Bitters is — as the name implies — an infusion that’s created from predominantly bitter ingredients. These ingredients comprise aromatics and botanicals that can include any combination of herbs, roots, bark, fruit, seeds, or flowers.
If you’ve visited a cocktail lounge lately, you’ve probably noticed additions like Angostura bitters on the mixed drink menu. But you can find bitters everywhere from the bar to the medicine cabinet.
While bitters are a trendy craft cocktail component, that’s not what they first started as. And it’s certainly not all that they are.
This apothecary staple was first marketed in the 1700s as a remedy for common ailments such as digestion irregularities. Medicinal herbs and botanicals were preserved in alcohol and touted as a cure-all.
Throughout the next few centuries, bitters would be used for everything from a stimulant for the troops in the 1800s to a proposed treatment for before making their way to the modern happy hour menu.
Now, with emerging science to back up the benefits, bitters have once again gained popularity for aiding digestive health, curbing sugar cravings, boosting the immune system, and even easing stress.
This guide will review exactly how bitter ingredients affect our health, who can benefit from bitters, and how to make them at home.
How is simply eating something bitter-tasting better for your health?
Scientists label bitter as one of the seven basic tastes.
Our body contains tons of receptors () for bitter compounds in not only our mouth and tongue, but our stomach, gut, liver, and pancreas.
This is mostly for protective reasons. Our bitter receptors are built as a “warning” to our body, as most dangerous and poisonous things are highly bitter tasting.
The stimulation of these bitter receptors promotes healthy digestion by increasing digestive secretions. This leads to better absorption of nutrients, natural detoxification of the liver, and — thanks to the gut-brain connection — bitters can even have a positive effect on stress.
But remember, bitters are not a primary treatment. Think of them as a health boost to help the body run more smoothly — from kick-starting the digestive tract to boosting the immune system. They shouldn’t replace any treatment a doctor has prescribed.
Digestion and gut benefits
When your digestion needs a little support, bitters can facilitate stomach acid and act as a digestive aid.
This can not only ease indigestion, but also heartburn, nausea, cramping, bloating, and gas.
Bitters for digestion and gut health
Immune and inflammation benefits
Burdock is an inflammation fighter that has to have positive effects in people with osteoarthritis.
The anti-inflammatory compounds in these ingredients have powerful antioxidant effects to protect the body from autoimmune diseases.
Bitters for immune function and inflammation
- Oregon grape
Sugar and appetite control benefits
Curb sugar cravings quickly with the help of bitters, which help that drive us to consume sweets.
Bitters can promote overall healthy eating habits and . Consuming bitter foods stimulates the production of PYY and GLP-1 hormones, which help control and .
Bitters for sugar and appetite control
- artichoke leaf
- citrus peel
- licorice root
- gentian root
Liver health benefits
Certain bittering agents help support the liver at fulfilling its main job: removing toxins from the body and regulating our metabolic processes.
Bitters give the liver a boost by aiding in the elimination of toxins and detoxification, coordinating the metabolism of sugar and fats, and helping release gallbladder-supporting hormones like cholecystokinin (CCK).
Bitters for sugar and appetite control
- artichoke leaf
- dandelion root
- chicory root
Bitters can also have a positive effect on , healthy skin, and stress.
- Dandelion root is a powerful antioxidant that can reduce .
- Artichoke leaf contains the flavonoid , a powerful liver protectant, and has been shown to help (in mice).
- Chicory root aids in digestion and and can help regulate blood sugar.
- Gentian root contains compounds and is used to relieve indigestion, loss of appetite, and heartburn.
- Wormwood aids in overall digestion and can .
- Licorice root is anti-inflammatory, boosts the immune system, and can soothe digestive issues.
- Wild cherry bark boosts the immune system and on colon cancer cells.
- Burdock root is an antioxidant powerhouse that detoxes the blood and helps remove toxins.
- Black walnut leaf contains tannins which and is considered beneficial to skin health.
- Devil’s club root is used as a for respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal issues.
- Angelica root is used for heartburn, intestinal gas, loss of appetite, and .
- Sarsaparilla can improve overall liver function (as shown in rats) and has positive effects on certain and arthritis due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Other bittering agents may include:
- Oregon grape root
- orris root
- calamus root
- barberry root
- cinchona bark
- quassia bark
Here are some aromatics typically used to make bitters:
- Herbs and flowers: mint, sage, lemongrass, peppermint, sorrel, lavender, chamomile, hibiscus, passionflower, yarrow, rose, milk thistle, and valerian
- Spices: cinnamon, cassia, turmeric, cloves, cardamom, chiles, fennel, ginger, nutmeg, juniper berries, star anise, vanilla beans, and peppercorns
- Fruit: citrus peels and dried fruit
- Nuts and beans: nuts, coffee beans, cocoa beans, and cocoa nibs
You only need a few drops
Bitters are very potent, and dosing and frequency will vary on what you’re using them for. But often a few drops will do.
You can take them internally either by placing a few drops from a tincture on the tongue or diluting with another liquid, such as sparkling water or in cocktails.
When you take it might matter though: If your goal of using bitters is to ease digestive issues, consumption should occur either directly before or after meals.
How often you take them differs for everyone. While you can use bitters at low doses as part of your daily routine, you may find that bitters help you when used as needed.
In the beginning, it’s best to start with small doses of bitters before assessing its effectiveness and your body’s reaction.
Before you make your own, learn the basics
Bitters contain two things: bitter ingredients and a carrier, which is typically alcohol (although we’ll also review nonalcoholic bitters further below). Aromatics and spices may also be added to bitters.
Common bittering agents include:
- dandelion root
- artichoke leaf
- burdock root
- gentian root
- angelica root
Spices, botanicals, and herbs are added as flavoring agents but in some cases they also provide additional benefits (i.e. lavender in a stress-relief bitters).
These aromatics — to name a few — can include:
- dried fruit
- cocoa or coffee beans
- juniper berries
The ratio The best thing about bitters is that you can really experiment. While there’s no set-in-stone ratio for bitters, the general proportion is typically 1 part bittering agents to 5 parts alcohol (1:5). Botanicals and aromatics are generally a 1:2 ratio to bitters or equal parts.
Here’s what you need to make and store bitters at home
To make and store bitters properly, the following tools and equipment are needed:
- a mason jar or other container with a tight-fitting lid
- glass dropper bottles, if making tinctures
- measuring cups and spoons, or a scale
- spice grinder, or mortar and pestle
- a fine-mesh strainer (cheesecloth may also be used)
- a funnel
Can it be alcohol-free?
Bitters is traditionally and most commonly made with alcohol. Alcohol used to make bitters is typically between 40-50 percent ABV. Alcohol helps extract as much as possible from the bittering agents, while also preserving the shelf life of the bitters.
The amount of alcohol in a single dose of bitters is very minimal. However, you can still make bitters without alcohol.
Bitters can be made with glycerin, a liquid sugar, or with a nonalcoholic spirit like SEEDLIP.
Making your own bitters doesn’t have to be intimidating. Actually, it’s easier, more hands-off, and takes less effort than most realize.
About 90 percent of making your own bitters will be waiting for it to be ready, as bitters takes a few weeks to infuse. Let’s learn the basics of bitters in this step-by-step DIY guide.
A snapshot at creating your own recipes
If you have an idea of what you want to put together, you can follow these instructions.
- Combine bittering agents, aromatics (if using), and alcohol using a basic 1:5 ratio of bittering agents to alcohol.
- Place the bitters in clean glass jars with a tight-fitting lid (mason jars work well).
- Label the bitters.
- Store the bitters in a cool, dry place, like a cupboard.
- Shake the jar of bitters daily.
- Infuse the bitters for several weeks. The length of time needed will depend on the ingredients used. You can infuse bitters for as little as 5 days for milder bitters, or up to 3 weeks.
- Strain your mixture using a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer.
- Bottle your bitters in containers or tinctures.
Fresh or dried herbs and botanicals can be used. If using fresh, aim for a 1:2 ratio of ingredients to alcohol and if using dried, stick with the 1:5 standard (or less).
Use alcohol with a 40-50 percent ABV. Vodka is a great choice because of its clean, neutral flavor, but bourbon, rum, or rye also work.
To make bitters alcohol-free, use a nonalcoholic spirit such as SEEDLIP. But note that alcohol-free bitters have shorter shelf lives. Since alcohol is a natural preservative, the higher the alcohol content in bitters, the longer the shelf life will be.
Bitters should infuse for five days to two weeks. The longer bitters infuse, the stronger they’ll be.
You should let your bitters sit until it develops a prominent, potent flavor and smells very fragrant. To make your bitters even stronger, infuse for four weeks.
Where to buy
Purchase the herbs and bittering agents for your homemade bitters easily online from websites like Mountain Rose Herbs.
If you’re not ready to take the plunge into DIY bitters just yet, there are many companies making bitters.
Popular brands you can buy from:
- Urban Moonshine offers Digestive Bitters, Healthy Liver Bitters, and Calm Tummy Bitters. ($18.99/2 oz)
- Flora Health makes alcohol-free Swedish bitters. ($11.99/3.4 oz)
- Scrappy’s Bitters offers a vast variety of bitters, from lavender to celery, for cocktails and beyond. ($17.99/5 oz)
- Angostura Bitters is one of the oldest makers of bitters still around today. ($22/16 oz)
The general cost of bitters The cost of making your own bitters will vary by the herbs and bittering agents you’re using. The most common bittering agents (burdock root, artichoke leaf, angelica, dandelion root, and gentian) average $2.50-$5 per ounce.
Bitters should be avoided by people with certain health conditions or anyone who’s pregnant. Bitters may also interact with certain medications and should not be used by children.
Always speak with your doctor about possible interactions of medicinal herbs and plants with your current medication.
Examples of side effects or complications include:
- Burdock root may have a moderate effect on anticoagulants and diabetes medications.
- Dandelion may interfere with the absorption of antibiotics.
- Artichoke leaf should not be used by those with gallstones as it may increase bile flow.
- Angelica root, yarrow, mugwort, and passionflower (among others) should not be used by pregnant women as it may cause harmful uterine contractions, miscarriage, or premature labor.
- Wormwood shouldn’t be used by those with kidney disorder or a history of seizures.
- Gentian root shouldn’t be used by those with low blood pressure.
- Those with allergies or sensitivities to certain plants, flowers, or herb families should avoid bitters containing them.
While bitters aren’t the magical cure-all they were once marketed as, they certainly have their benefits.
If waiting and making your own bitters doesn’t sound like your ideal way to spend time, you can also gain similar benefits by simply eating bitter foods.
The benefit of bitters can be found in these foods:
- bitter melon
- dandelion greens
- Brussels sprouts
- dark chocolate
Create an on-the-go bitters
Reap the benefits of bitters from anywhere by transferring your bitters into glass dropper bottles which can be easily purchased online. Tinctures are especially helpful for using bitters to ease digestion woes or curbing sugar cravings when you’re on-the-go.
Tiffany La Forge is a professional chef, recipe developer, and food writer who runs the blog Parsnips and Pastries. Her blog focuses on real food for a balanced life, seasonal recipes, and approachable health advice. When she’s not in the kitchen, Tiffany enjoys yoga, hiking, traveling, organic gardening, and hanging out with her corgi, Cocoa. Visit her at her blog or on Instagram.