Bitters are the femme fatale of the herbal world. An air of mystery and elusiveness surrounds their edgy aura. They show up wearing many different masks, easing their way around a cocktail bar and medicine cabinet alike. People are drawn in by their seduction with an edge. Yet their identity remains low key; spoken in whispers at speakeasies and conjured up in many a wise woman’s apothecary.
Bitters can be mixed with an endless combination of fruits, shrubs, syrups, sugars, alcohol, juices, and even flower essences.
What are Bitters?
Perhaps a reason for their elusiveness is that we live in a world that revolves around sweet and salty, with maybe a touch of sour thrown in. Speak the word “bitter” and you’ll be met with upturned noses and scrunched up faces.
The fascinating world of bitters formulas is much more complex than that. In its most basic sense, a bitters formula is an infusion of herbs containing specific bitter compounds in alcohol to stimulate sluggish digestion. They can contain hints of citrus, floral, sweet, salty, sour, or savory, but with an edge. This gives them a much more interesting dynamic than something that is only sweet or only savory. This is why they aren’t solely considered medicine. Just a few drops of bitters are a key ingredient in signature cocktails such as the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned.
These purple anise hyssop flowers and leaves can be used as a mild bitter for its slippery licorice taste. Garnish drinks with edible flowers such as snapdragons and zinnias.
History & Traditional Use
The secret seduction of bitters is that our bodies actually crave this misunderstood flavor. For centuries our ancestors incorporated bitter greens into their diet. Traces of bitters have been found in pottery jars from an ancient Egyptian tomb and the Romans were known to have infused bitter herbs in their wine, marking the earliest known records of people using bitters in liquid form.
During the temperance movement of the 19th century, people were adding bitters to poorer spirits to make them taste better. These versatile formulas were even advertised as a “cure-all” during the 1800’s until the government intervened.
Modern society has essentially eliminated these options and replaced them with preservative packed sweets. However, once we reintroduce this forgotten flavor, our bodies begin to respond with recognition and remembrance.
Science Behind the Taste
Taste is one of our most powerful senses. It can change our mind and mood on a dime. We actually have separate taste receptors for each type of taste. The bitter taste receptors are the most complex and sensitive of the group as they rely on more than 30 genes to help determine their shape, whereas the others only use three or four. Once stimulated, they elicit an aversion response as most poisonous plants taste rather bitter. This acts as a warning signal for our body and in turn causes us to consume less to quickly get the juices flowing through the digestive system. Bitters essentially manipulate this response to help the digestive system break down food and detoxify itself.
The liver is also kicked into gear by these amazing herbs. Once stimulated, it increases its secretion and production of bile, thereby eliminating more waste from the bloodstream. This process helps with a whole slew of problems caused by liver waste backup such as acne, allergies, pain, fatigue, chronic headaches, and skin inflammation.
What are Digestive Bitters
Bitters are like jumper cables when formulated effectively. With the precise combination of appropriate alcohol and mix of herbs, bitters can kickstart your digestive system back to life. Classic herbs such as dandelion, burdock, and gentian are some of our most common allies in bitter formulations.
Gentian root is one of the strongest, and is a staple in traditional digestive bitters.
Why You Need Digestive Bitters
Bitters used specifically for digestive purposes play an important role in our 21st century lives. With temptations like pizza and donuts at every street corner, it is essential that we work with our herbal allies to keep our bodies up to speed. Even if we eat healthy, at least some processed foods are almost impossible to avoid. Life can be hectic, which means sometimes we give into a quick meal or a sugary treat. They can be our saving grace for a fast-paced life and those times when we over-indulge.
Common Side Effects
Bitters are generally considered safe. You can even find them infused in glycerin if you’re trying to avoid alcohol all together. Of course look into the specific herbs used in your formula first before using to make sure they don’t conflict with any existing issues or conditions you have.
When to Use Digestive Bitters
The best way to benefit from bitters is by using on a daily basis. This keeps your digestive system humming along nicely and regulates appetite. The ideal time to take your dose is about 15-20 minutes before a meal. Take ¼ teaspoon up to six times a day. You can mix your dose in with water, seltzer, etc. The key is not to mask the bitter taste as it needs to be able to stimulate the taste receptors in order to work.
Cocktail Bitters vs Digestive Bitters
While cocktail and digestive bitters are made with different goals in mind, they can be used interchangeably for general purposes. They typically use many of the same herbs, but are simply marketed to different audiences. Digestive specific formulas might be more medicinal-tasting since flavor isn’t the goal, but there are many formulas available that play on more complex tastes.
Alcohol Alternatives Using Digestive Bitters
Bitters can be used in place of alcohol in any mocktail. We know alcohol can aggravate the digestive system, cause wicked hangovers and isn’t an option for some people in recovery. Whatever the reason, bitters can wear yet another mask to enhance our herbal experience. While traditional bitters do contain alcohol, it is used in such a minuscule amount that the alcohol itself doesn’t cause any side effects.
Rosemary Grapefruit Mocktail with Lime Bitters
- 2 oz Grapefruit juice
- 3/4 oz Rosemary simple syrup
- 3/4 oz Sparkling water
- Sage and edible flowers for garnish
- Use a cocktail shaker to combine ice, grapefruit juice, sparkling water and simple syrup
- Shake for 20 seconds
- Pour into glass and add a few drops to taste of Bitters
- Garnish with flowers and sage
Bitters Recipe: How to Make Bitters at Home
You most likely already have some of our best bitter herbs already growing in your area or at your grocery store. If you want to try your hand at crafting some of your own, here are some common plants to start with:
- Dandelion root
- Grapefruit peel
- Pine needles
- Coffee beans
- Rhubarb root
The best way to find the right combination is to experiment. You’ll know right away if a recipe works or not. Here is a basic recipe for making your own bitters:
- Choose your base bitter. This will be an herb that has the most intense bitter taste such as dandelion root.
- Choose your highlight herb or herbs.To lighten the bitter taste you’ll want at least one herb that has a strong opposing flavor such as spice or citrus.
- Chop each herb and place into separate mason jars.
- Cover each herb with an alcohol such as vodka or brandy.
- Shake each mason jar daily for two weeks and strain.
- Experiment with different amounts and combinations of each herb into your new master bitters formula.
- If needed add extra sweetness such as honey to the mix.
- Once satisfied, store your concoction in an amber bottle.
Goldenrod is a common plant that can be harvested for bitters to capture its salty taste.
Where to Buy Bitters?
There are many enchanting combinations on the market today. The best ones are those made with organic herbs and alcohol or glycerin. Although you can find many basic cocktail bitters on your grocery store shelves, the best digestive bitters can be found in a trusted herbalist’s shop.