LAUREN CARTER (this article was first published September 6, 2012)
With ingredients like quassia, snakeroot, gentian, and calamus, bitters are a mysterious concoction that harkens back to yesteryear. Although they are now a cocktail ingredient easily purchased at your local liquor store, bitters were originally used to cure such maladies as gout, stomach pains, jaundice, sea-sickness, and malaria. “…Bitters bridged the boundary between the home-prepared remedies of early modern times and the mass-produced pharmaceuticals of the 19th century,”* writes author Richard Barnett. In a sense, bitters symbolize the dawn of the modern age of medicine.
So, when did bitters transform from panacea into barman’s friend? It seems as though the lack of government oversight during the 18th and 19th centuries created an opening in the market for vast numbers of bitters manufacturers, all of which sold their product as medication claiming to cure all ills. It was only a matter of time before the alcoholic benefits began to overtake the medicinal ones. The 1883 New York Times piece, “Whisky or Medicine: A Question Which Has Worried the Internal Revenue Bureau”, articulates a shift in the consumption of bitters at the time. According to the article, the IRS Commissioner ruled that Hostetter’s Bitters would be subject to state liquor taxes if sold as liquor and not, “if in good faith”, they were sold as a medicine. Many people hoping to avoid state liquor taxes began to drink shots of bitters on a regular basis. “The increased taxes on the sale of alcohol coupled with the rise of the early temperance movement actually helped bitters’ popularity…It was considered normal behavior to have a daily nip of stomach bitters whose real kick and purported medical benefits were lubricated with high-proof alcohol,” writes Brad Thomas Parsons.
Nowadays, we’re definitely not taking bitters as medicine nor are we drinking them to take advantage of their alcoholic content. (It would be a little bit like drinking shots of vanilla extract.) Instead, they are a bit of color, scent, and taste added to a cocktail to accentuate the flavors of the drink. Although bitters have transformed in many ways, the bitters of today are still made with the same ingredients as those panaceas of earlier times.
- Hostetter’s Bitters are advertised as medicine in this vintage bitters advertisement.
The roots, bark, and herbs that form the basis of most bitters recipes can be found from many online herb suppliers. Interestingly, there seems to be an overlap in the market for bitters and Wiccan potion supplies. For instance, gentian is a bitter root used in many of the most common bitters recipes. However, according to the sellers of Wicca products, it is also used in spells to increase “…love, power, and to remove hexes or curses.” This explains the strange phone conversation I had with a Whole Foods employee a few years ago when I first decided to make some bitters.— I called to ask about a few basic ingredients that seemed typical of the Whole Foods bulk aisle. The employee on the other end of the line responded with a slight giggle and a teasing drawl, “You are making a love potion.” To be completely honest, I felt a tinge of embarrassment. Although Whole Foods didn’t have the dried galangal that I asked for that afternoon, I did venture to the store a few days later to buy some dried rose petals, lavender flowers, orange peel, and mint leaves. As the cashier weighed each little plastic bag, I immediately stated the aims of my project. “I’m making bitters”.
If you are interested in making some of your own bitters at home, here is a copy of the first recipe that I used to make my first batch of bitters. It is from John Paul Deragon, a mixologist who used to work for PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York City. Deragon’s bitters are incredibly easy to make, and you don’t even have to wait very long before tasting the fruits of your labor. The normal steeping time for bitters is two weeks, whereas these bitters only take 12 hours. Use them in place of the traditional Angostura bitters or Peychaud’s bitters in your favorite cocktails or simply invent your own cocktail recipe.
- 180 g grain alcohol (like Everclear)
- 60 g fresh grapefruit zest in strips without the white pith
- 10 g fresh grapefruit zest with white pith
- 10 g fresh lemon zest
- 4 g fresh ginger cut into slices
- 5 g dried gentian
- 1 g dried peppermint leaves
- 5 g dried lavender flowers
- 30 g water
- 3 tbs. sugar
Combine all ingredients except for the sugar in a large mason jar.
Let it sit for at least twelve hours.
Using a fine mesh sieve, strain the mixture and discard the solids.
In a saucepan melt the sugar until it becomes very dark brown.
Add 1/4 cup water, stir until dissolved and turn off the heat.
Add 3 teaspoons of this burnt sugar syrup to the bitters along with 1/4 cup water.