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Bitters: Beverages with Moxie

Explore and cook with the bountiful benefits of bitter herbs.

| March/April 2004

  • Art Tucker, Ph.D, purchased this antique Moxie label at a flea market in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

  • Gentian root


In the early 1500s, Venetian monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli discovered an elixir to revive his fellow clerics. Vincelli even claimed the drink cured local French fishermen and peasants of malaria. As it turns out, Vincelli was onto something: This delicious beverage, which we now know as the liqueur Benedictine, contains 27 herbs and spices, among them lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), arnica (Arnica spp.), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) and angelica root (Angelica archangelica).

Throughout history, humans have enjoyed the combination of herbs and alcohol to cure ailments as well as to please the palate. Though they don’t get a lot of press these days — perhaps because their name sounds less-than-appealing to contemporary taste buds — bitters still offer much as medicine and as a flavorful addition to the sophisticated cook’s toolbox.

Delightful Digestives

Before Imodium, and even before Alka-Seltzer, digestives were spirited drinks concocted with herbs to aid digestion. Historically, the most popular digestives, or digestifs, have been alcoholic bitters, which usually include angostura bark (Angostura trifoliata), cinchona (or quinine) bark (Cinchona spp.), bitter gentian root (Gentiana lutea) and/or quassia chips (Quassia amara) as the principal components. Bitters, as defined by Dick Brisbane in his Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes in 1872 (at the height of bitters’ popularity), “are considered as tonic and stomachic, and to improve the appetite when taken in moderation. The best time is early in the morning, or an hour before meals. An excessive use of bitters tends to weaken the stomach. They should not be taken for a longer period than a fortnight at one time, allowing a similar period to elapse before again having recourse to them.”

The majority of bitters on the market today come from Europe. The small country of Trinidad gives us Angostura, probably the most popular of all the bitters. The United States has Peychaud’s Bitters, made by the Sazerac Co. in New Orleans. Most bitters are not drunk by themselves but rather mixed with cocktails and nonalcoholic beverages to add zest. Some people even cook with them to add that Je ne sais quoi!

Commercially available bitters are distinguished from medicinal bitters, which are really theriacs. Theriacs originated from the beginning of the third century b.c., perhaps associated with the Alexandrian School. Originally formulated to counteract the bites of venomous creatures, theriacs became general antidotes for poisons, venoms or ailments. The most popular theriac today is Swedish bitters, composed of (in one commercial recipe we examined) senna (Senna alexandrina) leaves, angelica root, aloe (Aloe vera), marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) and several other herbs.

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