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.