Bitters today are mainly used as flavoring in cocktails, but originally they were used medicinally to help treat everything from the common cold to digestive disorders. They can be traced all the way back to Egypt where herbal preparations were allowed to ferment for a time or mixed with wine then the liquid given to patients. In the Middle Ages can the technology to distill alcohol, and with that came formulations for the more powerful bitters we know today. The original formulations of bitters contained certain herbs that were, you guessed it, bitter. Some classic ingredients include: horehound, anise, gentian, fennel, cardamom, caraway, lavender, nutmeg, licorice, wormwood, hyssop and cinnamon. These herbs would be left to sit in grain alcohol, whiskey, or brandy, for a certain amount of time, then the plant matter strained off. Why were bitter plants used? Well this goes back to medieval medicine where bitter plants were thought to be able to cure more in the body than sweet ones. The more bitter the medicine the better it worked. I’ve also read theories that patients taking medicines that taste bad are more likely to trust that the medicine will help them.
Bitters were at their height of popularity in the 19th century when the brand names that we know today, like Angostura and Peychaud, first came on the market. Bitters at this time were still being used as medicine and many different names and kinds could be found in Pharmacy storefronts across the world. Bitters later became a popular cocktail additive when Pharmacists started mixing antimalarial bitters that contained quinine with alcohol to mask the flavor. Thus Sazerac was born.
The popularity of bitters followed settlers into the Ozarks. Even the hill doctors who weren’t exposed to traveling salesmen already had the tradition of bitters in their materia medica, passed to them from their European ancestors. Vance Randolph mentions once such bitters in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore”:
“Many of the old-time druggists make up bitters by putting wild cherries, together with the inner bark of the wild-cherry tree, into whiskey. This is a fine spring tonic, and some prefer it to sassafras tea. It is good for almost any ailment, in a pinch, and even families who are notoriously dry keep a quart of bitters in case of sudden sickness. A mixture of whiskey and rock candy is popular too but is not so highly recommended as the famous wild-cherry bitters.”
In the Ozarks these bitters would be taken year round, but hillfolk made sure that at least one bitter formula was drank in the springtime to help clean out the blood. I make my own bitters at home, one recipe containing (among other things) hyssop and wormwood. The other recipe I use follows the one Vance Randolph mentioned. It’s a combination of cherries, wild cherry bark, and whiskey, and will help clear up a whole host of bodily complaints.
Bitter endings of a morning where this cup of coffee
was a kiss to wake. It tasted like dirt with an ounce of sugar.
Cream could not cure what was
beyond midnight lost in what it wanted to be.
I asked it what it wanted and just
like me it answered back saying I don’t know
and why does it matter when I’m coffee and you’re human.
Bright lights as I order another.
Red coated everything like a bleeding ulcer.
No one could see the pain that trickled like mini waterfalls.
Each step in the vein of something.
Life wished something greater
but Ignore the small voices for white floors
asking those if they found what they were looking for.
My mouth tasted like iron with droplets of red decorating my red.
I was a fire.
Moving faster to get everything done I asked and asked again.
Can I help you find something?
Vomiting blood across the floor as they walk straight through.
No one noticed and neither did I moving faster than a typhoon.
Bleeding was nothing when you could make more.
Coffee induced coma where every
droplet of red was stretched as thin as it could be.
Like a blanket of the morning I wondered if life was worth more.
In my footsteps I knew I didn’t have the time.
Life was worth nothing more than the empty cup left in my room.
These bitter words hit so softly.
Love tactile on the edge.
Lights reflect where eyes catch shadows.
We knew it by the night.
Fighting torn woven in blame.
For you I’d pull back like the tide.
Give you all the space you need.
I don’t want this to become another
episode of restless what if speeches.
For you I’d do what was needed.
Trace the footsteps to avoid the same
I’d preach the sun be extra bright when
the sky was that empty blue.
We’d cloud watch as they rolled in making pictures
to add to our memories.
For you I’d change because it makes me a better man.
For you I’d do anything.