Make your drink better with bitters
In our cocktail-craze phase, these aromatics provide punch.
Special to The Seattle Times
IN A WORLD where food and beverage lovers clamor for the most local, seasonal and regional produce, meat, cheese, wine and microbrews, homegrown bitters have become the next big thing.
"The same do-it-yourself ethos that made growing your own tomatoes on your apartment's rooftop, making your own seasonal preserves or curing charcuterie on your fire escape ... so popular over the past five or so years has rolled out to bars," according to Brad Thomas Parsons, author of "Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas."
These days, he continues, "listing house-made bitters on the menu and displaying dozens of homemade tinctures is a benchmark for most serious bar programs."
Parsons explains that bitters are "an aromatic flavoring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers and botanicals in high-proof alcohol (or sometimes glycerin)."
Bartenders use cocktail bitters in small quantities as accent notes, much like cooks punch up flavors with salt and pepper.
Parsons, a native New Yorker and self-described "bitters geek" who boasts a master's degree in fiction writing, worked in Seattle as senior books editor at Amazon.com for 11 years. But in 2010, with his cat, Louis, "riding shotgun" and book contract in hand, he drove cross-country to Brooklyn to start a new life.
Not surprisingly for someone with such passion for all things cocktail-y, his entertaining, award-winning book brims with enthusiasm for his chosen topic. It follows the history of bitters beginning in London in the 1700s, migrating to colonial America, gaining popularity in classic cocktails through Prohibition, then languishing until their resurgence around 2003.
Parsons offers up more than 70 recipes, everything from make-your-own bitters (in flavors such as Charred-Cedar and Cherry-Hazelnut) to classic and contemporary cocktails to food. Aromatic Bitters Ice Cream, anyone?
The author's list of small-batch bitters makers mentions Ballard-based Scrappy's (started by Seattle bartender Miles "Scrappy" Thomas in 2009) and Boudreau's Bitters (the brainchild of Jamie Boudreau, a "bitters evangelist" who stained all the wood in his bar at canon: whiskey and bitters emporium on Capitol Hill, with Angostura bitters).
Buying bitters around town has never been easier. Before his move, Parsons frequented DeLaurenti Specialty Food & Wine in the Pike Place Market. At Sugarpill Apothecary on Capitol Hill, proprietor Karyn Schwartz stocks a wide variety. Wine World and Spirits in Wallingford is another good source.
"Bitters remain an essential ingredient for serious, well-balanced cocktails," Parsons says. "So while there are some out-there bitters flavors these days, I think too many bitters is a good problem to have."
Braiden Rex-Johnson is a Seattle-based cookbook author, food and wine columnist and blogger. Visit her online at www.WithBraiden.com.
Makes 1 drink
Orange bitters add a "dash of complexity" to this classic cocktail recipe.
1 ½ ounces gin, preferably Plymouth
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1 dash orange bitters
Garnish: lemon twist
Combine the gin, vermouth and bitters in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.
— Reprinted from "Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas"