Bitters are highly concentrated mixtures of fruit, herbal and vegetable extracts with a distinct bitter flavour, used in very small quantities to add flavour to mixed drinks. Their origin is distinctly dubious – coming, as they did, from the craze for elixirs and ‘cure-alls’ of the 18th and 19th century. These “patent medicines” or nostrums were an evolution of old-style tinctures produced by apothecaries and contained extracts of many different herbs, roots, barks and leaves with supposed medicinal qualities. They were one of the first products to take advantage of marketing and advertising, with slogans like “accept no substitutes” coming from that era. Newly discovered plants from the Americas were often lauded as the active ingredients, with mystical stories woven around the extracts and their properties (“Snake Oil” was one such exotic but useless addition, giving rise to the term ‘snake-oil merchant’). Many of the actual health benefits (if any) came from more mundane and well-known additives like aspirin or even opium.
While there were some shysters trying to make a fast buck from naive townsfolk there were many bitters brands that caught a genuine following. The familiar Angostura Bitters, for example, were initially produced by Dr Johann Siegert as a stomach settler and general tonic for Simón Bolivar’s Venezuelan army. Dr. Siegert’s concoction, like many others, would be mixed with water or neutral alcohol when taken. The use of bitters as a digestive aid was quickly associated with alcoholic drinks like The Pink Gin and eventually bitters became a key ingredient of the first cocktails. Indeed, early usage of the word ‘cocktail’ as a sub-category of mixed drink described a combination of spirit, sugar, water and bitters and in the cocktail heyday of the 19th century many bars began producing their own recipe bitters. Usage died out during prohibition and only Angostura really survived through its popularity elsewhere in the world. Nowadays there are many companies producing bitters – both resurrecting old, forgotten styles and releasing new flavours. Bartenders are once again experimenting with their own in-house recipes.