A bitters is an alcoholic beverage prepared with herbs and citrus dissolved in alcohol
or glycerine and having a bitter or bittersweet flavour. There are numerous brands
of bitters, which were formerly marketed as patent medicines but are now drunk as
an aperitif to stimulate a person's appetite, or as a digestif to help settle a heavy
meal or alcoholic overindulgence.
Bitters were first developed in the 1820s as a digestive aid, but it also became
popular as a flavouring agent for various alcoholic beverages, most notably pink
gin. Bartenders would first rinse a few drops of aromatic bitters around a glass
before adding the beverage of choice. This tradition of using bitters as a flavour
enhancer is still practised by mixologists today. Classic martini recipes often call
for a swirling of orange-based bitters.
A few drops of bitters can be added to cocktail recipes to enhance the sweetness
of other ingredients, in the same sense that salt can bring out the inherent sweetness
of melons or other fruits. Bitters are usually added in dashes, and a little does
indeed go a long way.
Beverages which could become too sweet, such as lemonade, can be tempered by swirling
a few drops of bitters in the shaker before preparation. Bitters can also be added
to tonic or soda water as a homemade cure for indigestion and other stomach ailments.
While bitters commonly have an alcoholic strength of up to 45%, they are normally
consumed in small amounts, and added as a flavouring agent (similar to vanilla flavouring
which is also dissolved in alcohol.)
Common ingredients in bitters include: angostura bark, cascarilla, cassia, gentian,
orange peel, and quinine. Others are angelica root (A. archangelica), artichoke leaf
(Cynara scolymus), bitter orange peel (Citrus aurantium), blessed thistle leaves
(Cnicus bendicutus), gentian root (Gentiana lutea), goldenseal rhizome (Hydrastis
canadensis), wormwood leaves (Artemisia absinthium) and yarrow flowers (Achillea
millefolium).The flavour of both Angostura bitters and Peychaud's Bitters derives
primarily from gentian, a bitter herb. Bitters are prepared by infusion or distillation,
utilizing aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit for their flavour and medicinal
Angostura Bitters was first compounded in Venezuela in 1824 by a German physician,
who intended it as a remedy for stomach maladies. It was exported to England and
to Trinidad, where it came to be used in a number of cocktails, following its medicinal
use by the British Royal Navy in Pink Gin. Angostura and similar gentian bitters
can be of some value for settling a mild case of nausea. It is used to stimulate
the appetite, either for food or for cocktails. Used in both apéritifs and digestifs,
it will settle one's stomach before a meal or before a night of drinking.
Angostura Bitters was named after the town of Angostura in Venezuela. It contains
no angostura bark, a medicinal bark which is named after the same town.
Used as the "starter" ingredient in a Pink Gin, where a splash (or two) of Angostura
Bitters is swirled around the inner surface of a tumbler before adding a generous
measure of London Gin. The resulting drink is so named from the colour imparted by
the Bitters. In addition to the options of drinking a Pink straight, it may also
be consumed with a little water, still or sparkling. Real connoisseurs of the Pink
Gin even have preference for drinking it "in" or "out" - referring to whether the
remaining dribble of Bitters (after the glass has been "pinked") is left in or poured
away, before the Gin is added
A large tumbler, similarly "pinked", and filled with sparkling lemonade, results
in a drink known as a Campbell. This is regarded by some as a pleasant and refreshing
way to relieve a little of the sweetness of lemonade, the same drink with added lime
cordial is called "lemon, lime and bitters" in Australia, and is available both as
a mixed drink in bars and as a ready-made bottled soft drink.
Peychaud's Bitters is associated with New Orleans, Louisiana, and the Sazerac cocktail.
It, too, is a gentian based bitters, with a subtly different and sweeter taste than
the Angostura brand.
Orange bitters are made from the rinds of unripe oranges. Orange bitters is often
called for in some older cocktail recipes.
Medicinal quantities of quinine were occasionally used in old cocktail recipes. Quinine
is still found in much lower concentrations in tonic water, used today mostly in
drinks with gin.