By Sharon Letts Photo Craig Allyn Beneficial bitters, ancient tinctures Mixologist and Los Angeles Bartender, Kyle Branche, has long been a fan of bitters, an ancient infusion used to flavor both craft and classic cocktails. But bitters actually began as a beneficial tincture, with potent, bittersweet plants used to […]
By Sharon Letts Photo Craig Allyn
Beneficial bitters, ancient tinctures
Mixologist and Los Angeles Bartender, Kyle Branche, has long been a fan of bitters, an ancient infusion used to flavor both craft and classic cocktails. But bitters actually began as a beneficial tincture, with potent, bittersweet plants used to aid in digestion and more, depending on the combination of plants used..
By definition, a tincture is any beneficial plant soaked in alcohol and taken orally, with the intent to treat symptoms and heal. The beneficial compounds of plants are easily absorbed into alcohol, making it an efficient delivery into the bloodstream.
In the cannabis remedy market, bitters have been recognized by savvy formulators, infusing them with both psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and/or cannabidiol (CBD), marketed as tinctures or for use in medicated cocktails.
Branche noted a resurgence of bitters in the alcohol industry and mixologist community, wanting to acknowledge and share the many small, craft bitters makers, he created a website as a directory, Bittershub.com.
“Aside from the listings of bitters makers on the site, you can also find archives of a monthly interview series I produced and hosted for nearly two years,” he said. “There, we go in depth on the process of creating bitters, flavor choices, and why each maker was called to create this age-old remedy-turned flavoring.”
Bitters, Tinctures & Tonics
Apothecary is the ancient practice of making remedies from plants. The ancient Egyptians were the first known apothecaries to create tinctures as medicine from plants using wine as a base. But, the most common tinctures have historically been made with gin, another plant-based alcoholic beverage commonly made using juniper, coriander and angelica (wild celery root).
“Since cocktails mainly contain sour and sweet flavors, bitters are used to engage another primary taste, balancing out the drink – making it more complex, and giving it a more complete flavor profile,” Branche shared. “The bonus of using bitters in cocktails, or just by adding drops to water as a supplement, is that they are also beneficial, because the plants used all have unique medicinal properties.”
Amarogentin, a perennial flowering plant, native to the Alps and other mountainous regions of central and southern Europe, is a key compound in many bitters – said to be one of the most bitter of all plants.
One compound of amarogentin, gentian, is said to stimulate the bitter taste receptors on the tongue, causing an increase in the production of saliva and gastric secretions; which, in turn, stimulates the appetite, improving the digestion system, increasing absorption of nutrients across the gut wall and better digestion.
In a paper published in the National Library of Medicine (PubMed), the amarogentin plant was also found to be an anti-oxidative, anti-tumor, and have anti-diabetic properties, when tested on lab mice with liver cancer.
The first “aromatic bitters” were created in Venezuela in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert, as a tincture for stomach issues. His product was named after the town they were in, Angostura. In the mid 1870s Siegert’s three sons relocated to Trinidad, where the formulation is still created today. Siegert’s sons were the first to introduce bitters as an essential ingredient in cocktails and food.
“In general, all bitters are good tonics for the body, some are just more medicinal than others,” Branche said. “Bitters break down large proteins, tone the digestive tract, feed the healthy gut flora or prebiotic, tone hiatal valve, helping with heartburn and reflux,” Branch explained. “Bitters also support, cleanse the liver. It’s a win-win combination.”
Some of the earliest bitters were formulated using aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit as flavorings, adding to its medicinal properties. Beside gentian, a few common ingredients used are cascarilla, cassia (Chinese cinnamon), orange peel, and cinchona bark.
“When you begin to realize all the beneficial compounds within bitters, it’s easy to see how they can be incorporated into more than just cocktails,” Branche added. “Bitters can also be added to stews, soups, and casseroles.”
The Lost Art of Bitters
Branche launched Bitters Hub online in 2017, as a global directory for bitters brands. Rather than a shopping site, Bitters Hub is a comprehensive listing, where you can find many varieties in one place. A kind of encyclopedia of bitters around the world, if you will.
“While I suggest online marketplaces to buy some bitters, most charge vendors a steep fee,” he said. “That means the site makes more profit than the vendors. So, my tendency is to support the brands directly as much as possible via these hubs.”
In the seemingly lost art of making bitters, Branche said there are too many combinations of ingredients and flavor nuances in each brand of bitters to describe them all on the website, but he did fill in the blanks as much as possible.
Branche believes that many of the makers are true apothecaries and artisans in their own right, and they need more recognition and support over the more commonly known, mass produced brands.
“Most bitters are made in small batches by small makers, so many of the brands’ formulations are seasonal,” he added. “I like to support these smaller brands. Because If the smaller makers are allowed to grow and thrive it’s a benefit to all of us. Bitters makers could be considered some of the last apothecaries on the planet.”
Making Bitters Better with Weed
A simple search online shows many companies enhancing the beneficial compounds in bitters by infusing the flavoring with cannabis, creating the ultimate healing tincture.
Foggy Bitters of Canada, offers up a 250 milligram bottle of THC Infused Cannabis cocktail flavoring, with activated tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), that includes grapefruit, lemon and oranges flavors.
Another company, Mountain Elixirs of Denver, Colorado, makes CBD Sacred Bitters, with the sub-name, Virtue, using an incredibly beneficial line-up of plants including, rose, sage, holy basil, chrysanthemum, and lemongrass.
Simple Bitters Cannabis Infusion:
1 liter of bitters
¼ c. ground cannabis flower (whole plant: stems, leaves, flower)
Let sit/steep in dark, cool cupboard for 1 week
Strain, decant & always label
Note: Cold infusions do not activate THC. To activate, place in a sunny window for a couple of hours to warm. Infusion may test upwards of 60 percent activated THC.
We in the cannabis community already know that the terpene and cannabinoid profile of all beneficial plants, not just cannabis, is key to keeping the body in homeostasis, or a place where illness cannot dwell.
Rediscovering bitters as another healing tincture, revealing more about the history of medicinal plants and apothecary, is just another gateway back into the garden for health and happiness.
Following is a recipe from Kyle Branche, using Angostura Orange Bitters, one of the most medicinal of all the bitters.
The Manhattan Transfer
Place small, sliced chunks of fresh Jazz* apples in the bottom of a Martini glass
(This replaces standard cherry garnish)
In shaker: choice of Bulleit Bourbon or Rye Carpano Antica formula vermouth
Atomize 4 – 6 sprays of Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban Port Cask single malt
Dash of Angostura Orange Bitters
Option: add a couple drops of cherry juice
Atomize in the chilled martini glass:
Sprays of Woodford Reserve Bourbon,
barrel-aged Spiced Cherry bitters,
Black Cloud Charred Cedar and/or Token Cloverdale Cedar bitters,
And Napa Valley’s Toasted Oak & Holiday Spiced Apple bitters
Chill & strain in glass with a small mini-beaker as a sidekick chilling in a bucket, glass sitting over ice, and a mini-spoon on the side for eating the infused apple chunks.
*Jazz apples are a cross between Royal Gala & Braeburn
For more information on Kyle Branche’s Bitters Hub visit, https://bittershub.wordpress.com/
PubMed amarogentin study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6154739/
For more infusion recipes visit Sharon Letts’ website, www.sharonletts.com/apothecary