Bitters is a generic term for aromatic infusions made from herbs, seeds, fruit peel, roots, spices and bark.
Their flavours are extracted by soaking them in alcohol which is then distilled to concentrate the flavours. The infusions have a very high alcohol content, and as their name would imply, a very bitter taste, which often comes from quinine bark.
The tongue has four taste areas. Bitterness is one of the areas, at the back of the tongue. Some feel that an enjoyment of bitter tastes is a sign of a fully-developed or grown-up taster, because the person is allowing this area to kick in, just as they would enjoy sweet or salty things. To most North Americans, enjoying Bitters is definitely an acquired taste.
There are two kinds of Bitters. Some Bitters, sometimes referred to as drinking or cocktail Bitters, are meant for use as apéritifs on their own. Other, more concentrated, ones are meant to be used a few drops at a time as flavouring
Drinking Bitters were around way before concentrated Bitters. Some drinking Bitters can actually be quite sweet, especially the Italian ones; others can be dry. The drinking ones are mostly meant for consumption after meals as “digestifs”, rather than before as “apertifs”, though there are exceptions. Two Italian Bitters, Campari and Cynar, are used as aperitifs to stimulate your appetite before a meal. French Dubonnet is also sold as an apertif.
There are a few non-alcoholic drinking Bitters such as San Pelligrino and Crodino (ditto Fanta), and a few such as Aperol that are low in alcohol. Most Italian Bitters are dark brown — Campari is an exception.
Originally, it was believed that Bitters helped with digestion. Many Europeans still feel that they do. They were also originally sold as helping with many other physical complaints. Because of this, they were sold without an alcohol tax being applied to them. In the early 1900s, the American Food and Drug Administration disallowed medical claims for Bitters, based on the 1906 Pure Food & Drug Act — if you made health claims about your product, you had to provide proof. Bitters were suddenly exposed to American alcohol taxes, and their sales plummeted.
Most medicinal claims about Bitters, including settling stomachs, have been disproved by science, but many people still believe it helps with digestion
Italy produces the most Bitters in the world.
When your coffee has Bitters added to it (or grappa, for that matter), it’s called a “Caffè Corretto.”
In the early days of cocktails, some kind of Bitters were always called for. Nowadays, the Bitter called for is likely to be Angostura, if one is called for at all. Even in the first half of the 1900s there were a great variety of concentrated Bitters for cocktails made in America, but now (2004) it is increasingly difficult to find any but a few hangers-on. Flipping through early cocktail books gives an idea of the great array that once inhabited well-stocked bars in the great hotels. A few stragglers that have fallen into obscurity can still be spotted occasionally in mail-order catalogues or web sites.
Bitters were originally made by monks, intended to be for medicinal use.
Gill, Alexandra. Bartenders are sweet on bitters. Toronto: The Globe and Mail. 12 January 2010.