By Erin Holden
Welcome to Part II on herbal bitters! For a little background info on what bitters are, why we taste them, and where we taste them, see Part I posted on 2/17/20. It’s a worthwhile read, but not necessary if you just want to jump in with this article.
Historical Uses: Egyptian medical papyri from as far back as 2650 B.C. mention bitter herbs, such as frankincense, myrrh, aloe, and wormwood, being macerated in alcohol. Knowing now what we do about bitters, it’s reasonable to think some of these concoctions were used for stomach ailments that call for bitters today. Fast forwarding a bit, we find the origins of the famous Swedish Bitters in the mid 1700s. Considered a universal medicine, it contained, among other herbs, aloe, saffron, rhubarb, gentian, and myrrh. Another common ingredient was theriac, a “composite” medicine consisting of up to sixty-four vegetable, animal, and mineral parts. Several of these – caraway seed, ginger, angelica root, and fennel to name a few – are still used in contemporary bitters formulae.
In Cocktails: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention bitters as they are used in cocktails. Many countries, such as Italy, Germany, Spain, and France, have “the tradition of consuming an herbal, bittersweet liqueur as an aperitif or digestif”, to either stimulate or aid digestion before or after a meal (Parsons, 2011). However, during the 1850s in the United States, the temperance movement, along with high taxes on potable alcohol (alcohol consumed as a beverage), forced these types of drinks to fall out of favor, and led to the increased popularity of stomach bitters, a nonpotable alcohol (so not subject to the same taxes). Unfortunately, many unscrupulous companies began making outlandish claims for their products, forcing the federal government to step in and lay down restrictions. This, along with Prohibition in 1919, knocked bitters off the U.S. map for a good long while.
In Food: Many countries that traditionally partake of alcoholic bitters also have a history of harvesting and consuming bitter spring greens. Plants such as burdock, dandelion, and cresses pop up early in the spring, and their bitter leaves not only helped stimulate digestive systems turned sluggish from a winter of consuming preserved foods, but provided much needed vitamins and minerals. Additionally, many bitter plants are anthelmintic, meaning they help kill intestinal worms. It gives new meaning to the term “spring cleaning!”
Bitters Today: Building on a long history of use, herbalists today suggest bitters for a variety of digestive disturbances – from dispelling gas, increasing bile production and secretion, to supporting healthy blood sugar regulation. As stated in Part I, though, bitters are produced by plants for defense, and as such can be pretty powerful. Always consult a trained herbalist first if you’re considering taking bitters.
Regarding their use in cocktails, herbal bitters have taken off in recent years. I remember when Angostura Bitters were all I could find, but within just the past few years, my local liquor store has started offering many more brands and flavors. Trendy bars have also taken to concocting their own special house bitters, and books are being written on the subject.
Bitter Herbs: The list of bitter herbs is a long one, so I just wanted to highlight a few. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is most famous for its role in the liqueur Absinthe; its common name comes from its use in killing intestinal parasites. Cinchona (Cinchona spp.) is the botanical source of quinine, the widely used antimalarial agent. Gentian (Gentiana lutea), the archetypal bitter, is a main ingredient in most commercially available cocktail bitters, including Angostura Bitters. Some plants that don’t have an overt bitter flavor, such as fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) and ginger (Zingiber officinale), are also sometimes classified as “bitters” by herbalists due to their therapeutic action on the digestive system.
Thanks for sticking with me through this rather long “intro” into herbal bitters. If this topic tickles your fancy, I highly recommend the following resources: two books on bitter foods and cocktail bitters, with recipes, and a fascinating paper on the history of Swedish Bitters. The book by B.T. Parsons is available for checkout to members from the HSA library for the cost of shipping.
Ahnfelt, N. & Fors, H. 2016. Making early modern medicine: Reproducing Swedish Bitters. From the Library to the Laboratory and Back Again: Experiment as a Tool for the History of Science; 63(2): 162-183.
McLagan, Jennifer. 2014. Bitter: A taste of the world’s most dangerous flavor, with recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press.
Parsons, B.T. 2011. Bitters: A spirited history of a classic cure-all. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Erin Holden is the gardener for the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the American Herbalists Guild, United Plant Savers, and a member-at-large of The Herb Society of America.