my initial excitement at receiving BT Parsons’ Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All for Christmas was tempered somewhat when i realized that the book is really more about cocktail bitters (Angostura, Peychaud’s, etc.) rather than “potable” bitters – what i call drinking bitters, more commonly known as amari, or digestives; although this latter is ambiguous because cocktail bitters are also considered digestive bitters and have historical roots as such. anyway, that of which one uses a dash or splash as opposed to what can be taken on its own, such as Fernet, Becherovka, Unicum, etc., up to and including aperatif and digestif wines such as Bonal, Lillet and the like.
it is a shame because though i am a great fan of both my interest tends to toward the latter, and while the cocktail bitters renaissance is but a recent development, the production of drinking bitters has continued in uninterrupted by Prohibition in European countries for a couple hundred years. Parsons does provide an agreeably detailed history of cocktail bitters (in America) right up to a rundown of a number of the major producers that have sprung into existence in the past decade, but besides a special mention of Underberg doesn’t really get into the world of drinking bitters, which is understandable for the same reason that it is unfortunate. there are a shit ton of them, and they are largely underrepresented / underimported in North America (still worse in Canada than in the U.S., predictably). it would be exhausting (and awesome) to attempt to put together a catalogue of these, let alone to do so with any historical attentiveness. can’t blame a guy for not trying.
however, i was outright disappointed to find that the section on making one’s own bitters, which is quite thoughtful and thorough in its consideration of technique, really contains no information about the kinds of things that are likely to go into such concoctions. Parsons provides a list of botanicals, herbs, and spices divided into “bittering agents” and “flavor agents”, and suggestions for where to source some of the more obscure items, but the entries on the list are accompanied by no description, nor do they reappear in the index. this is all well and good for shit like cinnamon and cardamom and orange peel, but many of these items will be totally unfamiliar to even quite devoted booze & food weirdos. and not only are questions like WTF is chiryata or schizandra berries or calamus useful for thinking about concentrations and flavour combinations, but a lot of these plants have really interesting histories, and already play a lively part in herbal medicine practices both historical and contemporary.
now i would not claim that a bartender necessarily has any moral responsibility to delve into the medical lore surrounding proposed cocktail ingredients (although an herbalist might disagree), but there is something to be said for having a respect for the power of plants, and recognizing them as complex repositories of chemical agents that make for more than matters of taste. in fact, i’m surprised that Parsons is as dismissive of the connection between folk medicine and mixology as he is, so intermingled are their histories in the bottles and on the shelves of apothecaries, bars, and pharmacies over time and across borders. especially since the notion of the “classic cure-all” makes it right into the title of the book. it is easy to dismiss as “outrageous” the claims of “snake-oil” salesman, but there is a cultural salience to a lot of herbal bitters qua tonics that should make them no -less- interesting for their running somewhat perpendicular to our conventional notion of the medical (one that, it is worth pointing out, a lot younger and less internally consistent than we tend to take for granted). it’s a war, man. witches vs. white coats.
all that aside, certainly the reader of Bitters: A Spirited History could benefit from knowing that orris is another name for iris root and that it has long appeared in various perfumes, a number of gins, and the spice mix ras el hanout; or that gentian is in pretty much everything (everything bitter and believed to strengthen the whole of the human system, as well as most of the French aperatif wines), and was used in the Middle Ages as an antidote for poison, mad dog bites, and the fatigue of those made weary by travel, cold, or evil lodgings? or even like, an idea of what any of these tastes like?
when it comes down to it, even if Bitters is not the bitters book i wanted it to be, it is still a -hell- of a good cocktail book. it’s got recipes for a dozen or so homemade bitters, from husk cherry to root beer to rhubarb; old guard cocktails and innovative favourites of Parsons’; and lots of basic barcraft. i myself have come to the realization of late that i am no bartender. i lack the inclination toward precision, perfection, and getting things right, in matters culinary, although i can appreciate it. it was something of a shock to apprehend (although i’m not sure i’ve fully comprehended it) that cocktail construction, while invigorated by the same spirit of creativity and experimentation which makes good cooking great, also calls for much of the discipline and rigour demanded by baking/pâtisserie. i am just too sloppy with my permanently halved ass to come to it naturally. which makes me respect all the more what goes into the making of a truly good cocktail before a good bartender (ie: a bartender suffering no mauvaise foi) is going to feel comfortable committing it to print. Parsons’ is a book of such recipes, not primarily a reference.
recently, accompanying a bottle of test-batch Christmas bitters that ended up tasting not unpleasingly like Amaro Nonino (if a little less bitter than intended), was a note from my friend Lily: “also, according to some hasty reading, calamus reputedly ‘opens the orifices’ (not specified), vaporizes phlegm, and attracts muskrats. so, y’know, watch yourself.” so, so what if Parsons is not so enamoured with the weirdness and wealth of diy amaricology/ography as am i. that’s what friends are for.
Embittered I: Fernet vs. Fernet
Embittered II: Translovenian Hunger
Embittered III: Love On the Kill Taker
“In Anticipation of a Hell of Snake Oil”
“Fière de ses Racines”
“If I Swallow Something Evil”