A bitters (plural also bitters) is traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavored with botanical matter so that the end result is characterized by a bitter, 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 often 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 flavor 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 brands and styles.
The origins of bitters go back to the ancient Egyptians, who may have infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine. This practice was further developed during the Middle Ages, when the availability of distilled alcohol coincided with a renaissance in pharmacognosy, which made possible more-concentrated herbal bitters and tonic preparations. Many of the brands and styles of digestive bitters today reflect herbal stomachic and tonic preparations whose roots are claimed to be traceable back to Renaissance-era pharmacopoeia 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 a 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 best 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, present-day Ciudad Bolívar, in Venezuela. In 1824, German physician Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert compounded a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies, among other medicinal uses. 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 was originally developed by apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud in New Orleans, Louisiana, and is most commonly associated with the Sazerac cocktail.
A popular style of bitters that emerged from the period is orange bitters, the flavor of which ranges from dryly aromatic to fruity, and which is most commonly made from the rinds of Seville oranges and spices. Orange bitters are commonly called for in older cocktail recipes. An early recipe for such bitters is 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 masked the medicine's intensely bitter flavor. 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 in many European and South American countries either neat or with ice at the end of a meal. Many, including popular Italian-style amaros and German-style Kräuterlikörs, are often used in cocktails as well.
Some notable examples of modern digestive bitters include:
- Alomo Bitters (Ghana, Nigeria)
- Amaro Averna (Caltanissetta, Italy)
- Amaro Lucano (Pisticci, Italy)
- Amaro Montenegro (Bologna, Italy)
- Amaro Ramazzotti (Asti, Italy)
- Amaro Sibilla (Marche, Italy)
- Aperol (Padova, Italy)
- Araucano (Valparaíso, Chile)
- Balsam (Eastern Europe)
- Becherovka (Czech Republic)
- Beerenburg (Netherlands)
- Blutwurz (Bavaria)
- Braulio (Valtellina, Italy)
- Calisaya (United States)
- Campari (Novara-Milan, Italy)
- Cynar (Padova-Milan, Italy)
- Fernet-Branca (Milan, Italy)
- Fernet Stock (Italy-Czech Republic)
- Gammel Dansk (Denmark)
- Gran Classico Bitter (Switzerland)
- Jägermeister (Germany)
- Jeppson's Malört (United States)
- Killepitsch (Düsseldorf, Germany)
- Kuemmerling (Germany)
- Pelinkovac (Balkans)
- Quinquina (France – originally from South America)
- Rabarbaro Zucca (Milan, Italy)
- 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 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.
Some notable examples of cocktail bitters include:
- 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, and essential to the Martinez cocktail
- Peychaud's Bitters – originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, but now produced in Kentucky
- Flavored liquor – Alcoholic beverage with added flavoring and, in some cases, a small amount of added sugar
- Gentian (spirit)
- Purl – Alcoholic beverage
- Shrub (drink) – Fruit liqueur or vinegared syrup cordial
- Swedish bitters
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- Abbott, Edward (1864). The English and Australian Cookery Book.
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- "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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