The Medicinal Origins Of Cocktail Bitters

Think of bitters as a secret ingredient that can balance out sweet flavors, add a touch of spice, or create a burst of flavor you aren't expecting. Traditional cocktail bitter brands, two of which date back to the 1800s (Angostura and Peychaud's), keep the exact ingredients a closely guarded secret. 

The reason is that each one creates its own unique flavors when mixed with other ingredients. For instance, bitters have an alcohol base (for easier blending with other alcoholic drinks), followed by a specific flavor (like grape or orange), and are infused with proprietary blends of herbs and spices to create deep notes and subtle flavors.

Cocktail bitters fell out of favor for a while before coming back in the 1990s and 2000s, with several new brands introducing a bevy of never-before-seen flavors that give mixologists new tools to make their premium cocktails pop. Although cocktail bitters are found in most bars today, 300 years ago they were used for a completely different purpose. 

A bitter a day keeps the doctor away

In the 18th century, physicians (or people pretending to be doctors), created proprietary blends of cocktail bitters and sold them as cures for blood or stomach problems. They created bitters much in the same way as today by blending herbs and spices and preserving them in alcohol. Using alcohol as a cure and preservative wasn't a bad idea back then because it prevents further growth of bacteria in small doses, and in higher concentrations, it can kill microorganisms that try to kill you, notes Healthline.

Medicinal bitters took off in the 1800s, but only the aforementioned Angostura and Peychaud's have survived to modern times. Still, the legacy of medicinal bitters lives on with the vintage advertisements and bottles collectors buy and sell. Some of the historical artifacts make great décor for bars.

If this rich history isn't enough to convince you to add bitters to your home bar, consider the fact that they add depth to your favorite cocktails or mocktails. Before you know it, your friends will be coming over to try your drinks rather than going to a bar.