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Bitters is better! New book explores the cocktail’s forgotten friend

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What’s a cocktail without bitters?

Frankly, it’s not a cocktail at all, if you ask Brad Thomas Parsons.

And Parsons should know, given that he’s the author of “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All,” which he’ll release — with a tasting! — at Greenlight Bookstore on Nov. 3.

“The original definition of cocktail was any liquor with spirits, water, sugar and bitters — it’s absolutely crucial,” Parsons said. “If your drink doesn’t have bitters, you’ll know. Just a dash or a drop — there’s magic held in it.”

Bitters are a mysterious elixir that can turn a $4 happy hour special into a cocktail worthy paying $11 for. But what are they, anyway?

“People say bitters is the salt and pepper of the bar, but I think it’s more like a liquid spice rack,” Parsons explained. By definition, bitters is a high-proof alcohol infused with a flavoring agent — anything from citrus peel to cardamom to celery to lavender — and a bittering agent, like root or bark.

“You might reach for a bottle of cinnamon, but with bitters, you can reach for a licorice flavor, floral bitters, citrus bitters — it heightens and elevates all flavors.”

Parsons’s book offers inventive and original recipes for charred cedar bitters, cherry-hazelnut bitters, root beer bitters and coffee pecan bitters; old-guard cocktails like a Horse’s Neck, a Martini (which isn’t a true Martini without bitters), and a Dark and Stormy; new craft cocktails like a Turkey Shoot with 101-proof Wild Turkey rye cranberry bitters; and bitters-infused snacks like sweet and spicy bitter bar nuts, hot and sticky bitter wings, and bitters-sweet chocolate malted pudding.

It’s all part of a nation-wide — or, at least Brooklyn-wide — bitters renaissance that Parsons attributes to an increasing interest in artisenal foods and beverages, as well as the recovery and resurgence of old recipes for classic cocktails — all of which call for bitters.

“There used to be one kind of bitters — Angostura, which is a clove and allspice flavor — but you need orange bitters for a Martini, so for a long time you couldn’t even get a real one,” Parsons said. “By 2000, there was only one type of orange bitters. But now, you can choose what type of orange you want: fresh orange, dry orange, spicy orange — people are filling in the flavor gaps.”

Don’t believe the bitters hype? Come taste for yourself.

Brad Thomas Parsons reads and drinks from “Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All,” at Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. between S. Portland Street and S. Elliott Place in Fort Greene, (718) 246-0200]. Free, 7 pm. For info, visit

Thirsty? Try one of these cocktails — complete with bitters!

Autumn Sweater

(makes one drink)

1 ounce rye

1/2 ounce Averna

1/2 ounce Amaro Nonino

1/2 ounce maple syrup

1 dash Urban Moonshine maple bitters

1 dash orange bitters

Garnish: thick clove-studded strip of orange zest

Combine all the ingredients except the garnish in a mixing glass filled with ice and stir until chilled. Add a large sphere of ice to a chilled double old-fashioned and strain the drink into the glass. For the garnish, use a paring knife to slice a thick strip of zest from an orange. Twist it over the drink to release the essential oils and rub along the rim of the glass. Stud the orange zest with two whole cloves and drape it over the ice sphere.

Horse’s Neck

(makes one drink)

1 lemon

2 ounces bourbon

3 dashes Angostura bitters

Ginger ale

Carefully peel the zest from the lemon in one continuous spiral with a channel knife. Coil the zest around a barspoon or chopstick to encourage a bouncy spiral. Place the lemon zest in the bottom of a chilled highball glass, hanging the end of the coiled garnish over the side of the glass. Fill the glass with ice. Add the bourbon and bitters and top off with ginger ale.

Reach Arts Editor Juliet Linderman at or by calling (718) 260-8309.

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