The term bitters refers to alcohol-based extracts of the bark, leaves, roots, or flowers of bitter-tasting plants that have been used medicinally since ancient times for digestive ailments. You may also encounter bitters at bars, in the form of apéritifs or digestifs and as ingredients in both traditional and trendy cocktails. Here are other historical facts about bitters:
- Traces of bitters have been found on pottery jars from an ancient tomb in Egypt, and the Romans have been noted to have infused their wines with bitter herbs to try to boost good digestion and counteract the effects of overeating, as they were wont to do.
- Bitters were historically popular in England, where they were used in a drink called Canary wine. The practice of using herbal bitters caught on in the American colonies, as well, especially with the rise of the cocktail. Angostura bitters, which continue to be a key component of many cocktails today, were originally promoted as a stomach remedy in 19th century America.
- During the temperance movement of the early 19th century, bitters were added to poor-quality spirits to make them taste better—or alcohol was added to bitters to help patients better tolerate the medicinal treatment.
- In the late 1800s, Moxie—a bitters-containing carbonated soft drink—was popular as a “cure-all” that didn’t contain alcohol or cocaine (as Coca-Cola did then). It’s still around today and is the oldest continually produced soft drink in the United States.
Also see Alcohol in Cocktails.