The question we get asked most frequently is, “What are bitters?” In some respects, this is a very easy question to answer, and in other respects, it gets a bit tricky. In this page, we’ll talk about what bitters are and how they’re made and then we’ll delve into some fun facts (and even more fun fictions) that make bitters unique.
What are Bitters?
Bitters are a type of liquid flavor extract or tincture. They contain a compound called a “bittering agent,” which lends the substance its characteristic bitter properties. Bitters are commonly ingested both for their naturopathic health benefits and used to enhance the flavor of certain beverages, most notably alcoholic cocktails.
How Bitters are Made
Bitters are made by submerging flavorful ingredients like herbs, roots, and spices in a substance referred to as an “extracting agent” – normally high-proof alcohol or glycerine – or by boiling the ingredients to extract their flavors. Certain methods employ both chemical and heat extraction. The bittering agent can be incorporated into the initial extract in the form of raw ingredients, such as gentian root or wormwood, or it can be added before bottling in the form of a separate bitter extract.
Uses for Bitters
Bitters have a long history as both a medicinal remedy and a flavoring tool. Their medicinal use dates back many centuries to when they were primarily used to stimulate gastric activity and improve digestion, and they continue to be used by many people for the very same purpose to this day. Bitters have been shown (although not clinically) to have other health benefits, and in the 1800s they were notably peddled by so-called “Snake Oil Salesmen,” who claimed that their particular blends of herbs and roots could cure ailments ranging from bad breath to ulcers. Of course, despite the health benefits associated with bitters, they functioned, then as now, as more of a dietary or digestive supplement than a miracle cure.
Commercially speaking, bitters have become best know as a cocktail condiment. They can be found and enjoyed in some of the most popular and delicious classic and contemporary cocktails, including the Old Fashioned, the Martini, the Manhattan, and many more besides. Visit our cocktail recipes page for a complete list of cocktails and other delicious creations that can be made using cocktail bitters.