When you think of the five basic tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, a more recent addition approximating a savory or “meaty” flavor – bitter probably isn’t your favorite. And you’re not alone if you’d prefer salty, sweet, sour or savory. The debate over whether bitter is bad has raged since prehistory.
Through centuries of human development taste offered a means of survival. Salty and sweet tasting foods were palatable and offered calories and important minerals, respectively, while sour food could be beneficial as with citrus fruit or deleterious as with spoiled food. Anything bitter tasting was usually avoided because it was deemed to be poisonous. Umami, although a common flavor in Japanese food for centuries, wasn’t designated until this century as a discrete taste. (Actually, glutamates, which give umami its distinctive flavor, have a long culinary history, such as in garum or fish sauces in ancient Rome. See our blog on spaghetti with garum.)
According to modern research we should be paying more attention to that bitter flavor because bitters have quite a few health benefits. Today we’re giving you a recipe for making your own bitters cocktail. Serve it at your Oscar party this weekend and let your guests know you’re drinking to their health!
As we mentioned, 60,000 years ago our ancestors were using their taste buds to find things to eat or to avoid. While bitter-tasting plants were usually excluded from diets, some people realized that a few plants with this bitter hallmark were actually full of positive traits, including “digestive responses that ultimately result in appetite stimulation, improved nutrient absorption, and reduction of food-related illness.” Even the Egyptians realized the benefits as evidenced by an analysis of ancient wine jars that once contained wine mixed with bitter herbs. Interestingly, modern scientists have discovered that there is actually a genetic component to our sensitivity to the bitter flavor. University of Pennsylvania geneticists Michael Campbell and Sarah Tishkoff along with their colleagues have studied the gene TAS2R16, which is involved in sensing the bitter-tasting compound salicin. “This compound is found in aspirin, as well as some vegetables and fruits, and has anti-inflammatory properties—but it is toxic in large doses.” Thus, while some ancient populations avoided anything bitter altogether, others indulged —and even lived to tell the tale and pass on their health-laden taste buds. The ones who survived ended up in modern-day Europe and incorporated bitters into “medicines, foods, tisanes, herbed wines, and tinctures.”
By the 1700s physicians and salesmen pretending to be physicians were routinely taking bitters, preserving them in alcohol and selling them as medicinal tonics. These “medicines” were marketed as cures for stomach aches, circulation problems and even cure-alls. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to experience a settled stomach when the taste of the tonic makes you nauseous. As a result, people would often mix the bitters tonic with other spirits and with sugar. And so, the bitters cocktail was born and flourished throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, scientists have harnessed the power of bitters to make several of our most common medicines. Opiates, aspirin and anti-malarial drugs are extracted from or chemically modeled after compounds found in bitter roots and barks, such as poppies, willow bark and cinchona bark. And the recreational bitters cocktail, though it became less popular in the 20th century in the aftermath of Prohibition, is now making something of a comeback.
So we’re happy to help bring this ancient tonic back to the modern age. Below is a recipe to make your own bitter cordial (called an amaro) from grain spirits and fragrant spices and herbs. But just in case you don’t have a month to wait for the concoction to macerate, we’re also providing you with a couple of fun cocktails with ingredients you can buy at the local store.
*Recipe from Executive Chef Tucker Yoder at the Clifton Inn in Virginia.
- 3 or 4 star anise seeds
- 6 fresh sage leaves
- 6 fresh mint leaves
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1 allspice berry
- 1/2 tsp whole cloves
- 1/2 tsp cinchona root
- 3 cups 151-proof neutral grain spirit
- Macerate the herbs in alcohol for three to four weeks.
- Strain the herbs and sweeten with honey syrup (equal parts honey and water) to your liking.
- You can do a second infusion with whatever’s in season if you like. Beets are a great winter product that add a unique mouth feel and earthy taste. Or try it mole-style with chocolate and chilies.
The Garden Tonic
Recipe by Wayne Collins
- 4 mint leaves
- 3 cucumber slices
- 2 dashes The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
- 2 teaspoons St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
- 1-1/2 ounces Plymouth Gin
- 3 ounces Fever-Tree Premium Indian Tonic Water
- Fresh lime wedge
- In the bottom of a sturdy glass, agitate the mint leaves and cucumber slices with the bitters.
- Add ice. Pour in the liqueur and gin.
- Top with tonic water and stir.
- Garnish with lime wedge.
Recipe by Wayne Collins
- 1 lump of sugar
- 1-1/2 ounces Sazerac Rye
- 3 drops Peychaud’s Bitters
- 3 drops La Fée Absinthe
- Lemon peel
- Take two heavy-bottom 3.5 ounce bar glasses. Fill one with cracked ice and allow it to chill.
- In the other glass, place the lump of sugar with a bit of water to moisten it. Crush sugar with a bar spoon. Add Sazerac, bitters and a few cubes of ice and stir.
- Empty the first glass of ice and add absinthe. Twirl briskly and dump out – enough absinthe will remain and coat glass to impart flavor. Strain the rye concoction into the absinthe glass. Twist a lemon peel over the glass but do not drop in.