How Bitter Can You Go?
All bitters originated centuries ago when apothecaries started combining herbs, bark, and berries with alcohol and promoting the results as medicinal tonics. But in 1906, selling bitters as health remedies was outlawed, so they’re now found only behind the bar.
The type we’ve addressed here is nonpotable—not because they are unsafe for human consumption, but because they’re not intended to be consumed alone due to their strong flavors and high alcohol content (usually between 70 and 90 proof). A few dashes of nonpotable bitters are used to round out a drink. They’re most commonly found in classic recipes such as the Champagne Cocktail.
The second type of bitters is potable, typically poured as a digestif, a drink that aids digestion after a big meal. While the digestive-aid factor is up for debate, these distinctively flavored liqueurs are popular. The best-known potable bitters are Fernet-Branca, Jägermeister, and Unicum.
Other Uses for Bitters
Though bitters can no longer be sold legally as health remedies, many people still turn to them for just that purpose. Here are a few of the more common (if unscientific) applications:
Take a lemon wedge, coat it in sugar, then douse it with some bitters. Bite down, and your hiccups are supposed to disappear.
A few dashes of bitters added to a glass of club soda or ginger ale may cure indigestion.
Bitters are nearly a panacea: It is suggested that a few dashes will cure anything from a headache to the flu.