Review: Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari [sic]


Translating the Italian word in the title yields the repetitive: Bitterman’s Field Guild to Bitters and Bitters. Lets overlook that silliness, though.

Upon first glancing through the book, I was intrigued by the recipes. There were a lot of recipes with relatively-low, salable-proof spirits in them that would fail to fully macerate bitter alkaloids as effectively as 190º proof (or higher) spirits will – but there were also a lot of recipes in the book that did call for Everclear.

I did note that the recipe for orange bitters called for only sweet variety orange peel and got the bitterness from other bitter botanicals — à la Gary Regan. I find such Regan’s-style orange bitters inferior because of their obfuscation of the flavor of bitter orange. I find Angostura orange bitters (which get their bitterness only from the use of Curaçao bitter orange peel and no other ingredients) to be much better in almost all true cocktails that call for orange bitters (such as the authentic Martini Cocktail).

But still, with cautious optimism that the great American bitters guide had finally been written, I decided to check the front of the book for tell-tale signs of the author still having mostly missed the hugely-important main points of bitters as they are traditionally used in American mixology.

One is this, expertly described in 1908 by San Francisco bar-tender and tipple author, William Boothby, in the World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them:

Boothby Cocktail Description

The cocktail, or bittered sling, traditionally was supposed to present as very little more than the liquor(s) it is made of, slightly diluted, slightly sweetened (unless there is sufficient sweetness among the liquor) and bittered to mitigate the fumatic harshness of the ethanol. A tumbler of whiskey has bite. A Whiskey Cocktail tastes almost completely like the tumbler of whiskey – but without any ethanolic burn and a little sweeter.

The function of the bitters in an authentic cocktail is not as flavor drops. Bitters can function as flavor drops in punches, such as the Planter’s Punch or the Trinidad Sour. But, they are something even more in authentic cocktails.

The function of the bitters in an authentic cocktail is for the bitter aroma to distract the olfactory system of the the drinker into taking no notice of the ethanol fumes in the throat and nasal passages. This is true of all authentic cocktails, including; the Whiskey Cocktail, the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail, the Manhattan Cocktail, or the Camparinete Cocktail (you probably call it “the Negroni”).

Bitterman betrays no hint of being aware of this most basic fact of the authentic American cocktail. How one thinks of bitters always betrays this traditional knowledge – or the lack of it.

As long as such ignorance of the elemental nature of the most famous genre of mixed drink in American history is routinely found among American bar-tenders and drink authors, there is no way we can consider current American mixing practice to have emerged from the dark age that started early in the last century.

Another routine betrayer of less-than-complete knowledge of bitters that I look for is the inclusion of any of the glycerin-based flavor drops by Fee Brothers that are not bitters at all by any traditional standard.

Bitterman’s book includes photographic display of the entire line of mock-bitters by Fee Brothers.

Another indicator of bitters ignorance that I look for is the failure to include grand bitters (big-bottle bitters), such as thos by Campari, Picon, Branca, etc.

Bitterman does include grand bitters, but he insists on using the Italian word for ‘bitters’ throughout the book: amari – even though Picon, Becherovka, Riga Balsams, and many other grand bitters are not Italian and don’t use the language anywhere on the bottle. This is a little piece of English-inferiority bias – or of the typical, middle-class, quest for the air of sophistication.

What was troubling about Bitterman’s book was the seeming lumping together of aromatized wines, such as vermouth wine and quina wine, with bitters — a problem even if one translates from ‘bitters’ to amari.

My verdict on this book is, buy it for the bitters recipes if you just want to play around with making mostly-unnecessary bitters you haven’t had before. But do not buy this book if you are seeking in-depth knowledge of bitters or an understanding of their importance in American mixological tradition.

2 thoughts on “Review: Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari [sic]

  1. While I agree with the point once again made about “the typical, middle class, quest for the air of sophistication”, I’m always amused that even Boothby was not immune to this tendancy. In the supporting quote from “World’s Drinks” Boothby uses the inaccurate term “decoctions”. While it was probably not as arcane a term as it is today, it doesn’t accurately represent what the cocktail actually is; a concoction.

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