Cultures around the world have long believed that bitter flavors are essential to good health because they stimulate the digestive system. Thus began the tradition of steeping bitter-tasting roots, leaves, berries and fruits in alcohol and serving the mixture before or after a meal. Often the formula was accompanied by more pleasant tasting carminative herbs such as ginger, fennel, cardamon, or orange peel.
Whether brewed according to secret recipes by medieval monks or concocted according to oral tradition by wise women, the first bitters had medicinal purposes. Over time, the theory, if not the recipes, passed into the hands of apothecaries and on to the makers of 19th Century patent medicines. After bartenders discovered that bitters softened the often harsh liquors of the day, the cocktail was born. Until the late 1880s, any drink called a cocktail contained bitters—this includes such classics as the martini, the Manhattan and the Old-Fashioned. Only in the 1950s did the taste for bitters fade.
Now, whether you enjoy them as an apertif, digestif, or as a remedy to settle an upset stomach, calm a hangover or gently cleanse the liver, bitters are back!