Bitters: From Medicine Cabinet to Bar Shelf…and back again

Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.
Angelica is a popular aromatic bitter with carminative and spasmolytic actions. Candied angelica stems are also a tasty treat.

There has been a lot of talk of bitters lately as promoting digestion, but many times people are interested in how exactly that occurs.

In a nutshell, when we taste “bitter’ it triggers a physiological process in the body. Salivary secretion is stimulated as is the production of gastric secretions such as pepsin.  Pepsin is an enzyme responsible for breaking proteins in the stomach down into peptides. The presence of these peptides in turn stimulate the release of gastrin. Gastrin is a hormone which stimulates the release of gastric acids and cholecystokinin.  This hormone, in turn,  stimulates the pancreas and gall bladder to release digestive enzymes and bile.

This net result of all this biochemistry is improved digestion and relief of indigestion.  Some herbs have additional actions such as being spasmolytic which means  they relieve spasms in smooth muscle or carminative which means they help to dispel gas.

The earliest documented medicinal use of bitter herbs was in Ancient Egypt where archeologists have been able to determine that herbs and tree resins were steeped in grape wine. All of the major botanical medicine traditions: Greek, Chinese and Āyurvedic incorporated the use of bitter herbs.

In Italy, particularly, the preparations evolved from being medicinal preparations to being routinely served with meals. Amaro  literally means ‘bitter’.  The Italian apéritif Nocino was a medicinal bitter preparation which found its way to Italian monasteries via wandering Celts.  Historians maintain that bitter herbs brewed into malt liquors were used to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations.”

In Britain, bitter preparations began to appear that were made by steeping herbs in alcohol which extracts and concentrates their flavorful constituents. Lash’s Bitters Company began marketing these medicinal preparations in the mid-19th century but after the company moved to San Francisco they found a market for their bitters as a bar room staple in the form and other companies followed suit. Many remember the familiar bottle of Angostura bitters in the liquor closet.

So how does one use bitters “medicinally”?  Traditionally the bitters blends would have been added to soda water. Tonic water is technically a bitters preparation being made with cinchona bark.  However I don’t tend to view them as medicine,  I see them as just another component of a health promoting diet.

Apéritifs can be served  before meals to stimulate the appetite while digestifs are served afterward to aid digestion.  Digestifs tend to be more sweet and heavy than apéritifs, which are light and dry.

It is very easy to make homemade bitters. The following recipe which incorporates locally available herbs was contributed by Iowa City area herbalist, Adrian White, and is sure to be popular with those who enjoy lemon:

Sour Bitters
2 cups fresh red Sumac berries*
2 cups fresh Cedar (or Juniper) berries
2 cups fresh Lemon Verbena leaves
40 oz. High-proof brandy
1/4 cup lemon juice (or to taste) or
1 tbsp. lemon peel

Steep (herbalists call it “macerate”) Sumac, Cedar, Lemon Verbena, and Lemon Peel (if desired) in brandy for minimum of 2 weeks. (Note: A more potent concoction would be made the more herbs are ground down, chopped, or crushed.) Add lemon juice, to find taste profile and sourness you like.

One of my favorite blends is one I make in the fall when I am digging angelica root:

Angelica Bitters
3 oz. fresh angelica root
1 cups fresh basil leaves (common garden variety or Tulsi)
1cups fresh rosemary
2 tbsp. dried orange peel or ¼ cup fresh peel.
2 tbsp. fenugreek seed

Place the herbs in a blender and pour enough 150 proof vodka over the herbs to cover them. Blend the ingredients well. Pour them in a mason jar, cover tightly and let this mixture steep for 3 weeks.

There are an overwhelming number of articles flavoring cocktails with bitters, which neglects the more healthful alternatives. So instead, I’ve come up with a few ways you can use your bitters preparations to make a tasty beverage with negligible alcohol content:

Lassi Digestif
1 1/4 cup frozen fruit
1 cup yogurt
2 tbsp. honey
1/2 teaspoon bitters blend

Mix these ingredients in a blender and enjoy in place of a dessert.

My take on the traditional bitters and soda water :

Bitters and Soda Water
½ tsp homemade bitters
8 ounce glass of sparkling water
1 tsp raw local honey or a few drops of stevia extract
Slice of orange

Add the bitters and orange slice to the sparkling water and stir.

This amount of bitters adds no more alcohol content than an equal amount of vanilla extract would add, so it is safe for children. An adult may adjust the dose to a teaspoon in the case of indigestion. You can also add a few drops to a cup of chamomile tea which has been used traditionally to enhance digestion.

My own personal favorite, which avoids alcohol entirely, is to make a seasoning mixture by grinding dry versions of  bitter herbs and sprinkling this blend on my food in place of salt and pepper.

*Note: make sure the Sumac you use has red berries. Poison Sumac has white berries and should not be touched, harvested or eaten since it is very toxic.

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