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What are Bitters?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 16, 2024
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Bitters are distilled alcoholic beverages strongly infused with the essences of aromatic herbs and roots. Common ingredients include gentian, quinine, orange peels and Angostura bark. Although the alcohol content can reach 45% or higher, most consumers only use a few drops at a time to enhance their appetites, flavor other distilled spirits such as gin, or to settle their stomachs after a heavy dinner.

First developed in the 1820s as a digestive aid, bitters also became popular as a flavoring 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 them as a flavor enhancer is still practiced by mixologists today. Classic martini recipes often call for a swirling of orange-based bitters.

Customers of traveling medicine shows during the 19th century were often buying highly concentrated distilled spirits containing bitters. These patent medicines, usually sold as miracle elixirs, did actually serve a few medical purposes. A small sampling could be served as an aperitif to stimulate a person's appetite, or as a digestif to help settle a heavy meal or alcoholic overindulgence.

Bitters are still sold today in many grocery stores, either with other condiments like Worcestershire sauce or with beverage mixers such as grenadine. A few drops can be added to 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.

They are primarily used in the preparation of cocktails, so it helps to keep a bottle of Angostura bitters in a well-stocked wet bar. Beverages that could become too sweet, such as lemonade, can be tempered by swirling a few drops of bitters in the shaker before preparation. They can also be added to tonic or soda water as a homemade cure for indigestion and other stomach ailments.

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Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By serenesurface — On Dec 03, 2014

In some countries, bitters are part of traditional holiday celebrations. Especially in winter, bitters containing warming spices and seasonal fruits are made. Cinnamon, ginger and clove based bitters with oranges or tangerines is a popular flavor for winter bitters. Some winter versions are actually served warm, to accentuate the warming effects.

There are also summer versions that are served ice cold with summer fruits like peaches, cherries or raspberries.

By literally45 — On Dec 02, 2014

@bear78-- Whether bitters have a therapeutic effect on the stomach depends on what it contains. Some herb based bitters can settle an upset stomach. There are numerous herbs that can help with these types of ailments. And keep in mind that many herbal extracts are in fact concentrated bitters-- herbs that are extracted in alcohol.

Of course, alcohol is not beneficial for the stomach. Bitters are meant to be consumed in small amounts. Large amounts will do harm by causing stomach acidity and indigestion, in addition to all of the other negative effects of alcohol on various organs.

By bear78 — On Dec 02, 2014

Alcohol tends to give me upset stomach so I'm surprised to know that bitters were used to settle the stomach. I don't think they're used for that purpose today and if they are, I'm not sure if they work. Bitters may clean the palate. I know that they are used often for this purpose in Europe in between dinner and dessert. It clears the flavors of the dinner so that dessert can be enjoyed better. But I don't think that they can really settle an upset stomach.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to DelightedCooking, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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