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The Lost Art of Bitters: A Historical Revival


Bitters and glass of liquor

Introduction

Bitters, a once essential component of cocktails and culinary dishes, have a rich history dating back to ancient times. These concentrated flavor extracts were initially used for medicinal purposes but gradually became a staple in kitchens and bars. Despite their decline in popularity over the last century, bitters are making a comeback as modern mixologists, chefs, and herbalists rediscover their versatility and depth.


What Are Bitters?

Bitters are aromatic liquids made by infusing botanicals such as herbs, roots, bark, and fruit peels in alcohol or glycerin. The result is a highly concentrated extract used in small quantities to add complexity and balance to beverages and food and as a digestive aid before and after meals. The term "bitters" is derived from the bitter taste these extracts often impart, although the flavor profile can be quite diverse, encompassing sweet, spicy, and aromatic notes.


Historical Uses of Bitters

  1. Medicinal Purposes: Originally, bitters were concocted as medicinal remedies for various ailments, including digestive issues, fevers, and liver problems. Apothecaries and herbalists created their unique blends, each claiming to cure a specific malady.

  2. Culinary Ingredient: In cooking, bitters were used to enhance the flavor of sauces, soups, and stews. They were particularly popular in European cuisine, where they added depth to complex dishes.

  3. Cocktail Staple: The golden age of cocktails in the 19th and early 20th centuries saw bitters as an indispensable ingredient. Classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan owe much of their distinctive taste to bitters.


The Decline and Revival

The decline of bitters began with the Prohibition era in the United States, which led to the closure of many distilleries and the disappearance of many bitter brands. Post-Prohibition, the rise of sweeter, less complex drinks further pushed bitters into obscurity.

However, the modern craft cocktail movement has sparked a bitters renaissance. Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts are rediscovering old recipes and creating new ones, bringing bitters back into the spotlight. This revival has also inspired a renewed interest in homemade bitters, allowing individuals to experiment with unique flavor combinations.


The Modern Use of Bitters

Today, bitters are once again a vital tool in both professional and home kitchens and bars. Here are a few ways to incorporate them into your culinary and cocktail creations:

  1. Cocktails: Add a few dashes to classic and contemporary cocktails for a burst of flavor.

  2. Cooking: Enhance marinades, vinaigrettes, and sauces with a dash of bitters to add complexity.

  3. Digestives: Sip on a bitters-infused beverage before or after a meal to aid digestion.

 

How Digestive Bitters Work

Specific herbs that are known for digestive aid like artichoke, fennel, and peppermint may help ease gas, nausea, indigestion, and stomach cramping.  They also stimulate your taste buds from their bitterness which signals your digestive tract to make saliva and prepare for food.  Taking a few drops of bitters in your drink of choice about 15 minutes before eating can help your digestive tract function more efficiently.  They can also be taken after a meal to keep the digestive tract stimulated.


Dandy Orange Bitters – Digestive Bitters Starter Formula from Mountain Rose Herbs

I grow many of the herbs I use in my products; however, when I need to purchase herbs, Mountain Rose Herbs is one of my first choices.  I trust the quality of their herbs and they practice ethnical harvesting.  This is a formula for Dandy Orange Bitters on their Blog.

Makes about 8 to 12 ounces.

Ingredients

Directions

1.     If you are using fresh roots, wash and finely chop. Coarsely chop the citrus peel.

2.     Place the dandelion root and orange peel in a pint jar and fill remainder of the jar with vodka.

3.     Secure the lid on the jar and label. 

4.     Infuse for one week, shaking daily.

5.     Strain out and discard solids, bottle infused liquid, and label.

  

Grapefruit Bitters

The formula I’m testing now has grapefruit, Hawthorne berries, hibiscus flowers, artichoke leaves, coriander, anise seeds, fennel seeds, black pepper, honey, and brandy.  I’m excited to see how this one tastes.  It smelled amazing as I blended it all together. 


For this formula, I used a coffee grinder to grind the herbs for more surface area for the brandy to soak up the properties. This is made with fresh chopped pink grapefruit.




Mason jar of Grapefruit Bitters
Grapefruit Bitters (Brandy and Honey)

This formula fit in a quart size jar and has a beautiful deep pink hue. Can't wait to try it in a few weeks.


Safety

Most bitter herbs are considered safe; however, you can be allergic; therefore, use bitters with caution.  If you have an uncomfortable reaction to the bitters, stop use at once.  If you have any diseases of the digestive system, use caution and talk to your medical provider before use.  If you are pregnant or breastfeeding talk with your medical provider before consuming bitters.









Conclusion

The resurgence of bitters is a testament to their timeless appeal and versatility. Whether you are a seasoned mixologist at a new speakeasy, a culinary enthusiast, or a budding herbalist, exploring the world of bitters can elevate your creations and connect you to a rich history of flavor innovation. So next time you craft a cocktail or cook a meal, consider reaching for a bottle of bitters to add that perfect finishing touch.

 

References:

DeVito, S. (2023) Bitters explained: History, types and cocktail recipes, Chilled Magazine. Available at: https://chilledmagazine.com/history-behind-bitters/ (Accessed: 10 July 2024).


Digestive bitters: Benefits, risks and more (no date) WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/what-to-know-about-digestive-bitters (Accessed: 10 July 2024). 

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