The Bitter Beginning

Parish Hall’s owner recalls his first encounter with the medicinal elixir.

Parish Hall’s owner recalls his first encounter with the medicinal elixir.

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In the early ’90s I spent a semester working security at a small college in the fog-wreathed mountains of western North Carolina. We sat all night in a cold cinder block room lit by a single buzzing fluorescent ring on the ceiling.

We stared at the walls and waited on calls that never came. We worked in pairs, but the job was so boring it made conversation die in the air.

My partner one night of the week was a woman from somewhere deep in the mountains. I don’t think she’d ever cut her hair except at the bangs, which she cut back almost to her hairline. She was gaunt with knobby joints and neatly patched shirts and seemed like she’d stepped out of some Appalachian Flannery O’Connor story — an effect that was amplified when her voice suddenly and completely vanished. So these already lonely shifts on security became strange silent vigils in which she sat in a corner with a spiral-top notebook, occasionally writing out questions to me and taking tiny sips from a bottle of Angostura bitters.

I’d never seen bitters before. I knew they were some kind of alcohol, but with their paper wrapper and the way she was drinking them as though they might fix her voice, they seemed like patent medicine, the kind of old wives’ cure someone might bring to college from her home back in the hollow. There was something mysterious and old-fashioned about them, like a half-faded photograph you find in a stranger’s attic.

Now bitters are everywhere, in precious little bottles in every kitchen shop in Brooklyn. Mason jars filled with bitters at various stages of development line our bar at Parish Hall. Making bitters is one of the best ways we have at the bar of playing with the flavors of a place and time. We’ll try almost anything: chocolate we get from our neighbors at Mast Brothers, hot peppers and ground cherries we grow at our farm, summer peaches, even barbecue spices.

But for me some of the mystery of that initial encounter still clings to them. There is something almost eerie about these infusions of strange roots and herbs into high-proof liquor. We use them in the tiniest doses — just a drop or two to give a cocktail an ineffable complexity, just a whisper to give a drink a voice.

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