The famous Angostura bitters, first made in Venezuela in
the early 19th century. "Photo by Clément Bucco-Lechat -
Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

At this time of year – deep into summer heat and humidity – plus during the Spleen time ruling digestion, there’s a wonderful beverage you can make to help you now: Bitters! The bitter flavor is cooling and dispersing, but it stimulates the release of bile, aiding digestion and elimination. All of these functions are especially perfect for August and September. So roll up your sleeves, pick your herbs, and make some bitters.

But first, what is a bitters drink?

Bitters refers to an alcoholic beverage that’s flavored with herbal essences with a bitter or bittersweet flavor. Bitters were supposedly first compounded in Venezuela in 1824 by German physician, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, as a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies. Historically, monasteries throughout the world made them. Then many were marketed as patent medicines. Now they’re considered digestives or even cocktails.

There are dozens of brands of bitters available today stemming from the original monastery names. Most are alcoholic although it’s possible to find some non-alcoholic ones. Typical herbs include gentian, orange peel, cassia, and quinine (from cinchona bark), although other bitter herbs may be used, such as yarrow flowers, wormwood leaves, dandelion root, artichoke leaf and blessed thistle leaves.  

Bitters benefit digestion because the bitter flavor stimulates the release of bile, helping the breakdown of fat and stimulating peristalsis in the intestines. This in turn helps resolve indigestion, food stagnation, constipation, and poor appetite in those with heat and excess (a tiny bit may be taken by others if balanced with warming or Blood-tonifying herbs).

Following is a simple bitters formula, although you can personalize your bitters and make them to taste using various herbs and spices as desired. There are many recipes available of varying complexity.

To Make Bitters:

Herbs: dandelion, yarrow, chamomile, citrus peel, ginger (this combination is good for weak digestion, constipation, and poor appetite).

Amounts: Use 4 oz. dried whole, cut or powdered herbs, or 8 oz. fresh, to 1 pint alcohol (vodka works well for light bitters; rum or brandy for dark bitters)

  1. Make a standard tincture by first powdering herbs and placing in a glass jar. Pour alcohol over the herbs and cover tightly. Shake the jar daily for two weeks. Strain through cheesecloth, keeping liquid and tossing herbs.
  2. Pour liquid into a bottle or small decanter with lid.
  3. If desired, cut the bitters with water: measure amount of resulting bitters and add half that amount in water.

13. Pour final bitters mix into a dark bottle, label, and store in a cool dark place. Keeps several years.

To Make a Bittersweet Bitters:

Make a syrup and then add the above tincture to it until the desired taste is achieved, up to 25% of the final volume. Syrups could be made with wild cherry bark.

Syrup for Bittersweet Bitters:

Amounts: Use 1 quart water, 2 oz. herbs, and 1 cup honey. Yields about 1 pint syrup.

1) Make tea of desired herbs, either infusion or decoction as appropriate.

2) Slowly simmer tea until only half remains, about a pint.

3) Strain. While simmering on very low heat, add 1 cup honey. Stir until dissolved.

4) After cooling, pour into bitters, mix, bottle, and cap tightly.

Dose for Bitters: Typically bitters are taken anywhere from several drop doses up to 1 teaspoon, 30 minutes before eating. As well, a dash may be added to another drink for flavoring.

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