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  • Mary O Sullivan

What are Cocktail Bitters?


Bitters are prepared using herbs and fruit macerated in either alcohol, glycerine, water or a mix of any of these elements. The herbs most often found in bitters include gentian, cassia, cinnamon and cinchona bark.

Picture of many different types of bitters bottles, showcasing the range of bottle types, shapes, labels ets. They are located on a bar with spirits bottles in the background.

The award for earliest mention of bitters in written texts goes to the Egyptians! They wrote of infusing medicinal herbs in jars of wine.

A jar from ancient Egypt. It has a pointed base to the jar, so sits in a tripod to keep it upright. Light is cast on it from above, to spotlight it, and the background of the image is dark and shadowy.

The distillation still, (perfected by ancient Muslim peoples to produce perfume) was re-appropriated by others to create stronger alcohol. This allows the more efficient extraction of flavours and aromatics when creating bitters. As higher alcohol percentages allow for better extraction.

Image looks like an upside down glass globe with a hole at the base. The hole allows in water vapour that condenses against the glass. There is a lip around the base to hold and channel the condensed liquid and a spout from here to direst the liquid to a collecting vessel. Glass Alembic for distilling perfume, from the 6th-7th centuries. Unknown provenance, currently housed in the Archelogical museum in Nicosia, Cypres

From the invention of distillation, there was then a huge upswing in the availability of spirits, and seasonal herbs that could be preserved for medicine became much more utilised. In the middle ages there was a huge industry in making, trading and prescribing bitters as medicine for common and uncommon illnesses.

Image of two men, one of whom is pulling the other nonchalant man's tooth out with a leather tong studded with other teeth.

By the 19th century, Canary sack (an old term for wine from the Canary Islands) was terribly popular in America, but only in a form where it was mixed with bitters as a preventative medicine, other spirits slowly began to be substituted occasionally for the wine. This was eventually referred to in American newspapers as a cocktail,'a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.'

Image of people drinking in an 18th century tavern. In the foreground two play cards while being watched by three more men. In the backgrougnd a man is stretched out, face-down on a bench, asleep.

It was in this period, that Angostura bitters dates from. They were formulated by a German doctor, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in the town of Angostura, now known as Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela. They were originally composed of ingredients to help alleviate sea sickness and stomach problems. Given that stomach issues were the leading killer of young men at the time, this was no small matter!

From strictly medicinal beginnings, to culinary and libationary uses now, bitters have played a varied and unusual role in history. Time will tell how they will be used in the future.


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