Making Bitters

Bitter herbs, historically used as natural medicines, can be prepared for use in cocktails and other beverages.

by Stephanie Staton
PHOTO: Edsell Littler/Flickr

Bitters have bite, all the way from their intrinsic flavors to their medicinal roots. These herbs and herbal preparations sharply affect the palate while equally enhancing the overall health of those who ingest them. Traditional medicine from China to the United States accredits bitters with myriad healing properties, including drying, antibacterial, detoxifying, cleansing, stimulating, tonifying, germicidal and parasiticidal.

Writer and foodie Danielle Charles-Davies wrote in “Bitters: the Revival of a Forgotten Flavor,” posted on the Weston A. Price Foundation website,, that most bitters were taken in the form of bitter wild greens eaten before a meal, or alcoholic beverages, known as apéritifs, brewed with bitter and aromatic herbs.

“These traditions still exist today—serving a salad or cocktail before a meal—but unfortunately the bitter taste is now often lacking,” she writes.

Adding bitters back into your diet can be as simple as spicing up your standard salad with bitter greens, such as chicory, arugula, radicchio, endive or even dandelion leaves. To avoid a shock to your taste buds, Charles-Davies recommends starting small to build up your tolerance to the bitter flavor by gradually increasing the portion of bitter greens in your salads. If you’re not in love with the idea of daily salads or just want something to break up the monotony, consider incorporating these greens as well as the roots of dandelion or burdock in stir-fries or soups.

Today, we're seeing a resurgence of bitters being used in craft cocktails.
Bob Ireton/Flickr

The current revival of bitters is best recognized through use in cocktails and apéritifs—a tradition that Huffington Post attributes to Prohibition—and in recent years by the popularity of period TV shows, such as Mad Men, for resuscitating and fueling its resurgence. Designed to temper the sweetness of mixed alcoholic beverages, bitters come in an array of flavors to complement just about any drink.

These tonics and extracts are typically crafted by steeping the bitter herb or root in a base alcohol. Vodka and grain alcohol are most commonly used to best convey the natural flavors of the plant. Other ingredients can be added to achieve the flavor you desire. Plus, the uses of bitters aren’t strictly alcoholic—though their innate alcoholic base lends them well to cocktails—and can be combined with tonic water or club soda as a soothing drink.

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DIY Bitters

Making your own homemade bitters is fairly simple and straightforward. The process is the same as making a tincture—the biggest difference being that with bitters, flavor is paramount. Start your adventure into this art form by making simple bitters before moving on to more complex combinations. You can find myriad suggestions on the Internet for recipes and ratios for your bitters, or you can order a DIY kit that has everything you need to get started. If you’re working from scratch, be sure to thoroughly dry the bitter herbs you intend to use before you begin; fresh herbs tend to become slimy and can result in weaker or off-flavors.

Bitter Herbs To Use

Black walnut is a bitter herb you can use to make bitters.
Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr

Some of the most common bitters stem from exotic roots and barks, such as cassia and yellow gentian, making them a less-than-easy commodity to come by. The trio that follows is based on plants native to in the U.S. and Canada.

With the help of a well-experienced guide and/or thorough foraging wildlife guidebook, you can identify and repurpose these items in your bitters. Be sure to check local ordinances and state laws regarding the collection and use of any parts of these plants, as they may be restricted.

  • Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) ranges from Alaska to southwest Oregon to western Montana and northern Idaho. Resembling an over-large rhubarb plant, devil’s club is shade-tolerant, growing in thick patches in the understory of coastal forests and along ravines—its soil preferences are varied—from well-drained to poorly drained sandy, silty and loamy soils. Strip the bark off the stalks and root-stalks in late summer and autumn. Its medicinal uses include as an expectorant, insulin-resistant diabetes treatment, stress reducer and well-being enhancer.
  • Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis L.), aka false sarsaparilla or wild licorice, can be found growing in the rich, moist soils of woodlands from Newfoundland west to Manitoba and south to North Carolina or Missouri. Standing 14 to 17 inches tall, the plants have a single long-stalked leaf topped with a short-stopped flowering stalk that produces the greenish flower clusters in May to June followed by purplish-black berries. Use the root for crafting licorice-flavored bitters that are reputed to treat psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and kidney disease.
  • Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of six species that grows throughout the U.S. and Canada; however, the tree’s natural range is the central and eastern states. Often found along streams with fertile and moist but well-drained soils, use fresh leaves, recently dried twigs and bark, and fresh or dried nut hulls in 50 percent alcohol or higher to make a tincture.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Hobby Farms.

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