Bitterly good? Bitter-tasting medicines from human antiquity survive in cocktail and culinary form

The Clifton Inn’s Tucker Yoder offers his thoughts on how bitter flavors can be used in both cooking and cocktails. File photo The Clifton Inn’s Tucker Yoder offers his thoughts on how bitter flavors can be used in both cooking and cocktails. File photo

When it comes to the human palate, the perception of the flavor “bitter” is bitterly controversial. As far back as 60,000 years ago, our simian ancestors found that many of the plants that were lethal had a bitter flavor. If they could perceive this bitter flavor, they could avoid eating a toxic plant, survive, and optimally pass on this trait. On the flip side, they found that many of the plants that had health benefits were also bitter.

Modern research shows indeed that many bitters have numerous positive effects on human health—the foremost of which is digestive responses that ultimately result in appetite stimulation, improved nutrient absorption, and reduction of food-related illness. Humans who could recognize this flavor could identify some of the plants that might be beneficial, including plants that could contribute to their survival. As it turns out, scientists have confirmed that there is a genetic basis for the perception of the flavor “bitter”, and it seems that many populations have the genes that make them especially sensitive to bitter, while other populations have limited genetic basis to avoid these flavors.

The bitters debate must have been raging among early humans, as people experienced vastly different health outcomes after consuming plants that had this bitter taste. Over many thousands of years, humans either avoided or mastered the inventory of bitters, and genetic research suggests that many of the individuals that were least sensitive to the flavor of bitter (and fortunate enough to survive!) ended up in modern-day Europe. There they liberally incorporated the beneficial plant bitters into medicines, foods, tisanes, herbed wines, and tinctures, which they readily consumed.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and this culture is cooking up cocktails with a healthy dose of bitter to balance a robust dram of the newest liquid technology—distilled spirits—and an equal measure of sweetness. Italy and France became the crown seats of bitter bottles, with France’s Vermouths (fortified, bitter-herbed, wines) and Italy’s Amaros (bitter-herbed cordials) being among the most well known and frequently used throughout The Golden Age of cocktails in 19th and 20th century.

While falling slightly out of favor in the latter 20th century, bitter ingredients have gained a renewed appreciation with craft bartenders in 21st century, and many of them are dusting off old bottles and recipes for insight and inspiration for their cocktails. The nerdiest of these culinarians have started making their own bitter cordials (broadly called “amaros,” the Italian word for “bitter” and catch-all term for bitter cordials). Engineering these liquids is a micro-study in the making of a cocktail; it is the quintessential balancing of spirit, sweet, and bitter. I had a quick chat with amaro enthusiast and Executive Chef Tucker Yoder at the Clifton Inn, who tinkers with bitters for his home bar when he’s not dishing out perfect plates at the chef’s table at the Inn.

When do you reach for the flavor “bitter” when you are cooking? Do you have a favorite bitter ingredient for this time of year? 

Bitters are great for balancing rich ingredients like liver or chocolate. One of my favorite plays on this is chocolate risotto paired with Campari gummies. This time of year I love bitter greens and radicchio, in particular. Bitter greens added to a creamy or butter pasta sauce can really bring balance to a heavy dish.

How do you take your amaros, mixed or straight? Are there any bitter ingredients that you favor for your amaros? 

I tend to drink them straight either before or after a big meal. I like to use cinchona bark as the bittering ingredient in the base for my amaros. It adds a consistent amount of bitterness without adding any off-flavors like you would get from things like artichokes or other vegetal ingredients.

Try it at home

Clifton Inn’s Tucker Yoder shares a recipe and some cocktail suggestions for this time of year.

– 3 or 4 star anise seeds
– 6 fresh sage leaves
– 6 fresh mint leaves
– 1 sprig rosemary
– 1 allspice berry
– 1/2 tsp whole cloves
– 1/2 tsp cinchona root
– 3 cups 151-proof neutral grain spirit

Macerate the herbs in alcohol for three to four weeks. Strain the herbs and sweeten with honey syrup (equal parts honey and water) to your liking. You can do a second infusion with whatever’s in season if you like. Beets are a great winter product that adds a unique mouthfeel and earthy taste. I’m making my next amaro mole-style with chocolate and chilies.

Pending ABC legislation will make sale of house-infused spirits legal in restaurants in Virginia. In the meantime, stop by the Clifton Inn to chat bitters with Yoder at the chef’s table.

Did you know?

You probably consume bitters more often than you think. Many modern medicines like opiates, aspirin, and anti-malarial drugs are extracted from or chemically modeled after compounds found in bitter roots and barks, like poppies, willow bark, and cinchona bark.