It is the policy of the Herb Society of America 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 medicinal or health treatment.
What are Herbal Bitters?
Herbal bitters are digestive aids that were once sold as patent medicines that later became key ingredients in classic cocktails. They are made by extracting, with alcohol, a range of active and bitter compounds from herbs and spices.
Effect on the body
• Bitter foods are said to stimulate all digestive secretions (saliva, hormones and bile, etc). Each of these acts as solvent in the process of breaking down food for absorption. The quality and quantity of these fluids ultimately ensures proper nutrition. It’s thought that inadequate production of these secretions is common in those people lacking bitter foods in their diet.
• When the taste receptors in the mouth recognize the presence of bitters they stimulate a system wide response:
• Salivation breaks down starches and begins to work on fats.
• In the stomach bitters stimulate the secretion of hormone gastrin which regulates the prod of gastric acid. They also increase production of the enzymes pepsin that helps break down protein and intrinsic factor that essential for absorption of B12
.• Bitters also act on the pancreas, the liver and gall bladder affecting the normalizing blood sugar, promoting the release of pancreatic enzyme and bile which aids in digestion of fats and oils.
• A healthy flow of bile helps rid the liver of waste, and prevents the formation of gallstones and emulsifies lipids.
• They enhance peristalsis and lubricate the intestine.
• The net result is that bitter foods are said to restore the appetite and decrease chronic indigestion. Some herbalists go as far as to identify a condition they term Bitter Deficiency Syndrome.
Bitter herbs can be classified into four main types:
• Astringent bitters (cinchona bark)
• Simple bitter (gentian root, bogbean and centaury)
• Aromatic bitter (angelica, bitter orange peel, wormwood)
• Acrid bitters (ginger, galangal)
Bitter herbs often used in making commercial bitters
• Cinchona bark is a variety of species from the Cinchona genus. In the family Rubiaceae (madder family). 23 species make up the genus. C. pubescens provides the highest dose
.• Arguably the plant with one of the most important roles in medicine and also in the history of cocktails.
• With a range through South America, it has flavored tonics, bitters, aromatized wines and other spirits.
• It is the source of quinine which saved humanity from malaria. The saying a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down is perhaps never more appropriate that with quinine. It is incredibly bitter, taking it mixed with soda water and some sugar improved the flavor. British colonists also found that adding a little gin improved things an extra level and so the gin and tonic was born.
• As well as antimalarial properties modern medical research shows that cinchona also seems to be antibacterial, antifungal and to inhibit tumor development
• The medicinal properties of quinine that occurs in the bark was discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru and Bolivia. Jesuits first brought it to Europe where it became the first effective treatment for malaria in the 17th century and remained so up until the 1940s.
• The quinine alkaloid is a highly fluorescent chemical and when a UV light is shone on tonic water it is excited by the UV and glows bright blue
• Gentiana lutea in the Gentianaceae family. There are 400 species in the genus
• Grows wild and is harvested in alpine meadows of France, Spain and the Balkans and is also known as bitterwort, bitter root or devils taint
• It is found as an ingredient in literally hundreds of spirits eg Campari, angostura bitters and even gives its name to the spirit gentiane. It’s in French Suze and German after dinner digestif called underberg
• Records of medicinal use dates back 3K yrs. It is documented on Egyptian papyrus from 1200 BC. Pliny the elder wrote about it.
• Hard to cultivate and harvesting the root involves destroying the plant so in some parts of Europe it is actually protected.
The root is loaded with seco-iridoids the primary ones being Gentiopicroside and amarogentin.
• Amarogentin is one of the most bitter naturally occurring compounds known, has been investigated for its ability to promote salivation and other digestive juices.
• Teucrium chamaedrys in the mint family Lamiaceae.
• A low growing perennial herb often seen as the edging to traditional knot gardens.
• Mediaeval physicians prescribed it for a variety of ailments and it became a bittering agent in vermouths and bitters. But there is a lot of concern regarding safety of the chemicals in germander with respect to liver toxicity
• Quassia amara.
• Common names include bitterwood or bitter ash. It is a small tree or shrub, native from Mesoamerica and the Caribbean to Brazil.
• The genus was named after a former slave from Surinam, Graman Quassi in the 18th century. He is said to have discovered the medicinal properties of the bark.
• It is used as a digestive aid, to treat liver and gallbladder problems and as a febrifuge by the traditional healers of Brazil. I have found several references for its use as an insecticide including treatment of head lice. Extracts contain quassinoids that are particularly effective against aphids on crop plants.
• Croton eluteria from the Euphorbiaceae or spurge family
• Highly fragrant small tropical tree whose bark contains many of the same compounds found in pine, eucalyptus, citrus and rosemary. And also the spices clove, and black pepper.
• It’snot only an important ingredient in bitters but is also in vermouth, rumored to be in Campari and is also used as a base note in the perfume industry.
• Nativeto West Indies but has naturalized throughout the Amazon basin region. As a member of the spurge family the sap can be irritating to handle.
• In 1989 when cigarette makers were required to identify their ingredients it was found to be an additive in several brands.
• Artemesia absinthium
• Famed ingredient in absinthe. It was added to beer to add a bitter flavor and antimicrobial properties before the widespread use of hops.
• Wormwood and the thujone it contains has probably been blamed unfairly as the reason for absinthe’s hallucinogenic effects on the French art crowd late 19th C. Absinthe contained extremely high levels of alcohol (70-80 ABV twice that of gin or vodka). But wormwood was blamed even though culinary sage has even higher levels of thujone. The levels of thujone in absinthe has been shown through mass spectrometry to be miniscule.
Types of Bitters
Using the term in the context of cocktails, bitters are a common bar ingredient that really were considered an essential ingredient in cocktails. Most of the brands started life as medicinal tonics but found their way into cocktails as concentratedflavor stimulants
• This has a woodsy, spicy flavor with a clove like scent. It’s the most widely known and popular brand of bitters on the market today. An essential ingredient in the Manhattan, Pasco sour and the Champagne cocktail
• It was created by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Sievert a German army surgeon who was based in Angostura, Venezuela. Research with tropical herbs led to his creating a secret blend in 1824 with the intent of curing a variety of illnesses. They were originally called Dr. Siegart's aromatic bitters.
• The exact ingredients are not known as it’s a closely guarded secret. And the company managed it’s was through 30 yrs of litigation without revealing the recipe. But it does contain gentian root and some of the principal flavorings are cinnamon, clove, lemon, bitter orange peel, galangal, ginger and tonka bean.
These bitters have an anise and aromatic root scent. They date from 1830 and were made by Antoine Amedee Peychard, a Creole apothecary from Haiti. An essential ingredient in the sazerac cocktail. They are still made today by the Sazerac company but in Kentucky, not New Orleans.
Made from peels of Seville oranges, cardamom, caraway seed, coriander and burnt sugar. Was once the most popular type of bitters used in cocktails. There are lots of references to these bitters in pre prohibition cocktail books. They fell out of favor but recently there has been a resurgence with several companies now making them.
Campari and Averna are better known as liqueurs but are also bitters
Some bitters that did not get absorbed into the bar tenders repertoire are sometimes termed theriacs. They were potions or ointments that were originally formulated to counter the bites of venomous beasts. The word comes from Latin theriacameaning antidote to poison. The most well-known theriac today is sold as Swedish bitters which has been a herbal remedy for over 500 yrs., originally created by a Swiss physician Phillipus Paracelesus in 1541 and rediscovered in the 1800's by another Swedish doctor Claus Samst.
Making herbal bitters and herbal tinctures
It’s true to say that not all tinctures are bitter but essentially all bitters are based on tinctures. That’s to say alcohol is used as a solvent to make a concentrated herbal extract of the active ingredients and the flavor from the plant. You might see the solvent being referred to as the menstruum. Alcohol is a potent solvent and also an effective preservative. It can extract medicinal qualities from a herb that are not extracted by water alone. Although not technically tinctures, non-alcoholic tinctures can be made using vegetable glycerine or apple cider vinegar (glycerites and acetuums). Particularly those using vinegar will need to be stored in the fridge and will only last a few months, while true alcohol tinctures have a shelf life lasting years.
Most alcohol consists of a % of pure alcohol (ethanol) and the rest is water. The alcohol extracts substances that water cannot and vice versa. You can use either.
• 40-50% alcohol (80-90 proof vodka) good for dried material or fresh herbs that aren’t too juicy. Also good for water soluble compounds. Vodka is colorless and odorless so doesn’t interfere with the flavor of the herb
• Mix of ½ vodka and ½ 190 proof grain alcohol. Extracts the most volume of aromatic properties. Good for fresh material particularly high moisture herbs e.g. lemon balm, berries.
• 85-95% (190 proof grain alcohol) which would be used for resins and gums and to extract those aromatics and essential oils that are more tightly bound in the plant.
- Use glass or ceramic jars to steep and store. Metal and plastic can react in time and leech out dangerous chemicals. Important as with any herbal preparation to sterilize the containers and use good hygiene practices.
• Fresh: Chop or grind clean herb to release the juice. Rule of thumb 2/3 - ¾ fill jar with leaves or ¼ - ½ with root. Top off with alcohol. Don’t use wet material as this will dilute the alcohol even further.
• Dried: Fill jar ½ - ¾ with leaves or ¼ - 1/3 with root
- It is important to cover the material completely with alcohol. Don’t leave any exposed to the air or it might mildew.
- Store in a cool dark place and shake several times a week. Add more alcohol of the level drops due to evaporation. I have seen all kinds of steeping times recommended from a 7 days to 2 months. Herbs and spices usually take 7-10 days while dried fruit can take 2-3 weeks.
- Most recipes call for all the ingredients to be added together. But an interesting alternative is to make the infusions separately rather than mixing all together. One advantage is that different ingredients take different amount of time to extract the flavor. But also as a beginner you can really hone in on which ingredients you like. Plus it gives you the opportunity to make a lot of different recipes combinations from the same ingredients.
- Typically use about teaspoon of ingredient to 4 fl oz vodka. Simply cover and set aside.
- Dampen a piece of cheesecloth with boiled water and filter the tincture through a cheesecloth lined funnel and squeeze out the excess. Pour the contents into an amber glass jar.
- As with all things, it is very important to label with date, name, parts used, % alcohol etc.
How to use bitters
- Can be used in cooking soups salad dressings, pumpkin pies and apple pies.
- Try adding angostura bitters to coleslaw, white or cheese sauces, devilled eggs.
- Added just before serving a pot of beans they really lift the flavor, rather like adding sour vinegar.
Submitted by Jacqui Highton
The Herb Society of America - South Texas Unit