From Medicine to Cocktail Ingredient: A Brief History of Bitters

Posted by Wine Gourmet on

We all know alcohol isn’t real medicine, but once upon a time… cocktails kinda were. You’re probably wondering what in the world we’re referring to: that would be bitters. Their brief history from a medicinal treatment to cocktail ingredient might just be your conversation starter for the holiday season! 

Taste receptors on our tongue are responsible for stimulating taste and allowing us to differentiate between flavors that are savory, sweet, salty, bitter and so on. As for the bitter taste receptors, evolutionary speaking, they acted as a signal to the body to avoid consuming particular plants before the body possessed the enzymes to break them down. Several naturally occurring bitter compounds are toxic and the body’s ability to identify them was an imperative function in staying alive. Not to mention, the bitter taste is among the most sensitive and is often considered harsh and distasteful to some.

When something bitter is eaten these taste receptors signal the digestive track to basically start doing it’s thing… oddly enough, resulting in improved digestive function. Take the herb Wormwood for example, more commonly known as one of the ingredients in absinthe; it contains essential oils that are used for treating various digestive problems and infections. Dating back to Ancient Egyptians, things like wormwood and willow bark (better known as aspirin) have been used for their medicinal healing properties by extracting the pure compounds and using them in concentrated doses.

Bitter leaves, roots, and plants began to make their way into 18th and 19th century pharmacies as common medicinal remedies. One of the most well known bitters, Angostura, was one cultivated in 1824 by a German doctor that was surgeon general of the Venezuelan army. She found that it aided in soothing the soldiers upset stomachs. Because of its bitter, concentrated flavor, people eventually began diluting the strong taste of bitters with soda water or gin and thus the era of cocktail bitters was born. No one’s exactly sure when it went from being a medicinal treatment to a cocktail ingredient…. we’re just happy it happened! Now you see what we mean by saying cocktails were kinda like medicine, right?

As time has passed, bitters have become a more prominent cocktail ingredient and are making resurgence back into the mixology scene. Strongwater explains, “Bitter flavored foods have long been valued for a unique ability to cleanse the body and build vitality. Studies have confirmed that getting an adequate amount bitter flavor is important for digestive balance and linked with many related health benefits”. Born from the inspiration of these apothecary-style drinks, Strongwater offers an array of herbal bitters with a range of health benefits. Including an Herbal Bitters Sampler Pack with FIVE different bitters to sample so you can be a part of their mission to “heal the soul and spruce the cocktail”. They even have an in-house master mixologist that creates delicious cocktail recipes using their bitters! Check them out here

If you're interested in the benefits of each bitter in the sampler pack, Strongwater has provided a thorough list of each! Check it out below!

Our award-winning Golden Turmeric Bitters combines turmeric, cardamom, sassafras and cinnamon to create an earthy and warming bitter with a myriad of health benefits to boot.

  • anti-inflammatory properties combining turmeric
  • both turmeric and cinnamon are powerful antioxidants, serving to scavenge free radicals and preventing disease
  • cinnamon reduces blood sugar
  • decreases LDL cholesterol and increases HDL cholesterol
  • cardamom decreases blood pressure
  • effective cardiovascular tonic.

Sweet Riza lives up to its name, distinguishing itself from other bitters on the market with the bold flavors of licorice and anise. The scientific name for licorice, Glycyrrhiza glabra, literally means “sweet root” and our bitter captures the essence of licorice, one of the most versatile herbs in the Western herbal pharmacopeia. The use of licorice goes back as least as far as the ancient Egyptians and was found in great quantities in the tomb of King Tut among his gold, jewelry and art treasures.

  • licorice is a powerful antiviral, soothing the digestive tract with its mucus membrane anti-inflammatory properties, supporting the adrenal glands
  • rose hips, the fruit of the rose plant is one of the highest sources of vitamin C
  • Anise also calms the digestive tract
  • yellow dock serves as a blood builder, its high iron content assists the body in the formation of red blood cells

Our Fire Tamer Bitters targets your digestive woes by combining three herbs well-known for their ability to squash nausea and stomach upset on the spot with ginger, clove, fennel, and lemon.

  • stimulates the release of enzymes and bile, aiding in digestion
  • both ginger and clove act as powerful anti-inflammatories
  • ginger and fennel are anti-microbial, stopping bacteria and viruses in their tracks

Our Amores cacao vanilla bitters are made by infusing cacao nibs and vanilla bean with a whole lot of love (and, of course, some bitter herbs). Cacao—raw and unprocessed chocolate—is quickly becoming one of the most well-known superfoods, having one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants of all foods (20 times the antioxidants found in blueberries, to be exact).

  • Cacao acts as a powerful mood booster, raising levels of neurotransmitters and causing endorphins to be released
  • these same compounds which improve our mood act, biochemically, as aphrodisiacs; helping to improve libido
  • cacao is extremely high in magnesium, an essential mineral that dilates blood vessels, relaxing skeletal and smooth muscle, and leads to feelings of mental and physical relaxation and calm
  • milk thistle protects the cells of the liver as well as reverse liver damage

Our Native Floral Bitters gives a whole new meaning to “taste the Rockies.” Combining the relaxing properties of lavender, chamomile and vervain with the immune-stimulating and anti-inflammatory effects of calendula, this bitter is sure to help you wind down after a long day.

  • Lavender, chamomile and vervain induce feelings of calm and improve sleep
  • Lavender and vervain are effective natural treatments for both anxiety and depression

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