What is Bitters?

| December 28, 2012

A part of many cocktails, bitters has seen a serious resurgence in the last few years. With a wide array of variations and a favorite of many bittersmixologists, it begs the question… What is Bitters?

In actuality, bitters is an alcoholic beverage flavored with herbal essences that delivers a bitter or bittersweet flavor. Formerly marketed as medicine, these concoctions are not simply used to add an interesting twist of flavor, but are now considered to be digestifs. Prepared by infusion or distillation, bitters use aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit for their flavor.

Some common ingredients include orange peel, gentian, cascarilla, and quinine from cinchona bark (grown in Peru and Indonesia). The flavor of the ever-popular Angostura bitters is derived primarily from gentian, a bitter herb. First compounded in Venezuela in 1824 by German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, Angostura bitters was prescribed as a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies and Dr. Siegert subsequently formed the House of Angostura, a company selling the bitters to sailors.

It was exported to England and Trinidad, where it first came to be used in a number of cocktails, following its medicinal use by the Royal Navy in Pink Gin. An interesting beginning for certain!