What are “bitters?”
Historically, bitters were derived from herbs, roots, fruits, infused with wine and used medicinally during Egyptian times.
During the Middle Ages, distilled alcohol was included but bitters were still used as a preventative medicine.
In the 19th Century, the British incorporated Canary Wine (white fortified wine imported from mainland Spain or the Canary Islands).
Sherry and Port are fortified wines, which are wines augmented with a dose of brandy or other spirit.
By the early 1800’s, Americans had developed what we now know as the “cocktail,” a mixture of liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.
Today, they are used to flavor spirits or cocktails, similar to cordials (schnapps), but do not include any sweetening agents.
Varieties of Bitters
The most well known is Angostura bitters. It does not include any bark from the angostura tree, but is instead named after a town in Venezuela.
Angostura bitters was used to prevent sea sickness and stomach aliments during the late 1800’s.
Orange bitters are made from the peels of Seville oranges, cardamom, caraway seed, coriander and burnt sugar in an alcohol base.
Orange bitters are usually found in old cocktail recipes.
Digestive bitters usually are served with ice at the end of a meal in many European and South American countries. Examples include:
Jagermeister from Germany
Campari from Italy
Cocktail bitters add zing to mixed drinks and usually sold with bottle droppers, because of its concentrated pungency.
Bitters are made very similar to cordials:
infusion or maceration + distillation
infusion – extracting flavor from herbs, leaves or fruit by steeping them in liquid
maceration – soaking the herb, leaves or fruit in a liquid, to incorporate the bitter agent into the liquid
distillation – combining your flavored bitter liquid with alcohol
No sugar is added during the process.
During the distillation process a high alcohol level is reached, causing the liquid to taste bittersweet, hence the name.
The process of developing bitters for flavor enhancement is a bit complicated. A great deal of time, effort, trial and error go into creating these libations; therefore, they can be very pricey.
The spice cabinet of the cocktail world
Most Popular Uses
For years, bitters have been thought to be a digestive aid and appetite stimulant.
Can be used in a plethora of mixed drink recipes or even in food preparation.
A few drops can be added to a salad; stir into your morning java or tea; elevate deviled eggs.
Can add another layer of flavor to soups and stews.
Just make sure to use conservatively.
The most popular used today in cocktails are:
ABBOTT’S BITTERS made in Maryland
BOONEKAMP from Holland
GAMMEL DANSK from Denmark
Orange Bitters, usually from England
STONSDORFER and UNDERBERG BITTERS from Germany
Ingredient list: dandelion root; dandelion leaf, burdock root, orange peel, fennel seed, yellow dock root, angelica root, gentian root and ginger root, water, cane alcohol – NO WONDER IT WAS SO EXPENSIVE – $10.00 for 2 oz.
Made by Urban Moonshine in Vermont, it is 30% – 35% alcohol content.
What I have been doing is adding 3 – 4 drops of in my cocktails, depending upon the flavor of the drink.
For my tequila drinks, I add 4 drops. For whiskey based drinks, I add 3 drops.
The citrus flavor was noticeable in my whiskey cocktail. However, it seemed to enhance margaritas.
I did not experience any bloating or heartburn, as I usually do with evening adult beverages.
Do you use bitters? Let me know in the comments.