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by Alex Williams April 09, 2021
Many of the histories written on bitters coincide with the origin story of the “cocktail”. It was as early as 1803 when the Farmer’s Cabinet (an agriculture periodical published in Philadelphia) first mentioned the word “cocktail” to refer to a drink. Just three years later, the Balance & Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, shared the earliest description of a cocktail: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Bitters have, especially in the past 15 years or so, been strongly connected to cocktail culture are lore, with a lot of people believing bitters’ sole purpose to be an additive ‘spice’ to elevate the flavors of an alcoholic beverage.
If the histories go further back, they mostly just nod to bitters as a curious ‘patent medicine’ that pharmacists of the 18th and 19th centuries might sling as panaceas for every common ailment.
The history of bitters I prefer to share is one that integrates bitters and the bitter taste into the overarching development of humans navigating their own evolution in relation to the ecosystems in which they traversed. This is the history that follows.
In a sense, bitters are our ancestors. Plants, notably the bitter ones, existed long before us humans staggered up onto two legs, and it was in the hundreds of millions of years before we arrived that they evolved poisonous alkaloids that might stave off the giant insects and herbivores roaming the earth at the time (pictured here is an artistic rendering of what Southern Illinois might have looked like around this time – Painting by Mary Parrish of the Smithsonian Institute).
So by the time we got here and started rummaging around for food, we had to contend with some heavy-hitting botanicals who teased us with their abundant nutritional value while challenging our tongues and digestive systems with a potential slurry of toxic constituents.
If we think about what types of foods humans have eaten historically, we see that our diets have shifted significantly over time. Before we began cultivating vegetables and grains, ten or fifteen thousand years ago, we mostly consumed meat and wild plants. Toxins came from bacteria through spoiled meat or contaminated water, the bites of venomous insects or animals, or directly from the poisonous roots, barks, leaves, seed, and berries I mentioned above.
It is our liver, the four-pound blood sponge in our upper right abdomen, halfway behind the rib cage, that works to process all of these toxins and compounds for both energy and to be eliminated as waste.
And if we look at the early history of what we ate, we can start to gain a picture of the environment out of which our digestive and metabolic systems—specifically our liver—evolved.
To people who lived (or who still live) in a world absent of agriculture, where hunting and gathering were the primary means of sustenance, wild plants and meats provided the bulk of the chemistry that their livers came into contact with on a daily basis. Meat may have been abundant and was certainly crucial in nourishing the human species, but it wasn’t and still isn’t a source of much chemical diversity (other than iron, some trace minerals and important B vitamins, animal flesh is primarily a source of macronutrients, such as protein and fat). So while plants may not have always represented the bulk of the macronutrients calories present in our diets, plants were certainly responsible for providing both the greatest number of different individual chemicals to the liver and also its greatest challenge in metabolizing all those different chemicals.
So how does bitterness play into all of this? As we’ve already discovered, bitters trace their roots to a time long before humans grew out of our shared ancestral tree, where plants were more often poisonous than not. One perspective is that we developed the ability to perceive bitterness to avoid the deadly fate of eating such poisonous plants and eventually our digestive systems found ways to adapt to the plant's bitter poisons, so we could digest and assimilate their nutrients.
So why did plants develop the bitter flavor? Well, like I said above, to avoid getting eaten. The chemical compounds plants created were part of their evolutionary strategy to keep on keepin’ on.
But if a plant is simply toxic, an animal could come by, eat its fill, wander off and fall over dead later on. This is hardly helpful to the plant who was just eaten, nor is it helpful to the animal.
What’s required is a signal, a way of telling a hungry animal that it may not want to overdo it.
So, to be of deterrent value, plant chemicals need to be able to communicate their toxic presence to the animals that might consider eating them.
Outright deadly poisonous plants often contain alkaloids that are intensely bitter. You would have a hard time consuming appreciable quantities of them. But that’s the point, the plant makes the chemical to keep the animal away, and the animal develops a broadly sensitive taste receptor to warn it about the chemical’s presence. That warning comes to us as ‘bitterness’.
Plants that aren’t outright deadly, but still want to deter animals from eating them, might create chemicals that, when eaten, resemble the bitterness of poisonous plants to similarly deter animals from eating too much of them.
Taste is a great way of communicating this, as taste can give us an idea of the possible chemical content of what we are eating.
As for the bitter taste, It’s much harder to define a single type of chemical responsible for the bitter flavor. There is usually an underlying hint of bitterness riding on the palate together with any of the other tastes, sweet, salty, sour, umami… etc. Especially before we domesticated wild plants through agriculture and selectively bred the bitterness out of plants: apples would be bitter, carrots were bitter and also not orange at all, unprocessed grains contained bitter bran.
The common thread here is that the bitter flavor was present in virtually all plants before we bred the bitterness out in favor of sweetness, color, or other nice attributes we like. Kind of like dogs, we bred out their bite in favor of their fluffiness.
Taken together, the bitter flavor seems to be the signal from the plant world to watch out—eat less—and activate your digestive, metabolic, and detoxification mechanisms. Additionally, some might argue that the bitter plant constituents that comprise the bitter flavor are so interwoven with our metabolic chemistry after millions of years of coevolution that they are essential to our wellbeing. Guido Masé, herbalist, and strong proponent of the bitter flavor, would likely agree here.
Guido Masé also offers us the best retelling know of relating the shift from eating bitter plants out of necessity for nutrition, to using bitter herbs specifically for healing. While bitter herbs such as gentian were widely used in Egypt around 1200 BC for its medicinal properties, Masé points to Mithridates VI Eupator, a famous king of a Hellenistic kingdom called Pontus, as being the first to craft an actual bitters formula. The thing is, Mithridates was not attempting to make a concoction that would tonify his digestion or enliven his old fashioned. Instead, he was attempting to make an antidote for poison.
For a more robust retelling, I refer you to Guido Masé’s excellent The Wild Medicine Solution, the source from which a lot of this info comes, specifically the chapter on Bitters where Masé goes in depth on the story of Mithridates. I’ll only summarize here:
Mithridates IV Eupator was the ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus from 120-63 BC and one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable and determined opponents. Early in his life, Mithridates is said to have retreated to the wilderness for seven years after the assassination of his father Mithridates V in 120 BC by poisoning, which injected Mithridates with a healthy dose of paranoia and necessitated a desire to evade all possible assassination attempts towards him should he take over the throne. So he retreated with the purpose of developing a universal antidote to poison, snake venom, and the bite of wild beasts.
Through his experiments in poison formulation, as well as his research into antidotes, the young prince hit upon the possible solution:
“[P]erhaps, if full doses of poison could kill, then smaller doses might strengthen him against death. Simply employing plants that tasted like the poison but were not toxic themselves (like the root of high mountain gentian) might do the trick. Mithridates retreated from palace life for a period and apparently delved deeply into venom brewing and antidote crafting, because when he returned, both his mother and his brother were poisoned and died. The prince became king, married his sister, and set about building an army—all while looking over his shoulder, fearing the murder in his evening meal, but confident that the regular use of his antidotes would keep him alive.” (Masé, 2013, 115-116)
His antidote—which was known as the mithridate—would also be considered the first recorded bitters formula in the Western world. Its ingredients included some very bitter plants such as gentian, along with resinous, aromatic herbs such as ginger, opopanax, St. John’s wort, myrrh, and cinnamon.
“To these were added salty bitters from the parsley family and, finally (for good measure), a touch of opium. Crucially, the entire formula was then blended with honey to form what was called an ‘electuary,’ a sort of thick syrup meant to be taken by the tablespoon.” (Masé, 2016, 41)
Eventually, Pontus was conquered by the Roman Empire, and the formula fell into the hands of Mithridates’ enemy, the Roman Empire. Over the next century or so, it made its way into the hands of Roman physicians, including Galen, who called it “theriac” and added his own bitter plants into the mix, although the general formula of bitter herbs, flavorful herbs (whether that be aromatic or salty), and a touch of sweetness to balance the formula remained consistent.
And while the conception of the formula as a universal antidote to poison did not hold as fully as Mithridates might have hoped, the idea that smaller doses of a poison might strengthen against illness or death endured as a concept in medicine, from the homeopaths of the 1800s to the modern invention of the vaccination.
But the most enduring idea of Mithridates in his formulation, was in employing plants that tasted like the poison but were not toxic themselves. This encouraged physicians to employ bitter plants to help stimulate digestion in different capacities, encouraging the proper breakdown, assimilation, and elimination of foods that pass through one’s body.
At this time, however, the “theriac” was heralded as far more than a humble digestive tonic. It was recommended as a cure for almost any ailment. First, of course, being digestive complaints. But physicians also considered the theriac beneficial in rheumatism, headaches, fever, skin complaints, depression, hysteria, and even wound healing (likely to varying results).
It is at this point that Guido Masé (2016, 43) discusses the apex of the history of the theriac in Venice, Italy: “Traders there had access to all the necessary ingredients, and apothecaries could spend months, sometimes years, perfecting the Theriac Venezian to sell for exorbitant sums. The recipe remained a closely guarded secret, but still retained the strongly bitter roots coupled with the pungent, aromatic plants, al little saltiness, and a final addition of honey.”
With an incredible botanical abundance as a result of the varied elevations and climates of the Italian Alps, in addition to the expansion of the spice trade in Italy, we find a context where small villages and monasteries would concoct their own bitter tonics that reflected the local flora of the bioregion in which they inhabited. These bitter tonics would eventually come to be known as amaro (Italian for “bitter”), and the bitter herbs which were once solely intended for medicinal purposes began to find their way into many of our modern day spirits and liquors.
This brings us to the point where bitters, which were once primarily medicinal potions, now come to be imbibed as recreational drinks and become officially included in the earliest definition of the “cocktail”. And we find ourselves right back right where we started, where most people begin their history of bitters.
Masé, Guido. The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter, and Tonic Plants. Rochestor, VT: Healing Arts Press, 2013.
Masé, Guido and Jovial King. DIY Bitters: Reviving the Forgotten Flavor. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press, 2016.
Smith, Peter. “A Brief History of Bitters.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 20 Mar. 2012, smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-bitters-159271950.
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