From an Old Fashioned to Bloody Mary, a dash of bitters plays a vital role in the flavor profile of your cocktail. However, bitters actually had a more medicinal start. In 1824, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert created Angostura bitters and sold the bitters to sailors to cure sea sickness and other stomach maladies. Bitters can stimulate the appetite, settle the stomach and make great apéritifs and digestifs.
But what are bitters exactly? What are the health benefits and can they make a cocktail more healthy?
Bitters are a grouping of herbs with a predominantly bitter taste. They can range from more mellow plants like dandelion leaf to gentian. The part of the plant used is usually the leaves, stems or roots, fresh or dried. There are different types of bitters; some are made using glycerin base like Fee Brothers, some are made using synthetic flavorings and dyes, and some are made using flavor oils.
To learn more the health benefits associated with bitters, I asked Shea Whitney, owner of DRAM Apothecary in Silver Plume. Dram crafts their bitters to offer healing benefits, in addition to being great in cocktails. Plants in the bitters grouping contain principles such as volatile oils and alkaloids which trigger sensory responses in the mouth. A message is then sent to the gut initiating the production of the digestive hormone Gastrin as well as other digestive juices from the pancreas, duodenum and liver. In short, they kick start the digestive process and work wonders if you are suffering from a stomach ache, gas pains, overeating, allergy distorted digestion, indigestion or a sour stomach. Think back to those sailors! For these reasons, bitters are often enjoyed around the world as a digestif or digestivo following a meal.
When it comes to using bitters in cocktails, Shea says, “bitters work their magic by adding that ‘missing something’ to balance out a cocktail. Think of bitters like the salt and pepper of cocktail mixing. Without them in some drinks, you might find the taste flat, overly sweet or unbalanced. The addition of bitters can bring the mixture into a delicious harmony.”
Bitters were originally intended to offer healing benefits and as a way to preserve the summer harvest of medicinal plants. Bitters add something to a cocktail and are good for you, so mix some up!