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"Bitters" - history, uses, etc?

 
gardener
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I grew up with older European relatives who drank "bitters" and other strongly botanical flavoured alcohols for "medicinal purposes" (Unicum and Sambuca are two brands I recall). But no one could ever tell me what "medicinal purposes" they were for!

What are bitters, and what would they be used for?
 
pollinator
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I discovered bitters when living in North Beach in San Francisco. They were explained to me to be a digestif, something to have a shot of after a large meal to alleviate bloating. My favorite is Fernet Branca, from Wikipedia; “Fernet is made from a number of herbs and spices which vary according to the brand, but usually include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and especially saffron, with a base of grape distilled spirits.” Another we keep around is Cynar, made from artichokes. It an acquired taste drunken straight but lovely in cocktails (virgin or otherwise)
 
pollinator
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Bitters turn on digestive system, including liver, gallbladder, stomach, etc. Best to take 5-15 minutes before eating, but if you remember after the meal, they can still be helpful. I carry tiny bottle of bitters, and when remember before meals, especially fatty foods such as cheese, I take a few drops. My bitters are strong -Gentian root and small amount of wormwood with mostly dandelion tincture, so  few drops go a long way.
 
author & pollinator
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Hi Catie,

Bitters are popular today. This is the 2nd post started today about them.

What is a "Bitter"?

The word “bitters” is used to describe herbs that are bitter to the taste. We all know what a bitter food tastes like, so you can easily identify any bitter tasting herb as being a "bitter".  Besides indicating the taste of the herb, bitters also indicate a group of herbs that are stimulating and supportive to the gastrointestinal tract.


Bitter Herbs Are Good For Your Health


Through their stimulation of the gastrointestinal tract, they affect the entire body in a positive manner. They also have been found to have some specific effects on individual non-digestive organs that are more than just the enhancement of general digestion.


How Bitters Support Sluggish Digestion


This category of herbs are useful as more than a simple spring tonic. Bitters have a supportive effect upon the digestion; they increase the tone of the gastric mucosa and enhance the digestive organ’s blood supply, which facilitates overall digestion. Bitter plant constituents start their work by locally stimulating the bitter sensory response of taste buds in the mouth and throat.  Bitters also increase digestive secretions from the stomach, pancreas, liver and gallbladder.

How They Are Used

The best effects are seen with long-term use of bitters. They are usually ingested before meals in small amounts. This allows them to stimulate the normal digestive juices just as an individual is getting ready to eat.


Which Herbal Bitters Are Used

Examples of mild bitters:


   Artichoke - Cynara scolymus
   Blessed thistle - Cnicus benedictus
   Burdock - Arctium lappa
   Bupleurum - Bupleurum chinense
   Dandelion - Taraxacum officinalis
   Elecampane - Inula helenium
   Skullcap - Scutellaria lateriflora


Examples of strong bitters:

   Bitter root - Picorrhiza kurroa
   Bogbean - Menyanthes trifoliata
   Calamus - Acorus calamus
   Catnip - Nepeta cataria
   Chamomile - Matricaria recutita
   Gentian - Gentiana lutea (spp.)
   Goldenseal - Hydrastis canadensis
   Horehound - Marrubium vulgare
   Hops - Humulus lupulus
   Motherwort - Leonurus cardiaca
   Yarrow - Achilea millefolium
   Wormwood - Artemisia absinthium

Besides there being two posts started here on Permies about bitters, I also wrote an article on my website recently on bitters that I posted this AM. There must be bitters in the air. If you want to see more on bitters go to the new post here: https://youarethehealer.org/bitter-herbs-for-indigestion/
 
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Last year I heard a physician speak about the state of health in America and he talked specifically about the benefits of bitters. He said people are so accustomed to craving and eating sweet foods that we avoid anything bitter, to the detriment of our health. It somehow works toward the prevention of disease, including cancer.
It's funny how something tastes a lot less bitter once you realize it's good for you. Now when I eat something especially bitter I think there must be an extra helping of the good stuff in there.
 
pollinator
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Sharol Tilgner wrote:
Bitters are popular today. This is the 2nd post started today about them.

What is a "Bitter"?

The word “bitters” is used to describe herbs that are bitter to the taste. We all know what a bitter food tastes like, so you can easily identify any bitter tasting herb as being a "bitter".  Besides indicating the taste of the herb, bitters also indicate a group of herbs that are stimulating and supportive to the gastrointestinal tract.


Thanks Sharol for your detailed post.
Bitters are still quite popular here in Germany but mostly taken as a digestive after a heavy meal.

In addition to the already mentioned Cynar and Fernet Branca (which is used as a cure-all by my mother) there are lots of local varieties with herbs like Gentiana, Meum athamanticum and similar. There is also a mix available called "Schwedenbitter" which you can use to make your own bitter (infuse some strong alcohol), or you can buy the already infused bitter. It contains about a dozen different herbs and roots. I think it was most popular in the 80ies.

Other bitters include the famous Underberg.

There is a saying in German:
Was bitter dem Mund,
ist dem Magen gesund.

(What tastes bitter to the mouth is healthy for your stomach).

IIRC, I already posted about a start-up company in Germany that sells herb extracts made from bitter roots and herb (https://startup-mannheim.de/bitterliebe/). Many modern veggie varieties lack the bitter ingredients that once made them extra healthy (lettuce, chicory etc.) so their idea is to add them in an easy-to-take form.
 
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Perhaps a couple of years ago I learned that bitters could have beneficial effects on the liver, gall bladder and general digestion, so I started taking them first thing in the morning 20-30mins before having anything else.
.
I started with the most popular angostura bitters, which worked (digestion worked better and more regularly), then moved onto Fee Brothers which has a better list of ingredients on most (but not all) of their products.

The point I am making is you can have regular off-the-shelf bitters and it will do the job too.  I am sure using potent and clean sourced tinctures will work better, but fair warning:  More potent products may be too much if the person taking the bitters has poor health.  A drop or 2 first thing and/or before meals is plenty for lots of people.
 
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I finally learned about the health benefits of bitters only last year, and now I've added a new project to my long-term rotation: making homemade bitters using PNW natives. I've only had two successful batches so far and neither were solely natives as of yet, but my favorite was Oregon grape root, cardomom pods, and black peppercorns.

I haven't had coffee yet this morning so I cannot for the life of me remember which of my myriad books has the DIY bitters instructions, but I'll find it and come back.

I don't always remember to take them, but when I do, I take two drops first thing in the morning and maybe a drop or two if I know we're having a heavy meal. If I remember for several weeks in a row, I do actually feel better; the bitters seem to work as a general alterative as well as a digestive aid.
 
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I believe Guido Mase (herbalist) is co-owner of Urban Moonshine brand bitters.  Bitters are also fairly easy to make.  My favorite is a spiced pear bitters recipe that I got from Rosalee de la Foret.  My dd just asked me last night for a recipe for grapefruit bitters, haha.  So, the bitters bug is in the air.  

Bonnie
 
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I always thought bitters were an alcoholic drink, maybe because the bottle was kept in the liquor cabinet when I was growing up. So my question is, is this an alcoholic beverage?
 
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And if it aint....is there any harm in making it an alcoholic beverage?.....
 
L Allen
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Leslie Russell wrote:I always thought bitters were an alcoholic drink, maybe because the bottle was kept in the liquor cabinet when I was growing up. So my question is, is this an alcoholic beverage?



All the bitters recipes I've seen do indeed use some sort of alcohol as the base. So far I've experimented with brandy and gin, and both worked, though the gin base gives a juniper berry taste (which I love.) Basically you're making a tincture. Many other herbal remedies use alcohol as the solvent.

Bitters are definitely used as a flavoring agent for cocktails, among all these other uses, just like bitter herbs are used in brewing to flavor beers, ales, liquers, etc.. When used as a health supplement, a few drops of brandy in the morning doesn't really have any inebriating effects; if you're staying away from alcohol entirely, though, for whatever reason, traditional bitters won't be for you.
 
Leslie Russell
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Thank you!! Yep, me and alcohol had to part ways some years ago, so no bitters for me 🤪
 
gardener
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Many of the bitters, as previously stated, are medicinally healthy plants.  The typical ways to preserve them are in alcoholic tinctures, but they can also be preserved in Glycerine, which is somewhat sweet by itself.  They can also be preserved in vinegar, which is obviously extremely sour.   Glycerine doesn't negatively affect glycemic loads,  and it can take the edge off of some of the astonishingly bitter plants.  I have some tinctures too.  There are an amazingly large number of medicinal plants. In my experience, most don't seem to taste very good.  

I feel that in nature and human history, we ate a huge number of plants that were somewhat bitter or sour.  When you're hungry, you remember that plants can't run away.   The bitterness is the method the plants use to convince us not to eat much of that plant.  I feel that many people have become alcoholics, partly because we don't have that bitter flavor in modern convenience cuisine.  When it comes packed with a tension decreasing buzz, for some people, it's hard not to become addicted. I've had problems with drinking too much in the past.  One of the ways I use to drink less is to consume the glycerite and alcohol tincture medicines. I only have a tablespoon at a time.  I think I realized the other day that it's possible that for me, these are a kind of homeopathic remedy for alcoholism, along with NA beer.

John S
PDX OR
 
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Leslie Russell wrote:Thank you!! Yep, me and alcohol had to part ways some years ago, so no bitters for me 🤪



Duplicating a recipe derived from a "bitter". As it definitely is!

I've done my best to divest this information from the source who was participating in "Trump Engagement Syndrome" but feel free to track down the origin (What's Down the Rabbit Hole Facebook page) if you are into that sort of thing.

Anyway, on to the bitter end:

Quinine is something that anyone can make at home and something that is being manufactured each and every day in the form of Tonic Water. Tonic Water has the exact same Quinine that the  drug being used to treat the [Coronu]
Quinine has many uses and applications.  It is analgesic, anesthetic, antiarrhythmic, antibacterial, antimalarial, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, bactericide, cytotoxic, febrifuge, fungicide, insecticide, nervine, stomachic, tonic

If you ever feel a chest cold coming on or just feel like crap make your own Quinine.  It is made out of the peelings of Grapefruits. Take this concoction throughout the day as a tea.  Zinc enhances its effects,

All you need to do to make your very own Quinine:-

Take the rind of 2-3 grapefruits.  
Take the peel only and cover it with water about 3 inches above the peels.
Put a glass lid on your pot if you have one....a metal one is fine if you don't.  
Let it simmer for about 2 hours.
Do not take the lid off of the pot till it cools completely as this will allow the Quinine to escape in the steam.

When I followed this recipe for myself  I immediately recognised the taste of the cooled brew from my youth at the bar of my Grandfather's Ukrainian Club. That should read as: authentic.

My hope is that this simply adds another bitter to your "bow".
 
Bonnie Kuhlman
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Leslie Russell wrote:Thank you!! Yep, me and alcohol had to part ways some years ago, so no bitters for me 🤪



There are ways to make bitters for digestive health without alcohol.  Bitter pastiles come to mind.  Let me know if you're interested and I'll look them up - I have a recipe somewhere.

Bonnie
 
Bonnie Kuhlman
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Quinine is something that anyone can make at home and something that is being manufactured each and every day in the form of Tonic Water. Tonic Water has the exact same Quinine that the  drug being used to treat the [Coronu]
Quinine has many uses and applications.  It is analgesic, anesthetic, antiarrhythmic, antibacterial, antimalarial, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, bactericide, cytotoxic, febrifuge, fungicide, insecticide, nervine, stomachic, tonic

If you ever feel a chest cold coming on or just feel like crap make your own Quinine.  It is made out of the peelings of Grapefruits. Take this concoction throughout the day as a tea.  Zinc enhances its effects,

All you need to do to make your very own Quinine:-

Take the rind of 2-3 grapefruits.  
Take the peel only and cover it with water about 3 inches above the peels.
Put a glass lid on your pot if you have one....a metal one is fine if you don't.  
Let it simmer for about 2 hours.
Do not take the lid off of the pot till it cools completely as this will allow the Quinine to escape in the steam.

When I followed this recipe for myself  I immediately recognised the taste of the cooled brew from my youth at the bar of my Grandfather's Ukrainian Club. That should read as: authentic.

My hope is that this simply adds another bitter to your "bow".

I believe quinine is actually made from the bark of the cinchona tree.  Did I miss something?

Bonnie
 
Bonnie Kuhlman
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Chris Kay wrote:

Quinine is something that anyone can make at home and something that is being manufactured each and every day in the form of Tonic Water. Tonic Water has the exact same Quinine that the  drug being used to treat the [Coronu]
Quinine has many uses and applications.  It is analgesic, anesthetic, antiarrhythmic, antibacterial, antimalarial, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, antipyretic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, astringent, bactericide, cytotoxic, febrifuge, fungicide, insecticide, nervine, stomachic, tonic

If you ever feel a chest cold coming on or just feel like crap make your own Quinine.  It is made out of the peelings of Grapefruits. Take this concoction throughout the day as a tea.  Zinc enhances its effects,

All you need to do to make your very own Quinine:-

Take the rind of 2-3 grapefruits.  
Take the peel only and cover it with water about 3 inches above the peels.
Put a glass lid on your pot if you have one....a metal one is fine if you don't.  
Let it simmer for about 2 hours.
Do not take the lid off of the pot till it cools completely as this will allow the Quinine to escape in the steam.

When I followed this recipe for myself  I immediately recognised the taste of the cooled brew from my youth at the bar of my Grandfather's Ukrainian Club. That should read as: authentic.

My hope is that this simply adds another bitter to your "bow".



I believe quinine is actually made from the bark of the cinchona tree.  Did I miss something?

Bonnie

Edited to correct the quote.
 
master pollinator
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Hi Bonnie,

That was my impression as well. But a brief search on the net reveals quinine can be found in a number of sources....including grapefruit.  I learned something new.  Thanks Chris.
 
Bonnie Kuhlman
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See post below.
 
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