I read of this book that tore into it (before yours) was this one:
    “Ultimately, Brad Thomas Parsons’ book probably would have better been done as a blog than a book. The most valuable section of the book, how to make bitters, would make a nice blog, but what surrounds it is just too cursory and casual to make it work in book format.”

    And the difference between potable and nonpotable has a lot to do with where they can be sold (or not sold) depending on the state. Nonpotable means that a form is filled out that a bunch of tasters agree that the average sane person wouldn’t drink it straight (cocktail geeks are obviously excluded). I forgot the exact wording in the TTB paperwork, but my wife was involved in that group for one the Bittermens flavors.

  2. Agreed! As an herbalist and cocktail enthusist, I looked at this book as more entertainment. The recipies are a novelty more then true bitters formulas.
    Slightly disappointed but still glad to have bought it.

  3. Without a trace of irony – no handlebar mustache here – some traditional herbalist or even “witchcraft” books might serve you in better stead.

    To “ease” the essential oils and botanicals out of a plant is subtle art, and most of them take time. I experimented with some of this during my youth, and the process was seductively complex and required patience. It’s hard to imagine you can do this without alcohol or a good empirical knowledge of what components survive what sort of process (heat, pressure, time, etc).

    Most, if not all of the enduring bitters are made of a combinations of tinctures and tisanes, and without an awareness of how to harness and maximise the essential aromatics from each process, you’re doomed to repeat the mistakes of the mightily waxed mustached brigade.

    All is not lost for you impatient 21st Century Warriors, though. You can use a combination of high-proof ethanol (Spirytus is a decent one) and high pressure N20 (iSi whipped cream devices will do) to perform relatively rapid and clean flavour extractions of many classes of botanical oils, and from there you can build a desired flavour profile to suit your moods within minutes.

    I’ve not had time to re-build “classical” aromatic bitters, but I am convinced doing it in layers + multiple stages will give you excellent results, mainly because the extraction rates of each botanical don’t match up. You can’t just toss some leaves into a bottle, wait a bit, and expect it to taste good. I am almost certain that none of the “Big Boys” make their products this way.

    Andrew brings up a general point that’s worth noting and bears repeating: never trust anything, even in a book you buy from Spamazon, that’s not accompanied by a reference to a source you can acquire and validate yourself. It’s telling that Andrew’s book includes references in every chapter, often in ample quantities. It’s not there to “impress” or overwhelm you – it’s there to reassure you that said claims aren’t pulled out of the sky or someone’s posterior.

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