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Bitters


Saying something is bitter doesn’t often conjure pleasant thoughts, unless perhaps you are nerdy herbalists like us. And bitters, you guessed it, get their name from having bitter flavors. Use of bitters dates back to the beginning of human consumption of foods, and bitter plants (and sometimes the avoidance of bitter plants) was part of early healthcare practices. Bitters are frequently used in American modern culture as digestive aids and popular cocktail ingredients.

An average human tongue senses four flavor qualities--salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. These qualities are not concrete, there are nuances, but it is commonly agreed that at the very least, these four flavors can be experienced. Many traditional medical systems recognize the importance of the range of flavors and the relevance they have to diet, health and healing. In modern American society, it is often the sweet and salty flavors that dominate our palates and grocery store shelves. Although we still find sour and bitter in foods, like mustard, dill pickles, and vinegar condiments, these important flavors have mostly taken a second seat. But we say, bring bitters back!

Bitter flavor adds desirable dimensions to food and drink and has numerous health effects on the body.  At Red Root & Co, we craft our bitters in herbal tradition, meaning we macerate whole plant material in alcohol or glycerin to make a tincture. A tincture is a “highly concentrated liquid herbal extract” (Gladstar 2012:41). After completing the tincture process, we combine various tinctures in varying ratios to create our bitters recipes. Not only do flavors from the botanicals impart to the tincture, but the medicinal properties are transmuted as well.

Dating back to Hippocrates time, bitters were used as digestive aids and health tonics. Herbs such as ginger, fennel, chamomile, and dandelion act as digestifs, with their bitter taste triggering a digestive cascade. Beginning with the bitter touching the tongue, signals are sent to the stomach to secrete digestive juices or alert the liver to start the process of releasing bile. Herbalist David Hoffman writes, “The sensation of bitterness…is directed by the nerves to the central nervous system. From there, a message goes to the gut, giving rise to the release of the digestive hormone gastrin. This in turn leads to a whole range of effects, all of value to the digestive process and general bodily health” (Hoffman 2003:499). Bitter herbs, tinctures or foods taken before, during or after a meal may help digestion and absorption of foods.

Concepts of digestif, and its counterpart aperitif, withstand the test of time, as we see many liqueurs (i.e. Amari, Vermouth) holding onto that tradition. Herbalists have continued to spread the good word of bitters, crafting specific bitter formulas for clients and the wider public. Further, our plates still show occasional evidence of a bitter tradition with a helping of mustard greens and arugula complementing a meal.

Bitters made a leap from herbal medicine to cocktail ingredient sometime during the American Colonial period through Prohibition times.  Folks were adding bitters to lesser quality spirits to add flavor and palatability, and from the advent of the word cocktail, bitters were correspondent with its preparation. A bitters historian and bartender, Brad Parsons asserts, “The word ‘bitters’ is in the definition of the first printed usage of the word ‘cocktail’” (Smith 2012). Although the exact moments of the bitters evolution is unclear, he further explains, “As we get to the golden age of the cocktail, the late 1800s, bitters became more synonymous with cocktails no matter what bar you went to. During that time [Temperance movement], people were putting these bitters into a poorer quality spirit, which was a way for it to taste better…I was never really able to pinpoint the year we went from these corked, apothecary bottles that people would nip to when they started putting them into their drinks and it became more of a concentrated drop versus a splash or a nip” (Smith 2012). 

Despite bitters original cocktail function, to make poor quality liquor taste better, modern bartenders use bitters to bring dimension to cocktails and balance other flavors of alcohol, sweet and sour. Bitters usage in cocktails has been likened to the use of salt in foods. Salt enhances flavors already present in foods; bitters similarly elevate the complexity of a cocktail. Bitters are used in drops and dashes where a little goes a long way.

Bitters are necessary components of cocktails, but bitters can also be used in non-alcoholic craft drinks or simply to liven-up seltzer water. Try incorporating bitters into your flat water or sparkling water with a meal, or take a few drops sans water before your meal. Bitter notes help allay sugar cravings. Use as an aperitif to prep the stomach for digestion or as a digestif to assuage after-meal upsets. Bitters add flavorful and versatile breadth to your kitchen apothecary.

Sources:

  • Gladstar, Rosemary. Medicinal Herbs: A Beginners Guide, Storey Publishing, 2012.  
  • Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Healing Arts Press, 2003. 
  • Smith, Peter. “A Brief History of Bitters.Smithsonian Magazine, 20 March 2012, Accessed 7 January 2021.