The Manual
Food & Drink

Imbibing “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All”

Written by Amanda Gabriele Posted on February 21, 2013

We admit it, we’re totally spoiled when it comes to great cocktails. If you walk out your front door and into your favorite watering hole, chances are your neighborhood bartender can make you a fine drink, or at least we hope that’s the case. But cocktail culture hasn’t always been so accessible. It’s strange to think 20 years ago, mixologist was not a household term and there was but one lonely bottle of bitters behind the bar. But today, small batch bitters are commonplace, with flavors like celery and orange readily available. This phenomenon is exactly what Brad Thomas Parsons unveils in Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas [Random House].

Okay, let’s take a step back into a brief history lesson on why bitters all but nearly disappeared from the modern cocktail. When bitters were first booming in the United States in the 1850s, they were being used to mask inferior booze. Mainly, they were considered medicinal with claims to cure every ailment from indigestion to jaundice. But with high alcohol contents (one brand was at 47 percent), it’s easy to see why these “therapeutic” bitters were easily abused by the imbiber. Fast forward 70 years to the passing of the Volstead Act, and bitters all but disappeared from American soil with bartenders barely bothering to mix a cocktail for ravenous patrons. Even with the repeal of Prohibition, mixology had suffered greatly.

I won’t reveal the entire story because you really should read this interesting history for yourself. Needless to say, cocktail culture has experienced an incredible renaissance, one where bitters have a place to shine more than ever before. This is the elemental message of Bitters, a thorough chronicle of where they began and the crucial role they play behind the bar today. Not only is it packed with an abundance of cocktail recipes, both classic and new, but detailed instructions on making your own, from orange to cherry-hazelnut. What about cooking with bitters you ask? But of course, there are recipes for ice cream and wings too. And Parsons’ love for and exhaustive knowledge on the subject has not gone unnoticed – Bitters won the 2012 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Beverage.

For the historian, cocktail enthusiast or collector of brilliant cookbooks, Bitters is an absolute must-have. To learn more and shop, visit randomhouse.com.