Probably you have heard of Agnostura bitters? Perhaps you have seen the odd little brown bottle with the ill-fitting paper label on the shelf at the grocery store and wondered what the heck it was…
Anyone who has mixed cocktails has likely put a dash of the strange concoction into the shaker before. Maybe you remember your Grandma or Grandpa telling you it would settle your tummy—or perhaps a friend offered it as a sure-fire cure for a hangover.
The practice of using bitters had mostly receded to folklore for quite some time here in the United States until recently. New small batch recipe companies and exclusive trendy stores are starting to carry bitters and extol their virtues as though they’d thought of it themselves.
The truth is though, that humans have used bitters for literally thousands of years. Some records indicate that the Ancient Egyptians may have concocted bitters in jugs of wine. Now days, people turn their noses up at bitter flavors for the most part. In the days of hunting and gathering we had little choice but to consume bitter foods and greens. Our ancestors considered these wild bitter tasting plants critical to their health. Many of the diseases our modern culture suffers from like indigestion and gastric reflux to metabolic disorders ranging from elevated cholesterol to type 2 diabetes—seem to all point back to the deficiency of bitterness in our diets. (1) and the lack of protection and tone it imparts to our digestion and metabolic functions. Our palates became more refined as we became more civilized and we found ourselves appreciating salts and more bland foods. So, consequently, bitter herbs became less common--but ironically, more necessary.
Once humans managed to get the hang of distillation, recipes for bitters became quite commonplace. Many of the snake oil peddlers of olden days were selling bitters of one recipe or another. Incidentally, many of those bottles are worth a small fortune now. One of the first bitters ever to be bottled and sold in mass was Agnostura bitters. The recipe was first compounded as a cure for sea sickness by a German physician, Dr. Johan Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in 1824. Dr. Siegert named his concoction after the town of Agnostura in Venezuela where he formed the house of Agnostura.
The basic concept is a mixture of herbs that tastes bitter. The actual taste is the absolute most important aspect of the recipe. Bitter herbs are thought to stimulate digestive function by increasing saliva production and promoting both stomach acid and digestive enzyme production. (3) which leads to improved appetite and digestion. As a result, they are particularly used when there is low stomach acid but not in heartburn (where too much stomach acid could initially exacerbate the situation).
These herbs literally taste bitter. The therapeutic action of the preparation is hugely reliant on the patient experiencing the bitter taste. If the taste is masked, the neurological, physiological response will not result in the therapeutic stimulation of the digestive system and appetite. (4) In plain English that means that to try and make bitters more palatable by adding sweetener or flavors would completely negate the medicinal effect. How odd right?
Our tongues have zones on them that allow us to taste different flavors. There are many theories about what effects these flavor zones have on our physiology. For example, many Traditional Chinese medicine texts suggest that sour tastes drain the liver. This would be potentially beneficial to people with congested livers. Likewise, it is theorized that when people ingest bitter tasting things the saliva is stimulated which affects the stomach to produce digestive enzymes which prepares the digestive system for the process of breaking down foods.
This could potentially benefit a person with slow digestion or low appetite. The more prepared the body is for food the better it is able to break it down efficiently. Proper absorption is completely dependent on the body’s ability to extract the nutrients from food in the first place.
The other potential benefit to using bitters therapeutically is related to the family that such herbs occupy in the scheme of things. Herbalists categorize herbs into groups based on their