Ever get a stomachache and drink a combo of club soda and bitters to help with the nausea? If you have, you know it’s an effective strategy; if you haven’t, give it a try next time! Bitter flavors stimulate optimal digestion, so they’re great not only after, but also before, a meal. No need to wait until the damage is done from that whole pizza you’re about to eat—sip an aperitif beforehand as a precautionary measure, and dig in.*
Research suggests that our hunting-and-gathering ancestors recognized a bitter taste as an indication of toxicity—some highly poisonous plants were incredibly bitter, too. But humans developed a selective tolerance for bitter-yet-nutritious foods over time, and the protective mechanism meant to rid the body of possibly poisonous compounds morphed into a beneficial reflex that stimulates our digestive systems—and our appetites. Today, it’s understood that bitter compounds inhibit the growth of microbes and reduce inflammation. When a bitter substance is recognized by receptors on the tongue, the “bitter reflex” releases gastrin, which stimulates digestive function and strengthens digestive organs. This is why a salad at the beginning of a meal is particularly prudent. Me? I’ll take an Aperol Spritz.
Recognizing the digestive benefits of bitters, it should come as no surprise, then, that the bitters you’re likely most familiar with were originally created with medicinal applications in mind. Angostura bitters were originally invented by a German doctor as a tonic in 1824, and Peychaud’s by a pharmacist in 1830.
You may be thinking: “Ok, all this info is great . . . but what exactly are bitters, anyway?” Well, bitters are non-potable flavoring agents made by using high-proof alcohol to extract flavor from additives that typically include aromatic (and yep, bitter) herbs, roots, and spices, like gentian, cinchona bark, and citrus peel. They’re highly-concentrated flavor enhancers that can add complexity to a drink’s aromatic and taste profile with just a dash.
But wait, there’s more! Given bitters’ abilities to drastically change the way something tastes in such minute quantities, and the availability of flavored bitters on the market today, you can use ’em in non-cocktail comestibles, too. Since they help balance flavor profiles, consider adding them to sweet treats, like ice cream or a fruit salad. You can even put a drop or two in a cup of coffee (just don’t overdo it, since a little goes a long way and coffee is already bitter on its own). Bon Appetit has some tasty tips, too.
And, hey, if you end up drinking all 12 of the cocktails in a Shaker & Spoon box on your own, some bitters on your tongue can’t hurt.**
*no guarantees if you actually eat an entire pizza solo.
**no guarantees if you actually drink all of the cocktails solo.
Wanna know more? Here’s some extra info: