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.