For more than a thousand years, concentrated extractions of plants—bitters—have been used to support health and well-being, to add flavor, and to stimulate the senses all over the world. The earliest use of bitters was for medicine to treat a wide range of ailments from digestive issues to the common cold. By the early 1800s, the use of bitters evolved to become a key ingredient of cocktails.
Every plant has its own unique properties and intriguing flavors, and their preparation varies widely. Botanical bitters can involve using bark, roots, seeds, flowers, fruits, or even the entire plant. The results can be consumed on their own as a tisane (hot water infusion), as a tincture (a concentrated single plant extract), or added to cocktails and culinary innovations.
Most often, bitters are prepared by infusing botanical material in a fermented base, such as grain alcohol, fruit wine, or beer, which extracts, concentrates, and preserves the plants’ properties. Other methods of producing bitters include steam distillation of the essential oils in plants or hot water extraction. Each method produces distinct results, which means that the final scent, flavor, and stability of those qualities will vary according to how they were prepared.
Ultimately, the creation of bitters serves to pull out flavor and therapeutic compounds—known as phytochemicals or secondary metabolites—from botanical material into a liquid. While we can benefit from the taste or the physical effects the phytochemicals provide, plants produce them for different reasons: for protection and communication.
As the name suggests, most of these creations have a bitter taste. This, however, is an oversimplification, because they can also contain elements that are sweet, sour, mineral, and umami (savory). They contain hundreds of aromatic compounds that can direct the sensory experience of a drink.
Health Benefits of Betters
Bitters have been used since prehistoric times, and bitter infusions of medicinal plants are still widely used to treat and prevent illness in health-care systems around the world. Today, approximately seven thousand modern medicines are derived from bitter plant medicines. Bitters can be classified on the basis of their physiological effects on the human body, with digestive bitters being among the largest class.
The bitterness of bitters mostly comes from some well-known phytochemical classes: alkaloids, phenols, polyphenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates. All of these are also known for health benefits, including having anti-fungal, antiseptic, antidepressant, cardio-protective, hormone regulating, immune boosting, and blood sugar-regulating properties. Among the most powerful effects for preventative health are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity; because inflammation can lead to chronic diseases and many types of cancer, it’s not surprising both botanists and doctors are looking to bitters.
Less than 20 percent of commonly used medicinal plants have been comprehensively researched for their efficacy, and even among those that have been researched, it is another story when they come to be mixed in bitters. A bitters made of whole herbs of caraway, fennel, and anise, for instance, is known to have antispasmodic activities, but the isolated essential oils of each of the plants do not have this function and can even induce an opposite effect.
Bitter tasting compounds often are helpful to the digestive system. The bitter reflex can be thought of as a series of stimulation and secretion throughout the body. The appetite and certain mechanisms repairing the lining of the intestines are stimulated, and enzymes and bile that aid detoxification, plus pancreatic hormones that regulate blood sugar, are secreted.
This explains why digestive bitters are one of the largest classes of bitters in traditional medicinal systems, known to help with constipation, gas, bloating, loose stools, food allergies, and acid reflux. In addition, the bitter reflex is considered to improve nutrient and mineral absorption, increase the appetite, promote healthy blood sugar levels, protect liver function, and heal inflammatory damage to the intestinal walls.
Digestive bitters can be taken before or after a meal, depending on their function and flavor. Many digestive bitters are taken before a meal to prepare the body for eating; other digestive bitters with strong aromatic profiles are taken after a meal to help digestion as well as to freshen the breath.
Bitters, herbs, and other therapeutic products used to relieve bloating and intestinal gas are known as carminatives. Many carminatives have rich volatile essential oils; for example, peppermint oil has been shown to serve a carminative role to relieve bloating. Likewise, the peel of bitter orange is frequently found in bitters not only as a flavoring agent but also as a mild carminative.
Several species in the celery family, Apiaceae, have seeds with known carminative effects that are often taken following meals. These include fennel, anise, dill, caraway, and cardamom; “Mukhwas” in India and amaros in Italy are popular after-dinner examples.
Bitters for Stress
There is a long history of botanicals being used for their anti-anxiety and relaxant properties. Exactly how they work varies from compound to compound, but broadly speaking, they tend to work one a few ways.
Adaptogenic bitters boost your body’s ability to adapt and recover, improving your general well-being. Some common adaptogenic ingredients are ashwaganda, American ginseng, and Siberian ginseng.
Other bitters have a more targeted effect. Anxiolytics, for instance, are mild sedatives that relieve apprehension without affecting the body’s faculties as a whole. Sedative plants in general can function as analgesics (relieving symptoms of pain); common examples are often found in bitter tonics include hops, valerian, wormwood, chamomile, and mugwort. There are also nervine remedies, which means the plants have a calming effect on nerves and stress.
An International Tradition of Betters
Before written history, people around the world were trading plants for infusing into beverages. Grains, succulents, fruit, herbs, and honey were the building blocks of innovation for mixed plant extracts that served a wide variety of medicinal, social, and ritualistic purposes. Around the world, the evolution of human societies and culture correlated with feasting and fermented beverages.
It’s time for the term “bitters” to be decoupled from the branding that has shaped our ideals and be redefined in a global context. Bitters reflect identity, stories, and their local botanical cornucopia. Call them what you want—elixirs, tonics, mixed extracts, digestifs, herbal liqueur, vermouths, or amaros—here, we’re analyzing the world’s botany at the bar through bitters.
Ancient Egypt: Ancient Egypt possessed a treasure trove of plant uses—including fermented beverages and bitters—and many of today’s common foods had surprising applications at the time. For example, onion skins were used for covering the eyes during embalming. Ancient Egyptians had a refined system of preparing herbal infusions in grape wine that dates back more than five thousand years. Scientists have discovered herbs, like blue tansy and coriander through chemical analysis of artifacts, which has helped them trace these ancient recipes back farther than the written record. Archaeologists have identified a mid-first millennium recipe from ancient Egypt known as kyphi which was used as an incense or mixed with wine and honey as a bitters beverage. Tree resins, including myrrh, fir, terebinth, and pine, were also used in ancient Egyptian medicinal and alcoholic formulas, and are still popular today.
West Africa: Many people of this region consume bitters on a daily basis, regarding them as cleansing restorers that can bring their bodies more energy and strength. The persistence of bitters in the Americas, especially around the Caribbean, the southern United States, and Brazil, is directly related to the cultural importance of bitters in West Africa. Ethnobotanist Tinde van Andel documented hundreds of species used for bitters in Suriname by people of West African descent. The translocation of plants from the Americas to West Africa is also evident—in monasteries in Togo, you’ll sometimes find avocado leaf vermouth, nodding to Aztec traditional knowledge.
Southern Africa: Boasting the third most biodiverse region of the world and more than five thousand medicinal plants, the arid landscapes of southern Africa are rich in medicinal, resinous, and aromatic plants. Aloe bitters were developed by the San and may be among the most ancient bitters on record, as well as the first bitters exported to Europe. Devil’s claw tubers (Harpagophytum) or Terminalia gum provide medicinal bitters. Melons and bulbs are insanely bitter, sweet, and aromatic, with uses spanning perfumes, food, and digestive tonics.
China: Vessels in Chinese tombs have provided evidence of surprisingly similar recipes to those found in Egypt. Evidence suggests that the earliest stored alcohol in China was a mixed grain-and-fruit mead with herbs dating back more than nine thousand years. Scholars believe that the grain used for this alcoholic infusion was rice and millet and that the fruit was hawthorn (which contributes acidity much like wine grapes). The flavors of these early infusions came from wild wormwoods, chrysanthemums, and basils. These ingredients remain important in the hundreds of botanical blends currently used in contemporary Chinese alcohols, known as jiu, which offer dessert like, vegetal, or extremely bitter medicinal experiences.
Traditional Chinese medicine distinguishes functional entities such as chi/qi (energy) or xue (blood), where imbalances such as too much yin (storing), and yang (propulsive) can be treated with bitters. The greater function of bitter tonics in TCM, however, is prevention instead of cure.
Other Chinese indigenous medicinal systems have an extensive history of using fermented beverages with botanicals, both for public events and to bond with friends and family during rituals that include engagements, funerals, and ancestor worship. Unfermented, steeped bitters beverages are also cultural keystones, such as yak butter tea, infused with different herbs and smoky tea, depending on the region.
India: The immense Himalayas offer not only an awe-inspiring sight, but an intriguing location for medicinal and aromatic plants. Growing conditions there are challenging, and, during fieldwork, several of our hosts told us that plants from higher ground make the most nutritious, efficacious, and tasty bitters. This is because high ultraviolet stress at high elevation requires the plants to produce more protective antioxidants.
India is home to seven regions, each with their own unique biodiversity. Local flora are often transformed into bitter tonics by juicing, boiling, cold infusions, or extractions in fat, following heritage Ayurvedic principles. Of India’s forty-five thousand or so flowering plant species, more than three thousand are documented for their therapeutic potential, including for bitter tonics—an exceptionally high proportion.
Mesopotamia: Along with ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia (now modern Iraq) produced some of the world’s earliest recordings of botanical medical treatments. Renowned for its botanical and brewing cultures, it is here that the fertile plains between the Tigris River and Euphrates River boasted beloved tree species, such as walnut, almond, and apricot.
Alcohol brewing took the form of fermenting date fruit syrup with herbs and honey in a Sumerian ale. The climate was inviting, meaning it could support plants from a similar latitudinal range in Europe, north Africa, and Asia. Trade allowed ancient Mesopotamians to take advantage of their favorable setting, and the result was an extraordinarily culturally and biologically diverse cuisine and beverage. The possibilities for concocting bitters here seemed to be endless, and herbal remedies and tonics of Mesopotamia addressed both the physical and spiritual components of disease. Two classes of practitioners—the asu, who were trained in therapeutic medicine, and the ashipu, who practiced divinatory medicine—employed bitter infusions both for drinking and rubbing into the skin. Many of these Babylonian bitters are still used in Iraq today.
Ancient Greece: Ancient Greeks enhanced the flavor of grape wine by infusing it with resins, herbs, spices, oil, perfume, seawater, and brine (a salt solution). This botanically infused wine served many purposes in ancient Greece, including the economic, the social, the religious, and the medical. Medicinally, botanically infused wine was used as a digestive aid, tonic, and painkiller. These flavor-enhancing practices inspired modern-day retsina, mulled wine, and vermouth.
The ancient Greeks were known for their delicious infused wines, but their elixirs with bitter herbs were considered to have near-magical properties. The term elixir has its roots in the Greek word xerion meaning “healing powder,” used for life-prolonging properties or immortality. In the alchemical text Isis to Horus, the prophetess Isis gives her son an elixir referred to as the “drug of the widow” for immortality. Isis herself represents an elixir in ancient mythology as the “water of life” and “dew” that heals and unites the dismembered parts. The right botanicals were, in themselves, a spiritual symbol.
Italy: The Etruscans relied on eleven plants in their herbal cabinets for healing, magical, and religious practice. The most central plant, gentian, remains dominant even today in Italian culture.
Gentian is still one of the most common plants found in modern bitters and is almost certain to be a foundational ingredient in alcohols served during the Italian apertivo hour, such as in amaros (translated as “bitter”). Gentian’s fame rests in the fact that it contains one of the most bitter compounds known to human kind—amarogentin. Valued for stimulating the liver and appetite, gentian is also used to aid digestion, increase red blood cell production, and boost the immune system.
South America: The thick jungles of the Amazon, with lianas, hallucinogenic plants, and shamans, are probably the images most frequently used to represent medicinal plants of South America, and many of the bitter plants continue to mark cultures there to this day. The Peruvian flag even includes two medicinal bitter plants from the Amazon forest: cinchona (quina; Cinchona spp.) and sarrapia (Dipteryx odorata). Both were first used by various Amazonian ethnic groups and eventually became two of the key ingredients of Amargo Chuncho, or Peruvian Chuncho Bitters.
The bark of cinchona trees is the source of one of the most well-known bitter compounds from South America: quinine. The Quechua Amerindians indigenous to Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador prepared tonic water with the ground bark of cinchona trees as a muscle relaxant. The Jesuits learned about the powers of cinchona during their work in South America and introduced dried cinchona bark to Europe in the sixteenth century. Initially used in Europe to treat diarrhea, by the seventeenth century, it was used to treat malaria.
Mexico: When the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez encountered the Aztecs in modern-day Mexico, he was offered a bitter-tasting drink the color of blood. The last reigning Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, was said to consume at least fifty servings of this drink daily. This drink was chocolate, prepared as a bitter infusion. This was the first time Europeans had encountered chocolate, made from the dried and fermented roasted beans of Theobroma cacao (meaning “cacao, food of the gods”).
Although native to the Amazon, chocolate, or cacao, moved north into meso-America through early trade routes and was domesticated along the way. Indian corn, beer, and cacao became central components of feasting culture in Mezoamerica. Cacao was also blended with other botanicals to create both medicinal and recreational drinks. The Maya created a cacao porridge that they thickened with cornmeal, sweetened with honey, and decorated with achiote and chili peppers for a complex floral and spicy flavor.
The Caribbean: The Caribbean islands have produced a myriad of bitters, including those made of rice bitters, cerasee (Momordica charantia), and aloe vera. Rice bitters are not actually made of rice but from the bitter herb Andrographis paniculata, also called the king of bitters, which is thought to have been brought into Jamaica by Vietnamese refugees.
Many of the Caribbean bitters are prepared as bush teas and have become one of the most socially accepted forms of medicine in the region, forming part of daily rituals and consumed by people of all ages. The Caribbean enjoys a traditional medicinal system rife with spiritual stories and rituals and bitters form a central part, meaning that consuming them is a cultural norm. Many of the herbs used in bitters are not only ingested but used in the form of bitters baths to treat the body externally.
Oceania: Oceania has a fascinating history of bitter medicinal tonics and fermentation developed by Aboriginal peoples, drawing on the incredible floras spanning tropical, rainforest, marine, desert, and high mountain ecosystems. Early on, sugar-containing plant parts, such as banksia flowers, gum tree sap, quandong roots, and pandan nuts, were set in water to ferment. Researchers are now chasing these recipes; their recovery could help us understand how Oceania’s innovations affected the evolution of the human palate.
Australia: It is hard to talk about the plants of Australia without mentioning the aromatic and quick-growing eucalyptus. There are a stunning seven hundred species. The sap of Eucalyptus gunnii was the source of the earliest Australian alcohol.
When British fleets arrived in Australia, they used peppermint gum from the Eucalyptus piperita tree in teas and tonics. The flavor was reminiscent of mint, and the effects were more medicinal. Today, eucalyptus notes dominate some of the boldest commercial bitters and are once again gaining steam on the international market. Other native plants in the same family as the eucalyptus, the Myrtaceae, include nutmeg and clove, which make delicious bitters for cocktails.
South Pacific Islands: The biodiversity of botanicals of the South Pacific Islands was enhanced when tectonic plates, each with their own independently evolved flora, crashed together to form the volcanic ring of fire. Today’s South Pacific is a mixture of indigenous, tropical Asian, European, and global influences that contribute to the myriad of botanical infusions used for medicine, sustenance, and pleasure. An astonishingly high 20 percent of the flora of the South Pacific Islands is used by local communities for medicinal purposes.