Bitters are a tincture of bitter herbs, roots, barks, spices, and natural flavorings. These ingredients are aged for weeks, then blended in diluted alcohol.
Bittering agents include ingredients such as gentian root, cinchona bark, wild cherry bark, black walnut shells, angelica bark, willow bark, orris root, dandelion root, and more.
Historically bitters were created as medicine, since both bitter and alcoholic ingredients have curative properties, each in their own unique way. Cinchona bark contains quinine which cures malaria, gentian root has alkaline agents which regulate digestive acids as well as interact with intestine lining regeneration. Willow bark contains salicin, which is the originator of salicyic acid, or aspirin. Unfortunately these natural ingredients are referenced most often by passed down folk medicine and largely ignored by modern industrial trials so there is little modern research to support these widely believed claims.
In 1824, Dr. Johann Siegert invented Angostura Bitters while working as a physician for Simon Bolivar who helped liberate many countries from Spanish colonial rule. Dr. Siegert’s concoction was used to treat digestive issues, sea sickness, and more. Soldiers and sailors distributed demand for his wonderful concoction around the world, and the rest is history.
Bitters producers used to be as widespread as distillers, usually several in cities. Today there are still collectors of bitters bottles imprinted with producers’ names and localities. The Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, requiring active ingredients to be labeled, and banning adulterated or mislabeled foods. Most bitters producers touted a wide variety of health claims, and were subsequently shut down. Prohibition in 1920 further eliminated all remaining bitters producers except two: Angostura and Peychaud’s. In the 1950s Fee Brothers introduced Orange Bitters. Regan’s Orange Bitters went on the market in 2005, the 4th bitters producer in the USA after prohibition.
In 2016 there are around 50 bitters producers in the USA, including McCharen’s Bitters. More than half of those producers are located in NYC, NOLA, Portland OR, and southern California. For contrast, in 2016 there were 9,000 wineries, 4,000 breweries, and 1,000 distilleries in the USA.