This morning I received an e-mail from my editor that said “Happy 1 Year Bitters-versary!” It was a year ago today that Bitters was published, and it turned out to be a pretty eventful year. The book is now in its fourth printing (with a fifth just around the corner) and this year it was honored with an IACP Award and a James Beard Award, and nominated for a Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award. It also landed on Best of the Year lists from Amazon, iBookstore, and Bon Appetit. In Brooklyn, where I live, there were events at Whisk, Greenlight Bookstore, and The Brooklyn Kitchen, and I went on the bitters trail in San Francisco (Omnivore Books), Portland (The Meadow), Seattle (Book Larder, Dahlia Lounge), and Boston (The Boston Shaker). I’m still thrilled when I see Bitters in bookstores (I swear, I never, well almost never face out the book on the shelf), and it’s especially rewarding to come across it in the house library of actual bars and restaurants.
The Acknowledgements in Bitters already run too long, but another big thank you to my publisher, Ten Speed Press and the Crown Publishing Group for all of their support, and for all of the readers, bartenders, bitters lovers, and cocktail enthusiasts, who have embraced the book. And to my publisher, Aaron Wehner; my editor, Emily Timberlake; and Ed Anderson, who really brought this book to life.
Now, in the spirit of the celebrated TV series tradition of the “clip show,” I present some highlights from a very bitter year…
My author’s copy of Bitters arrives. Louis approves.
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
While official publication date for Bitters was November 1, the Southern Foodways Symposium was held in Oxford, Mississippi, the weekend before and we made copies available to attendees to purchase. Jerry Salter of Atlanta’s H. Harper Station holds the honor (well, I was honored) of being the recipient of my very first autograph.
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
On November 1, I hosted a book launch party at the stable and garden of Frankies 457 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
If you’re in San Francisco, you must go to Omnivore Books. I was stunned to draw an SRO crowd who spilled out onto the sidewalk (and steamed up the windows). And Nico Vera, from The Pisco Trail, was sweet enough to join us and serve Pisco Sours to the crowd.
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
Then, a few days before Christmas, I found myself muddling with Martha on The Martha Stewart Show, as we shook up a festive Cranberry Crush cocktail. And yes, this will be my 2012 Christmas card.
And when you finally come back to your apartment at 4AM after celebrating a James Beard win, of course the first thing you do is drape the medal over your cat.
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
I was back in Seattle in July to teach a cocktail class at the Tom Douglas Culinary Camp and while I was in town hosted a sold-out bitters demonstration at my beloved Book Larder. After losing three shirts to Angostura stains, I wised up and worked this Pointer Brand apron into the rotation.
Photo: Amy Weinstein
In September I was invited to collaborate with Marc Forgione on A Celebration of Bitters dinner at the James Beard Foundation. I enlisted my bitter bartender friend Damon Boelte to help me out and we served Autumn Old-Fashioneds and Long Hellos for cocktail hour and ended the night with a Sawyer digestivo. And, naturally, there was Underberg.
Lest I bury the lede, I’m thrilled to report that this past Monday night at the Times Center in New York City, Bitters was presented with the 2012 IACP Cookbook Award for Wine, Beer & Spirits.
The theme of this year’s IACP conference was “The Fashion of Food,” so let’s first address “who I was wearing” to the awards ceremony. A boring charcoal gray suit is the answer, but I did gussy it up with a new gingham shirt from Billy Reid. (While shopping at the Billy Reid store on Bond street I was offered “water, beer, or bourbon.” Sipping two fingers of bourbon from a vintage rocks glass is a civilized way to shop and will temporarily wash away any sense of sticker shock by the time you hit the cash register.) And I left J. Crew’s Liquor Store in Tribeca with a new navy necktie, a Hill-side pocket square, and a pair of striped “dandy” socks. But the best accessory of all was the Stanley flask, filled for the occasion with Pappy Van Winkle 15-Year Reserve, I was packing in my suit jacket like a service revolver. Win or lose, this assured I’d be making friends at the after-party.
My publisher, Ten Speed Press, had seven titles nominated for IACP awards and they hosted a reception at the Random House offices before the ceremony. I got to catch up with my publisher, Aaron Wehner, and meet some of the sales force who helped spread the good word for Bitters with bookstores and specialty stores across the country.
Running behind, Aaron and I hopped a cab down to the Times Center on 41st Street and arrived just as they were flickering the lights to signal that things were about to begin. It was first-come, first-served seating in the auditorium and we wound up in the second row. (While the IACP Awards are sometimes said to be the Golden Globes of the food world, unlike the Golden Globes, it’s dry inside the ceremony.) My friend and fellow nominee Lisa Fain, whose debut cookbook, The Homesick Texan Cookbook, was a finalist in the American category, sat next to me. We were soon joined by Dave and Fred from Joe Beef in Montreal. Their stellar book, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, was also published by Ten Speed Press and remains my favorite cookbook of 2011. I leaned over to shake their hands and was greeted with a whispered “Ça Va?” as Mo Rocca, the night’s master of ceremonies, kicked things off.
When Francis Lam hopped up on the stage to accept one of the many awards Gilt Taste took home that night my first thought was, Wait, I could’ve worn jeans and cool sneakers instead of a suit? But Francis, and dark-denim-clad Saveur editor-in-chief James Oseland, have heaps more fashion sense than I ever will and can pull off the jeans and colorful sneakers as “cocktail attire” better than I ever could.
Many awards were handed out before the book awards came up and Wine, Beer & Spirits was one of the last categories on the docket, but before I knew it there was Bitters up on the big screen next to the other category nominees: The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine and Mastering Wine for the Asian Palate. I can’t recall much of what the gentleman presenting the award said before clearly hearing, “And the winner is… Brad Thomas Parsons for Bitters.”
I rose out of my seat and climbed over the Joe Beef guys, who sent me on my way with big bear-paw back slaps. As I made my way to the stage (it seemed like it took five minutes to get there) I recalled Aaron asking earlier in the night if I had prepared a speech. (I hadn’t, and even if I did I wouldn’t be able to read my own handwriting.) And once I was at the podium things really slowed down. There was a blinding light on me and the audience was cloaked in darkness. It was just me and a bare podium. So many people—from the entire staff at Ten Speed Press to chefs and bartenders to bitters makers to friends and family—played key roles in the success of Bitters but I didn’t want to bore the audience with a laundry list of names. But I did mention by name my agent, Michael Bourret; my publisher, Aaron Wehner; my editor, Emily Timberlake; and Ed Anderson, the amazing and super-chill photographer and designer who I described as equal parts George Harrison and the Dude from The Big Lebowski. I don’t necessarily have a fear of public speaking (I used to tread the boards as an English/Theatre double-major in my undergraduate days) but I was nervous and my body switched to auto-pilot. I could hear my voice quavering involuntarily as I spoke, and especially when I mentioned my late father, whose photo graces the dedication page of Bitters, and to whom I dedicated my IACP win.
I was then escorted backstage where the first person I saw was Ruth Reichl, who was dressed in a very ornate blue and gold ballgown. She looked at me curiously for a moment, then offered a “congratulations” as I was led downstairs where the pre-game portion of the after-party was already in progress. Photos were taken of me holding my award and then I was deposited at the bar where a much-needed Negroni was procured. Once the awards ended the downstairs became packed with party-goers and I celebrated the evening with friends and colleagues. It was great to meet so many new people who were kind enough to come over and offer kind words and see friends and colleagues like my Southern Foodways Alliance pals LeAnne Doss Gault and Amy Evans Streeter.
And once again lights were clicked on and off signaling you-don’t-have-to-go-home-but-you-can’t-stay-here. I followed a pack of revelers led by Michael Ruhlman to another after-party at the Andaz Hotel across the street from the New York Public Library.
I realized I hadn’t eaten anything save for a bag of vending-machine pretzels for lunch. My publisher, Aaron, said “One drink, then let’s find the Joe Beef guys,” and soon we were in a cab headed to DBGB on the Bowery. It was around 1AM and the restaurant was closed but Fred and Dave were occupying a booth in the back with Riad Nasr, the chef from Minetta Tavern. The kitchen was closed, so Aaron and I were still out of luck on the food front, but two cheese boards arrived at the table along with two bottles of wine. Not counting winning an award, hanging out in an empty restaurant telling stories and talking smack with the boys was probably the highlight of my evening. Out front, taxis were hailed, final nips of Pappy were tipped back, stubbly double-cheek kisses from Dave were exchanged, along with a promise to visit Montreal very soon.
Still hungry, Aaron and I connected with some friends in the West Village who were finishing up dinner upstairs at the Spotted Pig. Plates of Devils on Horseback and gnuddi arrived along with a crispy pig’s ear salad and their famous burger.
I made it back to Brooklyn around 3AM and set my alarm for 6AM. Despite the next-day hangover (literal and award-afterglow variety), all in all, it was a pretty cool Monday.
Like my father before me, I am a creature of habit. Especially when it comes to dining out. I prefer to keep a handful of haunts in heavy rotation rather than race to have my ticket punched at the latest, must-try spot. And if it’s Friday night you’re likely to find me at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you probably already know this as I have a (surely annoying) habit of checking in with a choice lyric from whatever song might be be blasting from the speakers as I settle in. Sometimes it’s utterly random but, being a sentimental sort, you can’t discount synchronicity. Pull up a stool and you might hear the Pixies’ “Debaser,” the Stones’ “Shattered,” Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” or Pulp’s “Common People.” And since this is a David Chang restaurant you can count on at least one Pavement song per half-hour. So if I’m on a date or feeling particularly wistful when “Spit on a Stranger” comes on, I hope you’ll cut me some slack if Stephen Malkmus singing “Honey I’m a prize and you’re a catch / and we’re a perfect match” makes it seem like the movie of my life is being backed by a killer soundtrack.
One late night this summer I was sitting across from Ssäm Bar’s John McEnroe Shrine, the framed painting of McEnroe that stands sentry over the bottles of brown whiskey and amari. The picture represents six different McEnroes: five smaller action shots orbit around a grinning portrait of the man in his tennis whites. (Note: This is not to be confused with the oversized framed Nike poster of McEnroe that hangs on the wall opposite the bar.) And depending on how long you sit across from the McEnroe Shrine (and how many drinks you knock back) that portrait can possess an angel/devil-on-your-shoulder quality. The grin might be interpreted as a reassuring smirk, warning “I think you’ve had enough tonight, buddy. Let’s get back to Brooklyn,” then quickly morph into a mocking sneer, “Man up, brother. It’s Friday—another Pappy Van Winkle isn’t going to kill you!” As I was finishing the last OB of the night the fellow next to me gave a quick survey of the room. He then motioned with his chopsticks to the McEnroe portrait and asked, “So, what’s the deal with McEnroe here?” Without looking up from my beer, I volleyed back: “Spirit animal.” He nodded, instantly getting it.
More on McEnroe from my 2009 interview with Dave and his Momofuku co-writer and partner-in-crime, Peter Meehan.
BTP: Your restaurants are pretty boisterous and filled with a great energy but the design aesthetics are pretty austere. Each place has a simple decoration—a photograph of the Band at Noodle Bar, John McEnroe at Ssäm Bar. What’s the story behind those particular images and what they mean to you and the energy of the restaurant?
Chang: Everyone thought that we had this minimalist approach because we wanted to convey something about our food, about our aesthetics. But, as usual, it was a simple answer: we had no money. When you have no money you can’t really decorate anything. The first version of Momofuku we literally had nothing, there was nothing on the walls.
Meehan: That Tsukiji poster in the bathroom…
Chang: I stole a poster from Tsukiji fish market in broad daylight in Tokyo.
Meehan: It was of a sushi chef with a lazy eye—
Chang: No, it’s not a sushi chef. He’s a famous comedian from Osaka… with a lazy eye. I remember jumping up on a trash can and ripping it down and nobody really caring what I was doing.
Meehan: Oh, that’s good, I didn’t realize it was all stolen art. And the McEnroe poster—
Chang: Peter Lano, my good friend Luka Lano’s older brother, moved to Switzerland—he and his friend stole it off the side of a bus stop in 1984. It had been passed down to Luka. When we were figuring out Ssäm Bar and in the initial days of construction really my only concern was where can we put John McEnroe? I wasn’t concerned really about anything else. I was infatuated with this big giant lifesize poster of John McEnroe and that was pretty much it.
Meehan: But you later followed it up with an additional John McEnroe poster.
Chang: That was because John McEnroe’s dad called and he gave us a bunch of stuff—John McEnroe, Sr.
BTP: So do you have a particular affinity for that particular poster or the man himself?
Chang: Both. But that poster’s amazing, just because it’s totally, utterly random. But also because McEnroe’s ridiculously hilarious.
Below: It takes more than one photographer to distract McEnroe from his game. Ed Anderson sizing up an old-fashioned on Day One of the photo shoot for Bitters.
Photo: Brad Thomas Parsons
And in the far corner of the restaurant, near the pass, you’ll find another framed poster that completes the John McEnroe Ssäm Bar Spirit Animal Trilogy. Cast in a haze of early-80′s purple, McEnroe—in jeans and a leather jacket, clutching two wooden Dunlop rackets—slouches in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers standing tall across the East River. The whole violet twilight tableau lands on the line of equal parts Cocktail one-sheet and the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Bright Lights, Big City. And it’s a thing to behold.
When I was considering an epigraph for Bitters I quickly rejected using the much-referenced 1806 definition of the word cocktail (“…a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters…”) and instead went with two inscriptions that, for me, capture the spirit of the book. The first was the classic SAT analogy, “Salt is to food as bitters are to [blank]…,” which I nicked from Kurt B. Reighley’s The United States of Americana, and the second was a lyric from Pavement’s “Gold Soundz”: “So drunk in the August sun, and you’re the kind of girl I like…”
At first it felt a little high-school yearbook quote of me to use a song lyric. (In the time capsule that is my own high-school senior yearbook you’ll find tombstone-worthy classic-rock quotes from The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Bob Seger along with deep thoughts from of-the-era artists like The Cure, Depeche Mode, and Howard Jones.)
I also remember a reading in a college poetry class where a tortured theatre major friend of mine, who was mid-gear between his Jack Kerouac and James Dean phase, took to the podium and solemnly presented the lyrics of U2′s “Running to Stand Still.” I fought back a church giggle when after he finished reading he bowed his head in reverence and attributed his work to “Bono and The Edge.” The professor stared at him a for beat then offered, “Next time why don’t you bring in some Percy Bysshe Shelley.”
A song lyric may be shorthand to conveying a mood or emotion but that’s exactly why so many people can connect with and recite Bruce Springsteen rather than Randall Jarrell—but it’s also about how one interprets it. A while back I e-mailed my dear friend Tom Nissley some pages from the front matter of Bitters (the Tipsy Nissley cocktail in the book is in honor of him) and he was kind enough to write on his blog that the “photographic dedication page to his dad may be the most endearing I’ve seen since Franny and Zooey” and complimented the design and layout—”even the creepy Pavement quote.” Creepy Pavement quote? How could Tom misread a spirited ode to late-summer nostalgia as a sloppy drunk guy hitting on a girl?
Pitchfork put “Gold Soundz,” the second single from 1994′s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, at the top of their mammoth 200 Greatest Songs of the 1990s list. In Pitchfork’s coronation of the song they describe it as “tinged with nostalgia” and say “It sounded like a memory in the best possible way.”
The scope of this brief 2:40 minute song is heartbreaking and often inspires an immediate repeat listen, especially after that jangly, hang-your-head-out-the-car-door-window guitar break eases into the verse at hand:
So drunk in the August sun And you’re the kind of girl I like Because you’re empty, and I’m empty And you can never quarantine the past
Granted, having the word “drunk” in the opening pages of a book on cocktails doesn’t exactly come across as “please drink responsibly,” but for me it’s not about the booze, but the aching hangover of nostalgia with a hint of promise that things will be okay. I listened to Pavement an awful lot while writing Bitters and they continue to be in heavy rotation on my iPhone during my morning commute. And while I did my best to avoid pun-filled names for the original drinks in the book, I did approach the drink selection like I was assembling a mix-tape and there’s more than a handful of cocktails inspired by song titles from Pavement, Bowie, Yo La Tengo, and the Velvet Underground.
As Pavement fans know, their videos were far from groundbreaking and definitely put the low in lo-fi. The official video for “Gold Soundz” is an odd account of the band dressed in Santa Claus suits frolicking around an Irvine, California, office park and features bows and arrows, a water fountain, a convertible, and a raw chicken.
August is ticking away, so whether drunk on nostalgia or a stiff bitters-soaked cocktail, enjoy the August sun while it lasts. Here’s Pavement rocking “Gold Soundz” from a 1999 Seattle gig at the Showbox.
Last Friday I caught a late afternoon matinee of Crazy Stupid Love. Much of the action takes place at a slick pick-up joint of a bar, where Ryan Gosling’s Jacob prowls the room looking for a new conquest using his closer, “Let’s get out of here.” While Jacob always has a timeless old-fashioned in his hand, Steve Carell’s sad sack Cal nurses an emasculating vodka and cranberry through a skinny straw. (On straws in alcoholic drinks: unless it’s a tropical drink or a mint julep, whose intentionally short straw serves as a lure to get your nose closer to the aromatic bouquet of mint garnish, I do think a gentleman should part ways with the straw.)
But in addition to the dialogue on the screen I was treated to two hours of not-so sotto voce back and forth between the elderly couple seated directly behind me as the gentleman repeatedly demanded a replay of the action from his wife.
Her: “Bat shit crazy.”
Her: “Tiny schwanz.”
Her: “Mr. Miyagi.”
My favorite audience-participation moment, though, was when Jacob brings Hannah, played by Emma Stone, back to his place. He makes two old-fashioneds, the camera fetishizing the ritual: dotting the sugar cube with Angostura bitters, muddling the bitters-soaked sugar cube (with a bespoke muddler!), ice, bourbon (Pappy Van Winkle 20-Year Reserve!), and finishing with a thick swath of orange peel.
When the bottle of Angostura, with its distinctive yellow cap and oversized label, made its big-screen cameo, Mr. and Mrs. Miracle Ear piped up once again:
Him: “What’s he doing with that?!?”
Her: “Slipping her a Mickey.”
Esquire recently called “old-fashioned, no fruit” the manliest drink order a fellow can ask for at the bar, so it’s natural that too-cool-for-school Jacob doesn’t make a fruit salad out of his drink by adding a muddled cherry and orange to the mix. My favorite version of the old-fashioned is served at Prime Meats in Brooklyn: Rittenhouse 100 rye, simple syrup, housemade pear bitters (made with pears picked from the pear tree next to the restaurant), a big chunk of hand-chipped ice, and a lemon peel garnish. The last time I encountered fruit in my old-fashioned was at John Currence’s Snackbar in Oxford, Mississippi. Made with Blanton’s bourbon, Demerara syrup, homemade bacon bitters, and a muddled cherry and orange slice. The sweet-and-smoky cocktail went down like boozy candy and I went back for two more (and didn’t question my manhood one bit).
It’s hard to believe that in just three months my first book, Bitters, will be out there in the wild. As an author, this is the dark side of the moon phase—there are no more edits or revisions; the layout and design are locked in; the book is off being printed; and my publisher’s publicity, marketing, and sales teams are pitching this admittedly esoteric, mildly obsessive book of mine to magazines and media outlets, bloggers and websites, radio and television, and booksellers and online retailers. While the book is done, my work has only just begun. I’ve written scores of handwritten notes on my best correspondence stock (fact: my handwriting is illegible) to include with copies of the galleys, and I’m e-mailing all of my friends and contacts to spread the good word (if you haven’t already heard from me, don’t worry, you will). But I’m doing my best, too, to enjoy this “quiet” time of radio silence, while Bitters is still something for readers to wonder about rather than have in their hands or behind the bar. Until then…