A bitters is traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavored with botanical matter so that the end result is characterized by a bitter, sour, or bittersweet flavor. Numerous longstanding brands of bitters were originally developed as patent medicines, but now are sold as digestifs, sometimes with herbal properties, and cocktail flavorings. Since cocktails mainly contain sour and sweet flavors, bitters are used to engage another primary taste and thereby balance out the drink and make it more complex, giving it a more complete flavor profile.
The botanical ingredients used in preparing bitters have historically consisted of aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit for their flavour and medicinal properties. Some of the more common ingredients are cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel, and cinchona bark.
Most bitters contain both water and alcohol, the latter of which functions as a solvent for botanical extracts as well as a preservative. The alcoholic strength of bitters varies widely across different brands and styles.
The earliest origins of bitters can be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who may have infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine. This practice was further developed during the Middle Ages, where the availability of distilled alcohol coincided with a renaissance in pharmacognosy, which made possible far more concentrated herbal bitters and tonic preparations. Many of the various brands and styles of digestive bitters made today reflect herbal stomachic and tonic preparations whose roots are claimed to be traceable back to Renaissance era pharmacopeia and traditions.
By the 19th century, the British practice of adding herbal bitters (used as preventive medicines) to Canary wine had become immensely popular in the former American colonies. By 1806, American publications referenced the popularity of a new preparation termed cocktail, which was described as a combination of “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Of the commercial aromatic bitters that would emerge from this period, perhaps the most well known is Angostura bitters. In spite of its name, the preparation contains no medicinal bark from the angostura tree; instead it is named after the town of Angostura, today's Ciudad Bolívar, in Venezuela. In 1824, German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert compounded a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies, among other medicinal uses. Dr. Siegert subsequently formed the House of Angostura to sell the bitters to sailors.
Another renowned aromatic bitters with 19th-century roots is Peychaud's Bitters, which were originally developed by apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud in New Orleans, Louisiana, and is most commonly associated with the Sazerac cocktail.
A broadly popular style of bitters that emerged from the period is orange bitters, the flavor of which ranges from dryly aromatic to fruity, and is most commonly made from the rinds of Seville oranges and various spices. Orange bitters are commonly called for in older cocktail recipes. An early recipe for such bitters can be found in The English and Australian Cookery Book: "Make your own bitters as follows, and we can vouch for their superiority. One ounce and a half of gentian-root, one ounce and a half of lemon-peel, one ounce and a half of orange-peel. Steep these ingredients for about a month in a quart of sherry, and then strain and bottle for use. Bitters are a fine stomachic, but they must be used with caution."
Bitters prepared from the tree bark containing the antimalarial quinine were occasionally included in historical cocktail recipes, which served to mask the intensely bitter flavor of this medicine. Trace quantities of quinine are still included as a flavoring in tonic water, which is used today mostly in drinks with gin.
Pioneering mixologist Jerry Thomas was largely responsible for an increase in the popularity of bitters in the United States when he released How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion in 1862.
Digestive bitters are typically consumed either neat or with ice at the end of a meal in many European and South American countries. Many, including popular Italian-style amaros and German-style Kräuter liquors, are often used in cocktails as well.
Some notable examples of digestive bitters available today include:
- Alomo Bitters (Ghana,Nigeria)
- Averna (Caltanissetta, Italy)
- Amaro Lucano (Basilicata, Italy)
- Amaro Montenegro (Bologna, Italy)
- Amaro Ramazzotti (Asti, Italy)
- Aperol (Padova, Italy)
- Araucano (Valparaíso, Chile)
- Balsam (Eastern Europe)
- Becherovka (Czech Republic)
- Beerenburg (Netherlands)
- Blutwurz (Bavaria)
- Calisaya (USA)
- Campari (Italy)
- Cynar (Italy)
- Fernet-Branca (Italy)
- Fernet Stock (Czech Republic)
- Gammel Dansk (Denmark)
- Gran Classico Bitter (Switzerland)
- Jägermeister (Germany)
- Jeppson's (United States)
- Killepitsch (Düsseldorf, Germany)
- Kuemmerling (Germany)
- Pelinkovac (Balkans)
- Quinquina (France – originally from South America)
- Ratzeputz (Germany)
- Riga Black Balsam (Latvia)
- St. Vitus (Germany)
- Schierker Feuerstein (Germany)
- Schwartzhog (Germany)
- Sirop de Picon (France)
- Suze (France)
- Tubi 60 (Israel)
- Underberg (Germany)
- Unicum (Hungary)
- Wódka Żołądkowa Gorzka (Poland)
- Wurzelpeter (Germany)
Cocktail bitters are typically used for flavoring cocktails in drops or dashes. In the United States, many cocktail bitters are classified as alcoholic non-beverage products ('non-beverage' meaning not consumed like a typical beverage). As alcoholic non-beverage products, they are often available from retailers who do not sell liquor, such as supermarkets in many US states.
- Angostura bitters – originally from Venezuela in 1830, currently from Trinidad and Tobago
- Boker’s Bitters – called for in many cocktails in Jerry Thomas' drink guide, many believe he misspelled it as Bogart's bitters. It is essential to the Martinez cocktail.
- Peychaud's Bitters – originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, but now produced in Kentucky
- "Ancient Remedy: Bitter Herbs and Sweet Wine". Retrieved 2013-11-03.
- "Medicinal Plants (History)". Retrieved 2013-11-03.
- "A Brief History of Bitters". smithsonianmag.com. Archived from the original on January 12, 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-03.
- "Origin of the Cocktail". imbibemagazine.com. Archived from the original on 2013-08-20. Retrieved 2013-11-03.
- Hayes, Annie (2016-10-05). "Angostura: a brand history". The Spirit Business. The Spirit Business. Retrieved 2019-11-29.
- Abbott, Edward (1864). The English and Australian Cookery Book.
- William Grimes, The Bartender Who Started It All, New York Times, October 31, 2007.
- "Uncorked: The bitter revolution". chicagotribune.com. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
- "The Bitter Truth". imbibe.com. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
- "Ten Essential Bitters and How to Use Them". punchdrink.com. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
- "Cocktail History: Bogart's Bitters is a Recreation of a 150-Year-Old Recipe". themanual.com. Retrieved 11 March 2019.
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