[ Bitters' Built-in Benefits ] ~ from Herbco
Plants may be small and, in many cases, appear wispy and frail, but they are not defenseless. They galvanize their defense systems with a variety of naturally occurring chemicals to protect themselves from disease and predatory insects. Some plants are better equipped in this sense than others. A diverse group of plants known as the bitter herbs, that range from chicory to coffee, are loaded with terpenes, alkaloids, tannins, isoflavones, saponins and other agents that help to protect them from harm.
Humans have taken advantage of this built-in bitter benefit for thousands of years, intuitively chewing a leaf or sipping tea made from one of these plants to tame a noisy tummy or to get the appetite going. This happens because the bitter compounds begin to stimulate digestion the moment they hit the tongue with the first bite of food, initiating a cascade of events in a complex but awesome physiological response known as the “bitter reflex.” Aside from the cool science, bitter herbs taste pretty good too. Read on to learn how to make herbal bitters.
fennel seed

[ MAKING HERBAL BITTERS - Microbiome Matters ] ~ from HerbCo

microbiome matters

Your digestion system is a remarkable feat of engineering, the entirety of which can stretch up to 30 feet in length and have the surface area of a regulation tennis court. Collectively, the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon form the portal for the reception and processing of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. But the gut is more than just a reservoir and recycling center. From start to finish, the enteroendocrine cells that line the length of the gastrointestinal tract receive information from “friendly” bacteria to enhance immunity and nutrient absorption and to stimulate the secretion of serotonin and other hormones. As such, the process has an impact on emotional well-being and neurotransmission in the brain. Under certain conditions, we recognize the visceral experience of this connection as a “gut feeling.”

Can you stomach learning more? Here’s what happens when you take a bite of salad greens prior to digging into your entrée: Your tongue detects one or more bitter compounds and immediately fires off neural signals to the vagas nerve, a component of the parasympathetic system that runs from the brain to the abdomen and regulates taste and swallowing (among other things). Enteroendocrine cells get the message and respond by increasing salivation so you can better chew and swallow your food and to stimulate the appetite (consider the word appetizer). At the same time, the nerve cells signal “look out below!” and direct the stomach to open shop and start producing hydrochloric acid. From here, the rest of the gastric gang — the liver, gallbladder and pancreas — get invited to the peristalsis party.

salad greens

[ MAKING HERBAL BITTERS - Borborygmi Blues ] ~ from HerbCo

the borborygmi blues

Sometimes, things don’t go smoothly. Bloating, belching or borborygmi, the technical term for audible stomach rumblings, can occur as gas and fluid try to make their way through the intestines. To a degree, any and all of these events are a normal part of digestion and are due to contractions of the intestinal muscles. However, an overgrowth of bacteria can make the gut environment go from friendly to hostile and cause congestion along the route, leading to a buildup of gas and discomfort. In response, the intestines attempt to clear the gas by contracting even harder. Eventually, the gas will find its way out, perhaps forcibly, and, if you’re not alone, cause you to curse a squeaky floorboard.

Now you can clearly see how initiating the bitter reflex will help you to avoid embarrassing borborygmi and flatulence. But not everyone is into eating raw greens. Kids, for instance, are usually less enthusiastic about chomping on bitter arugula, chicory or dandelion than salad savvy adults. Bitter taste perception also varies among different people due to factors such as food choices, age, gender and epigenetics, which determines the genetic sequencing that is unique to each of us. Fortunately, it’s possible to take the bitter compounds out of the salad bowl or club sandwich and put them in a bottle.

dandelion heads
dandelion tincture

[ MAKING HERBAL BITTERS - Bitter History ] ~ from HerbCo

a bit of bitter history

Archeological evidence indicates that herbal bitters have been used for thousands of years by various cultures. Mithradates the Great, King of Pontus (134 to 63 BC) is reputed to have protected himself from his enemies by taking a daily dose of an antidote to poisoning that he developed called mithridatium, a formula that contained cassia, frankincense, cardamom, gentian root, myrrh, costmary, ginger, cinnamon, rhubarb, shepherd’s purse and about 40 other bitter herbs compounded in honey. Roman physicians adopted and improved the formula to produce a liquid tonic for their own use that required several weeks to age. A milder tonic of bitter herbs infused in wine was recommended to counter the effects of excessive indulgence in food and drink, activities the ancient Romans had an odd obsession with. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote extensively about the virtue of bitters and is credited with giving us the adage, “all disease begins in the gut.” Modern science recognizes this association. In fact, we now know that up to 80% of immune cells reside in the intestinal lining.

During the middle ages, bitters were quite popular all over Europe. In medieval England, monks tended monastery gardens of herbs for “official” use in the apothecary, which is why the scientific name of so many herbs includes the word “officinalis.” Canary wine, a pale yellow precursor to sherry, imported from the Canary Islands, was wildly popular with Elizabethans. Also known as sack, the fortified wine was referenced in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Herbal bitters later found their way to the American colonies, where Dr. Johann Siegert would produce his infamous Angostura bitters in the early 19th century. Although the temperance movement was in full swing at the time, it was considered acceptable to add bitters to alcohol to help the concoction go down. Ergo – the first modern cocktail was born. Today, Angostura bitters are a staple in every bartender’s inventory.

myrrh and honey

[ MAKING HERBAL BITTERS - The Bitter End ] ~ from HerbCo

the bitter end

Bitters are suitable for nearly everyone, and may be made in a base of alcohol (usually rum or brandy) or in apple cider vinegar for children and others who cannot tolerate alcohol. To make the tincture more robust and palatable, a combination of bitter herbs and roots, aromatic flowers and herbs, and dried fruit peels are typically included. As a general rule of thumb, plan on using 50% bitter ingredients and 50% aromatics (see below), accented with a small amount of dried fruit peel. Grind, grate or crack open any ingredient that needs more exposure to infuse properly (i.e., cardamom pods or peppercorns). Place all ingredients in a clean glass canning jar (up to ½ full) and pour enough vinegar or alcohol into the jar to completely cover the material. Cap the jar and store in a cool, dark place for 6-8 weeks. Strain and decant the reserved liquid into clean dropper bottles and add a dropperful or two to water, tea, juice, broth or your favorite cocktail. Sensible caution: If you have a history of gastroesophageal reflux disease, a disease of the liver, gallbladder or bowel, a hiatal hernia or peptic ulcers, or if you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor before supplementing your diet with herbal bitters.

As previously mentioned, there are three basic components to most herbal bitter formulas – bitter herbs, aromatic herbs and fruit peels. Also, some materials, like fruit peels and ginger root, are both bitter and aromatic. There’s really no hard-and-fast rules about formulation, though, so go with your intuition and taste preferences. Here’s a guideline of potential ingredients…

turmeric root, bitter
Dandelion root, elecampane, rue, mugwort, tansy, wormwood, gentian root, horehound, yellow dock, burdock, barberry, turmeric root, ginger root

cinnamon, aromatic
Fennel seed, star anise, licorice root, juniper berries, peppercorns, aniseed, coriander, lavender, allspice, cardamom, thyme, mint, rosemary, chamomile, hops

citrus peel, fruit peel
Fruit Peel
Orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime

try some of these HERBS AND SPICES for herbal bitters


gentian root, cut & sifted
The yellow root of gentian is a key ingredient in the well-known Stockton herbal bitters formula. Because it is very bitter, a little goes a long way. Works well with dandelion root and leaf, cardamom and orange peel.

orange peel

orange peel, cut & sifted
The universal bitter, dried orange peel works in just about every combination of bitter herbs and aromatics.

dandelion root

dandelion root, cut & sifted
Both the root and leaves of “lion’s tooth” are used in bitters formulas. Its mild flavor tempers more bitter herbs, such as burdock and gentian, and adds a bit of sweetness.

burdock root

burdock root, cut & sifted
As a rich source of the probiotic inulin, this is the workhorse of bitters. As an added bonus, the sliced root is also added to soups and stews!

fennel seed

fennel seed, cut & sifted
In Medieval England, fennel seed was often carried to church to chew on during long services to tame a growling stomach. It combines well with just about any bitter or aromatic

licorice root

licorice root, cut & sifted
The root of this beautiful flowering plant gets its scientific name from the Greek word that means “sweet root,” As such, this is herbal bitter is preferred by children.

some quick recipes for herbal bitters to make now and use later

get up and go bitters

get up and go bitters
This formula incorporates a complex blend of botanicals. Feel free to make ingredient substitutions according to taste preference of what materials you have on hand.

gentle gentian bitters

get up and go bitters
This simple formula is easy to make and easy on little tummies. Be sure to use vinegar instead of alcohol to make it child-friendly.

spring time floral bitters

spring time floral bitters
A delightful and mild tonic with floral notes paired with the brightness of orange peel and the sweetness of vanilla and white rum.

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