In 18th century Europe, herbal bitters were commonly served tableside at formal dinners and other gatherings as digestifs to stimulate digestion before and after indulging in food and drink. By the early 19th century, barkeeps used a variety of bitters as flavoring additives as they created new and adventurous alcoholic concoctions. In fact, this is how the modern cocktail was born. The term cocktail first appeared in the April 1803 edition of Farmer's Cabinet and was defined as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Many bitters were originally developed and sold as tonics and patent medicines. One of the best known formulas to emerge from this period was the famous Angostura bitters, which are named after a town in Venezuela and void of any angostura bark. Produced by the House of Angostura of Trinidad and Tobago, the formula was originally marketed to sailors as a stomachic but eventually became a key ingredient in several popular American whiskey-based cocktails like the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. The same formula, a closely guarded secret reputedly known to only a handful of people still living, has been in continuous production since 1824 and is still available today.
Another well-known herbal bitter formula is Jägermeister, although many people are unaware of the fact and regard the digestif as a "red Solo Cup ready" or shot glass beverage in itself. In Europe, it is considered a Kräuterlikör, or herbal liqueur. Curt Mast, hunting enthusiast and first distiller of the 70-proof forumula, chose the name Jägermeister because it translates to "master of hunters" in German (it's also a title for civil service gamekeepers and foresters). In continuous production since 1935, Jägermeister features 56 herbs, spices, roots and fruit, including juniper (also the primary flavoring agent in gin), licorice root, aniseed, ginseng root, saffron, ginger, poppy seeds and citrus peel. Thankfully, and contrary to a persistent urban legend, it does not contain elk's blood.
The following dandelion bitters recipe is easy to make with just a few ingredients. It's easy to use too. Just a few drops on the tongue before or after a meal will be enough to produce a carminative effect to stimulate healthy digestion and help to reduce bloating.
a Mountain Rose Herbs recipe
2 parts organic Dandelion Root
1 part organic Fennel Seed
½ part organic Ginger Root
½ part organic Orange Peel
If using fresh plants, harvest and clean your herb. Be sure you have proper identification. Finely chop or grind the herb. Fill 1/2 of a clean mason jar with the mixture. If tincturing dried herbs, only fill 1/3 of the jar since dried roots will expand! Pour 100-proof vodka over the herb and fill to the very top of the jar. Be sure your herb mixture is completely covered. Label your jar with the name of the herbs, date, alcohol strength, and parts used. Allow to extract for 6 to 8 weeks, shaking the jar often. Strain the herb with cheesecloth and squeeze any remaining liquid in the herb back into the extract. Bottle the liquid in amber dropper bottles and label.
Dr. Copp's White Mountain Bitters Advertising Trade Card, circa 1883