Amy Stewart and Brad Thomas Parsons on the History and Future of Botanical Mixology
Amy Stewart has a knack for making plants utterly fascinating, and The Drunken Botanist--one of our Top 10 Editors’ Picks for the Best Books of the Month--takes her trademark blend of scientific sleuthery and intriguing anecdote to intoxicating heights. This brisk tour of the origin of spirits acquaints curious lovers of spirits with every conceivable cocktail ingredient, from classic to esoteric. Stewart talked with Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, winner of 2012 James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards--and an Amazon Best Book of the Year pick--about the medicinal roots of cocktails, the importance of great ingredients (in the booze and in the glass), and the pleasures of testing cocktail recipes.
AMY: Brad, what strikes me about your book on bitters is the close connection between medicine and cocktails. So many bitters started out as straight pharmaceutical formulations, back in the day when the only medicines we had were plants. You and I both know that it's a bit of a stretch to call a cocktail a health drink, but do you get a lot of people asking you asking you if the bitters they're drinking are actually good for them?
BTP: Many of the individual botanicals used to make bitters have their own purported benefits for health and well-being, but remember these medicinal plants people were consuming as a patent medicine were often composed of over 50% alcohol, with claims to cure everything from headaches, rheumatism, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea to malaria. That's my kind of medicine! I do stand by a tall glass of bitters and soda as a most effective restorative after a rich meal. Trust me, it works. And a sugar-dusted lemon wedge soaked in Angostura bitters can cure hiccups. That's a promise.
I loved when you wrote in The Drunken Botanist, "It would be impossible to describe every plant that has ever flavored an alcoholic beverage. I am certain that at this very moment, a craft distiller in Brooklyn is plucking weed from a crack in the sidewalk and wondering if it would make a good flavoring for a new line of bitters." As a bitters enthusiast who lives in Brooklyn, I have indeed encountered some unexpected housemade bitters, tinctures, and infusions. What's the most bizarre botanical-based spirit you've come across in your travels and research?
AMY: Well, all spirits are botanical-based, which is really my point--with very few exceptions, everything in every bottle is a plant. (Those exceptions, by the way, would include milk, which has just enough fermentable sugar for Mongolians to make fermented mare's milk and for a distillery in Vermont to make milk-distilled vodka).
But among the more bizarre botanical ingredients? I'd have to name sundew, a tiny carnivorous plant that was part of the original recipe for rosolio. Nowdays the term "rosolio" is applied to any number of homemade mixtures of wine, brandy, fruit, and spices, but in the fifteenth century, you were actually expected to pick the bugs off some carnivorous bog plants and add those to the brew.
So here's something I'm wondering about. I have this theory that distillers who make such a big deal about their secret recipes are a little behind the times. It seems like the trend right now is towards greater transparency about the botanicals in the bottle. People actually want to celebrate ingredients and talk about what they are and where they come from. I know so many American gin, liqueur, and bitters makers who list all of their ingredients and really explain why they chose each one. Do you see the same thing? It's a real departure from the "Our secret recipe comes from King George, who gave it to his footman to thank him for saving his life" or whatever.
BTP: You're on point that calling out the botanicals and celebrating anything unique or locally sourced is becoming a way to make your product stand out. Bitters, too, have a long association with proprietary formulas, and it's even trickier as they're classified as a "non-beverage" alcohol product. While 45% alcohol, they're not intended to be consumed on their own, but applied in dashes and drops. Essentially, they're classified as a food product (which is why, depending what state you live in, you normally won't find them in liquor stores). There's a lot of small-batch bitters being sold that don't, in fact, list much about their ingredients at all. Bittermens Bitters, who used to be based out of Brooklyn but now call New Orleans home, set the bar for their bitters-making peers by establishing a Craft Bitters Alliance that helps educate bitters makers about the byzantine bylaws of the TTB and the FDA to encourage everyone to live up to the law and present their products in the best light possible. Certain botanicals must specifically be called out on the label, while others are allowed to be bundled under "spices." But it's more about the specificity of the source--like Seattle's Scrappy's Bitters highlighting their use of cocoa nibs from Seattle's Theo Chocolate in their chocolate bitters.
AMY: I love it that star anise is "ubiquitous" to you! Dude, you need to come hang out in some of the airport bars I've been in the last few weeks. I'm lucky to find fresh mint, much less star anise.
Which actually goes to your point. The move to more real ingredients behind the bar could not come fast enough for me. I have become so high-maintenance when it comes to fresh botanicals. If I see a drink on the menu with cucumber in the name, I am leaning over the bar to get a look at those cucumbers! If all I see is a bottle of cucumber-flavored vodka, I'm out. I'd rather have a beer.
So--yes. There are so many trends in the cocktail world that come andgo, but I hope the use of fresh ingredients--meaning real plants--is here to stay. And I do not think all garnishes have to be edible. The first time I ever had a really great hot toddy was years ago, when I ran into an Irish carpenter who had just done some work on my house. I was just getting over a cold, and he leaned over the bar and told the bartender exactly how to make me a hot toddy. It involved cloves embedded in the rind of a lemon wedge. I wouldn't eat those, but they totally made the drink.
So did your interest in bitters take you into aromatized and fortified wines? This is my new love. Really good vermouths, lovely aperitif wines like Lillet--that's something I definitely drink more often because of this book. So it's become a game every night at my book tour events: I say, "Raise your hand if you like to go home at night and relax with a nice glass of vermouth." No one ever raises their hand. I'd like to change that. Your thoughts? It's so closely related to bitters.
BTP: Lillet over ice with an orange peel has long been one of my favorite aperitifs. And I've seen some restaurants that only have wine and beer licenses do really interesting things with wine-based cocktails. While researching and testing recipes for Bitters, I came to better appreciate vermouth--from its applications (many classic cocktails had inverted ratios where the vermouth would be double what we're used to drinking) to the new varieties available. But the biggest thing I came to appreciate was proper storage. It's a wine--you need treat it like one (keep out of sunlight, store in the refrigerator once opened, and ideally buy in small bottles to avoid oxidation). But bitters really turned me onto the centuries-old tradition of appreciating amaro--those exotic potable bitters that are meant to be consumed on their own, or seen, more and more, used as a key ingredient in cocktails.
One last question for you regarding research. In addition to being a bestselling author, you also own your own a bookstore in northern California. Were there any specific vintage cocktail books you tracked down that were vital to your research? And, between us, just how much fun is it testing cocktail recipes?
AMY: Vintage cocktail books are handy for helping to figure out when an ingredient was first used in a drink. Even more helpful for me, and probably for you, too, are the old pharmacy books from the 1800s. You see these medicinal tonics written out like prescriptions, and those are the beginnings of some of our favorite cocktail ingredients!
And I am a real freak for primary sources. For instance, I wrote about birch trees and the use of birch sap and birch bark in liquor. I'd read somewhere that the first known recipe for a birch sap brew came from a book called Sylva, written in 1662. It was the first book ever printed on the subject of forestry. I had to see it for myself, and while we didn't have a copy of Sylva on the shelf at my bookstore, a rare books library has digitized their copy, so I was able to look at the actual page from the 1662 edition and check the recipe. It called for birch sap, cloves, lemon peel, and a little beer to jump-start the fermentation. (This, of course, was back in the day when beer was an actively fermenting drink--they didn't know how to stop that process once it started!)
Testing cocktails is the greatest thing ever, because technically it counts as "work"--and it's an excuse for a party. I had a lot of volunteers who showed up at my house and offered to help!
Amy Stewart is the award-winning author of six books on the perils and pleasures of the natural world, including the New York Times bestsellers Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. She lives in Eureka, California, where she and her husband own an antiquarian bookstore called Eureka Books and tend a flock of unruly hens in their backyard. She has spent the last few years on arduous research trips through the world's distilleries, wineries, and bars for her latest book, The Drunken Botanist.
Brad Thomas Parsons is the author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, which was the winner of the James Beard and IACP Cookbook Awards, and a finalist for the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards. Parsons received an MFA in writing from Columbia University, and his work has appeared in "Bon Appétit," "Food & Wine," and "Imbibe," among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit www.btparsons.com.