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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2012
From Rowley's Whiskey Forge:

It has become a cliché of modern bartending that bitters are to cocktails as salt is to soup. They are the seasoning, the ingredient that can turn merely acceptable drinks into stellar ones. Or, as one Filipino friend explained to another in a turn close to my heart, "Bitters are to cocktails as bay leaves are to adobo." You may or may not be able to pinpoint the taste, but without it, everything has a certain flatness.

If you already make your own cocktail bitters, chances are that Brad Thomas Parsons' recent book on the subject holds little new for you. On the other hand, if you're just starting to dabble or don't know where to begin, Bitters conveniently brings together a lot of material in one place. With no other bitters manual in print, one might even call it indispensable for the DIY cocktail enthusiast.

After some introductory remarks and history, Parsons dives into the meat of the matter with short profiles of some two dozen players in today's bitters boom: Fee Brothers, Bittermans, The Bitter Truth, Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters, Bar Keep Bitters, Scrappy's, and more. Not a bad lineup considering that a decade ago, Angostura, Fee Brothers, and Peychaud's were the three remaining bitters producers that survived Prohibition. He includes recipes for thirteen bitters such as apple, orange, rhubarb, coffee-pecan, and root beer bitters. A substantial collection of cocktail recipes using bitters -- more than half the book -- rounds out the pages.

Parsons clearly has spent much time obsessing over bitters; he interviews appropriate authorities and booze pundits, he includes the right companies and products, and he hits the high points of history. He's done his homework. Yet there's a clumsiness about his writing. After going on for some length about sassafras, for instance, Parsons calls for using it in a recipe -- but what part of the plant? The powdered leaves he writes about? The root he mentions? They are as different as ham and bacon. Or consider this entry under Snake Oil Bitters: "Not much is known about this lineup of Brooklyn bitters or their creator..." Really? That's either lazy or disingenuous.

The passage that prompted me to bark out in disbelief, though, is this:

"Once I've sized up a joint, I'll ask the bartender, 'Do you make your own bitters?' More often than not, the answer is yes."

Oh, come on. Laudable as making bitters is, I guarantee you that the vast majority of American bartenders do no such thing. I can only imagine that this is a sampling error stemming from Parsons' preference for places with what he deems "serious bar programs." I like those places, too, but they're far from the only game in town.

While there are welcome lists of bittering and flavoring agents, there's no attempt to give them Linnaean names or even thumbnail descriptions. When plants' common names vary from place to place and related plants often parade under the same name, specifying genus and species is especially important, a convention one finds in the most useful gardening books and horticultural tomes. The lists entirely omit traditional bitters coloring agents such as sandalwood, Brazil wood, and cochineal.

Don't get me wrong; I'm glad to own a copy. If you're into cocktails, you should get one, too, if only to understand this core ingredient better. Even if you have no intention to macerate, infuse, percolate, and use homemade bitters, there's a wealth of recipes for cocktails using commercial examples. It's just that I would prefer to have seen a stronger editorial hand here, a more rigorous historical and scientific review before Bitters had gone to print. If I sound disappointed, it's because the book is merely good; it could have been great.
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45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2012
The title of the book is a bit misleading, because so much more than just some history of bitters and bunch of recipes. Everything from history to setting up your bar and mixology basics. This book is able to cover a wide variety of topics in a way that is surprisingly well focused and concise. The majority of the book is recipes (Bitters, Drinks and Food) and I can't help but to be impressed about the care taken with the them. Each one has a small introduction, with a little bit of history, a personal anecdote, or a little bit of whimsy that really helps the reader connect with the text. Nothing in this book is an afterthought or out of context filler like you see with so many drink books.

The book does go into comprehensive detail about the bitters available on the market today. The list is very comprehensive, even talking about fairly obscure Bitters such as BitterCube (Wisconsin). Brad goes out on a limb and makes a recommendation of the 11 comercial must have bitters for your cocktail bar. Once you have the feel for the commercially produced bitters you move on to how to make your own. The book breaks down the recipes into a very approachable format. If I were to have a criticism it's would be that there's only 13 actual Bitters Recipes in the book. However, I think overall the book leaves the reader with more than enough information to continue down the road of making bitters.

Who Should Read this Book: Drink Nerds, High Functioning Alcoholics with standards, Home-brewers.
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59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2012
For a book that bills itself as "A spirited history..." this book is woefully short of interesting historical information. You do get a little, around a dozen pages worth, but even if you discount the early use of bitters in or as patent medicines or tonics, their place in cocktail culture deserves far better research and story telling that this book provides. Taking the case of Abbott's Bitters, which ceased production in the early 1950s, cocktail geeks far and wide have obsessed about the product for years, going so far as performing gas chromatography on samples and talking to surviving relatives of the producers. But the author apparently did none of that and only gives a couple of half-hearted paragraphs about a 1907 trademark lawsuit between the makers of Angostura Bitters and Abbott's before launching into a two-page personal anecdote about a bartender friend making him a Manhattan with the last of his antique Abbott's.

In a nutshell, that is either the strength or downfall of the entire book depending on your preference. The book is essentially a collection of recipes for several flavors of homemade bitters and an abundance of cocktails that make use of bitters. But most of the text of the book is a memoir of the author's personal experiences with and paean to the modern speakeasy (high-toned cocktail bar) and its place in today's foodie subculture. On that count, this book is reasonably well done. There is a lot of attractive photography of bartenders making beautiful looking cocktails. The writing isn't bad although it feels more like reading someone's blog than a professionally produced book.

As a counter example, I was expecting something along the lines of Jeff Berry's books, where the author's voice is present but fades into the background as he tells the stories of the personalities and places involved in the tropical drink and restaurant fad that began in the 1940s. There the history is the material, not the author's obvious love for the topic.

Regarding the actual meat of the book, the recipes, the selection of drink recipes contains something for every taste. I'm sure everyone will find something they think is new and interesting and fantastic and something they think is undrinkable. The bitters recipes themselves are probably what most people would buy the book for, and they unfortunately suffer from a pretty big flaw. The method used to make the bitters is the same for all of them. Not only does this waste a bunch of space as the same exact steps are duplicated for every recipe, but the method seems to work better for some recipes than others and is susceptible to a particularly strong or fresh ingredient throwing off the desired flavor profile of the batch of bitters. It's also a different method than what many professional bartenders who experiment with making their own bitters do (based on reading their blogs online).

All in all, if you're looking for a pretty book full of anecdotes about drinking in hip modern bars with cool bartenders and other foodies then this is a great book. If you're looking for good information about how to make your own bitters or especially if you're interested in the history of bitters, the interwebs are a better place to start.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2011
Grab a well chilled coupe glass and find inspiration for well-crafted potables in this gorgeous book. Cocktail culture is back, baby. Geek out on the history of bitters, learn how to craft your own bespoke bitters, or get right down to business and shake (or stir) something special from any of the 70+ recipes. I went with one of the old-guard recipes this eve and made a Martinez Cocktail with Carpano Antica. Thanks for the enlightenment, Mr. Parsons.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on November 26, 2011
This book is super informative on the topic. As a spirits professional this read is a must. Throughout my career as a mixologist I have wished for a guide to bitters. This is it. Parsons tells a great story and offers recipes to make your own bitters and tinctures, and fabulous cocktails. This book is a must for any cocktail mixing nutjob like myself.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2013
I'm writing this review as I sip a bourbon splashed with the book's rendition of coffee-pecan bitters, which I made (along with 4 other varieties) and have been enjoying over the last month or so.

The book provides an approachable history of bitters and an overview of some of the brands still doing business. That stuff was interesting to a point, but I thought the author spent a little too much time showcasing products currently on the market.

Personally, I'm more interested in making my own bitters than reading about the variety of things I can buy in the store. I purchased this book primarily for the DIY recipes. After making four of them (pear, Meyer lemon, cherry-hazelnut & coffee-pecan) and one I found online (celery), I feel like I've got a pretty solid grasp of the process and am looking forward to making my own concoctions from here on out.

I would have liked to see more pairing suggestions for the various bitters recipes. As someone who's new to bitters generally, I don't feel like I was given enough suggestions for how to incorporate them into various cocktails.

Four stars because this is a unique book and one I plan to keep in my collection for future reference. I think the material is better for bitters aficionados than for folks looking to DIY... but since there aren't many other recipe books out there right now, this could serve as a good primer for folks who are interested in making their own (until something more comprehensive comes out).
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2014
I have been reading this book for personal enjoyment, work, my spirits class and general interest. Bought the top ten bitters they recommend and I am trying the cocktails now. Wonderful history lessons, how to make drinks and how to make your own bitters. Truly a glorious read and fun book. Also includes some food recipes. Any happier and I'd have to be medicated.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2012
There has long been a gap in every mixologist's library; but who would be bold enough and nerdy enough to devote a book to the art of creating the sometimes delicate, sometimes potent seasonings that allow a true artist to give her drinks a unique, personal flair? We have the answer in this book. The author was extremely smart to combine bitters recipes alongside cocktails and even food dishes that are made all the more special with the addition of bitters. I only wish that there was at least one cocktail associated with each unique bitters the author takes great care to teach. Still, one can experiment and find the right applications on their own. This book is a tremendous resource for those of us ready to take our mixing to the next level, and hopefully elevate the art as a whole. I have no doubt this book will be in mixologists' libraries for 50 years, and that many updated editions are in its future.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2012
The book arrived quickly and in mint condition. Eager as ever I opened it up to enjoy the contents. The author is a great storyteller and really brings bitters to life. However, I was a little disappointed at how short the read was. I was able to finish it in a very short time and was left wanting more!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Loosely speaking, I found this book divided into four sections. The first - and for me, possibly the least interesting - summarizes a bit of history of these botanical concoctions. They go back centuries, to eras when all medicine was herbal medicine, and medical effect was largely imagined or wishful thinking. That lead to wild (and sometimes hazardous) combinations of ingredients. Things like Coca Cola blurred the line between drug and foodstuff. Then, in the early twentieth century, a few things happened to change the market of herbal elixirs. Drug safety laws cut back the more extravagant claims of curing everything from acne to yaws, drug enforcement laws banished cocaine and opiates from the retail shelves, and then The Prohibition all but ended the use of flavorings in alcohol. Only now are bars recovering from the damage done by that unfortunate legislation.

Against that backdrop, the second section really offers what I came for. It provides recipes for a range of bitters, and demonstrates common proportions of the least familiar ingredients. Given these as bases, and given the strongly stereotyped procedure for preparing the bitters, I'm eager to try a few, then go off on my own. (Maybe I'll try the cranberry bitters, alluded to but without recipe or suppliers.) The third section provides not just cocktail recipes from different eras of the American cocktail history, but a glimpse into the world of cocktail culture and community. Wow - some people take their tipple incredibly seriously. I can't complain too much, though, because these bold and dedicated explorers have made it possible for dabblers like me to get started. The book's fourth section interested me only a little, as the non-beverage culinary uses of bitters.

Outside of the recipes, the lists of common (and uncommon) ingredients in bitters were very helpful, as were lists of suppliers. The latter might not be very useful years from now, but will help readers contemporary with the book's publishing. This brings together information from a wide range of sources, many of them historical, personal, and otherwise difficult to access. For someone like me, interested in the topic but not dedicated to it, this represents a unique resource for this very specialized corner of the culinary world.

-- wiredweird, a bitters old man

Update: Tested the orange bitters recipe. It has a fresher orange taste than any commercial product I've tried. Next time, I might boost the minor flavors and bitterness - not complaining, it's just that I mess with almost every recipe I try.
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