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.