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So what, exactly, are 'Bitters'?
"Bitters" are an aromatic flavouring agent made from infusing roots, barks, fruit peels, seeds, spices, herbs, flowers and botanicals in high-proof alcohol (sometimes glycerine).
Long reputed to possess medicinal properties, bitters were billed as the cure for whatever ailed you, whether it was a headache, indigestion, stomach cramps or constipation.
Using bitter herbs, barks and botanicals for medicinal purposes dates back centuries and versions of some of the potable elixirs are still in use today, like the herbal liqueur Chartreuse, which was first made in 1737 by Carthusian monks who based their recipe on an ancient elixir presented to them by François Hannibal d'Estrées in 1605. Indeed, it took the monks over a century to unravel the complexities of the ancient recipe. Other 'bitters' include Fernet Branca, Vermouth, Abbott's, Angostura, Campari, Averna, and Jägermeister.
The tongue's taste buds allow humans to discern five distinct flavours: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury (or 'umami). Humans and many animals are hard wired to be adverse to bitter flavours, since they're a warning signal that what you are about to ingest might be toxic. But bitterness can also be alluring, esp. when it's delivered through coffee, chocolate, eggplant, grapefruit, hops, artichokes and naturally bitter herbs and lettuces. Many chefs view bitterness as an indispensable cleansing taste, one that makes you take the next bite, and the next.
"Bitters" refers not to a specific bitter flavour but rather to the category of aromatic solutions made with bittering agents such as gentian root and cinchona bark. "Bitters" are essentially a liquid seasoning agent for drinks esp., and also for food.
Aromatic bitters, when applied to a cocktail in a measure of dashes as a unifying ingredient, are known as 'cocktail bitters'. This is in contrast to potable bitters that are intended to be sipped on their own as an aperitif to stimulate the appetite or as a digestif to held aid digestion. Non-potable bitters are too high in alcohol and concentrated in flavour to be taken on their own.
An ad for 'Mishler's Herb Bitters' (1900's) is pretty representative of bitters' so-called outlandish 'cure-all' claims:
"Mishler's Herb Bitters is endorsed by physicians, sold by druggists and possesses the confidence of all people. In all cases of Dyspepsia, Liver complaint, Kidney Disease, Loss of Nervous Energy, Sexual Weakness, Diarrhoea, etc., it will be found a reliable remedy. It is certain and uniform in its effects. It has cured thousands and it will cure YOU. Try it."
Now, that's one mighty potent "etc." in that bottle!
(Reference: "A Spirited History of a Classical Cure-All … Bitters", by Brad Thomas Parsons. Ten Speed Press, New York, 2011)