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BITTER AND TWISTED When life gives you Lemons, make a cocktail

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At the back of the sideboard when I was growing up there was a strange green bottle with a densely printed lable with intriguing images, names and phrases …It came out very occasionally, usually at Christmas or my parents parties and seemed glamourous, mysterious and exciting … it was one of the things in my childhood that sparked my interest in herbs and spices … A bottle of Angostura Bitters Now, following in the footsteps of Gin, “Bitters” are enjoying renewed interest, both as a Cocktail ingredient and for digestive health … but what are they and where do they come from?

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Cocktail Bitters can be seen as the “spice” or “seasoning” of the drinks world, adding a complex depth of flavour to drinks. They comprise a mixture of Bitter and Aromatic ingredients; roots, berries, barks, leaves, flowers, fresh fruit, beans, seeds, nuts etc infused or distilled in alcohol. At the end of this post are lists of ingredients that are used, by no means exhaustive.

 bitters ingredients

Their history is shrouded in mystery.  Early infusions of herbs in alcohol were probably primarily for medicinal purposes or to make the herbs more palatable and to preserve them. Egyptian tombs contain hints that herbs were stored by infusing them in wine. The Mediterranean practise of drinking a bitter aperitif before a meal can be traced back as far as 400ad. The first mentions of Bitter herbs for medicinal purposes come in the Middle Ages and are sometimes attributed to a Swiss alchemist and early physician called Paracelsus in the 1500s. He was a fascinating character … my favourite quote of his is

“The universities do not teach all things, so a doctor must seek out old wives, gypsies, sorcerers, wandering tribes, old robbers, and such outlaws and take lessons from them.  A doctor must be a traveller… Knowledge is experience. “

So he may well have gained his knowledge of medicinal bitters from oral history.

The use of bitter tonics was well established by the 1700’s, primarily for stimulating gastric juices and bile. By the 1800s there were many Bitter Tonics and Remedies available which claimed to treat everything from stomach problems to blood disorders and sea-sickness. Almost every country had its own preparations; German Krauterlikor, Swiss Alpenbitter, Italian “Amari”, Indian Tonic Waters and of course, British bitter beer. The legendry Angostura Brand appeared In Venezuela in 1824, developed by a German doctor to treat stomach disorders in the army.

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The word “Cocktail” is in use in the early 1800s to describe a mixture of spirits, water, sugar and bitters. Mark Twain wrote in 1874 of his new habit of taking a “Cock-Tail” of whisky, lemon sugar and bitters first thing in the morning, at noon and at night for health reasons.  Whether Bitters were mixed with alcohol and sugar to make the alcohol taste better, or to take the bitterness of the medicinal bitters away (a spoonful of sugar?) is unclear but the transition from medicine to cocktail ingredient was made.  

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In the Americas a rich cocktail tradition developed until the prohibition, and bitters then fell out of favour. At the same time, Europe was at war and the luxury of cocktail drinking disappeared. At the same time, herbal medicine was being actively discouraged. But interest in these stimulating concoctions is growing, new brands of Craft and Artisan Cocktail Bitters are appearing and once again people are looking to the world of herbs for help to maintain a healthy body and mind.

Bitter foods stimulate the taste receptors and lead to a number of reflex responses in the body; essentially giving the digestive system a kick by releasing digestive juices,  encouraging movement in the gut wall (peristalsis), stimulating the liver and endocrine system. Bitters have been, and still are, used to treat gastric problems such as poor appetite, constipation, bloating. They are also seen as useful for lifting the spirits and a recent New Zealand study show they can help in weight loss. Along with the realisation that sugar, rather than fat, is a primary player in the western obesity epidemic, there is growing evidence that the almost complete lack of bitter foods in western diets may also be a problem. Some argue that we are hard wired to avoid bitter foods as most naturally occurring poisonous plants have a bitter taste. But not all bitter tasting plants are toxic and there is much evidence to suggest the inclusion of bitter ingredients in the diet is beneficial to health. 

 bitters kits

As a rough guide, bitters often contain a ratio of 3 parts aromatic ingredients to 1 part bitter, though many “aromatic” ingredients are also bitter too.  Vodka makes a good base to infuse the ingredients in; brandy, rum and other spirits can be used. The traditional tincture ratio of one part dried herbs to 5 parts alcohol works well. The amount of time to infuse the ingredients can vary massively, and there are many different methods for making bitters. I built myself a “Bitters Library” making small quantities of infusions or tinctures of different ingredients. I tested them regularly, both by tasting a drop in some water and by rubbing a small amount on my skin to see how they smelt. Stronger scented ingredients like lavender or cardamoms often need only a few days to infuse, but as a generally rule I found roots like, Gentian, took about a week, dried herbs 1 to 3 days, stone fruits and berries 3-5 days and spices 1 to 2 weeks. Muslin or coffee filters are useful for straining. I then had fun blending the tinctures.

 bitters library

If you want to have a go, you can just throw ingredients into a jar and cover with alcohol and leave for a couple of weeks. Regular shaking is recommended. Or you could use the tincture method described above and get in touch with your inner mad scientist.

bitters library 4

Some recipes suggest you reserve the solids after the alcohol infusion and put them in a pan with water, bring to the boil and then leave it to cool and infuse for a week. Apparently some essential components that you want from the herbs are only soluble in water, not alcohol. You can then strain and use the infused water to dilute the alcohol infusion. Other recipes I found suggest sweetening the Bitters with honey, syrups and sugar. This seems a bit counterintuitive but adds another flavour dimension.

 bitters library 2

So what can you do with them? Bitters are essential in many cocktails like Dry Martinis, Manhattans, Old Fashioneds etc A Negroni with a dash of Lavender Bitters is amazing. Bitters can be added to simple drinks like Gin or Vodka and Tonic to create a depth of flavour that is delicious. They are increasingly popular as additions to Tonic and Soda Waters or Lemonade to make elegant, tasty effectively alcohol free tipples (you only need a few drops). Certain bitters, like Coffee or Lavender transform deserts when mixed with whipped cream or Ice cream. A dash of Orange Bitters in fruit compotes or salads is amazing and a few drops of Coffee Bitters in your Sunday morning coffee is a taste sensation. Give them a try.

  coffee (3)      coffee (2)     coffee

I have put together some little kits to get you started if you fancy having a go at making some Bitters, as some ingredients are hard to find in small quantities. You can also find some little bags of botanicals in my ebay store which include bitter ingredients.

As always, please don't take anything in this blog as medical advice .. I am just sharing information for the joy of it ... always seek advice from a qualified practioner before self-medicating with herbs, especially if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, taking meds etc 



** Diabetics and anyone who is pregnant or taking medication should seek advice from a qualified health practitioner before using bitters, even though the amount used is small.***

BITTER INGREDIENTS Roots; Angelica, Calamus, Burdock, Gentian, Dandelion, Liquorice, Sarsaparilla. Barks; Wild Cherry, Cassia, Cinnamon. Herbs; Horehound, Wormwood, Dandelion, Mugwort,. Peels; Lemon, Grapefruit. Coffee Beans

AROMATIC INGREDIENTS Spices; Allspice, Aniseed, Caraway, Cardamom, Celery Seed, Chillies, Cloves, Cinnamon, Fennel, Ginger, Juniper, Nutmeg, Star Anise, Vanilla. Herbs; Basil, Chamomile, Hibiscus, Hops, Lavender, Lemongrass, Mint, Rose, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Yarrow. 

Fresh fruit peel, dried fruits, nuts (fresh or toasted), coffee beans, cacao nibs are also good

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