Bitters - A Tasteful History

Tao Newsletter

History of Bitters

Bitters were first compounded by Paracelus, a physician and alchemist in the 16th century and used to treat a number of illnesses. In 1824, Angostura bitters were compounded in Venezuela  by German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert; it was compounded as a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies, though other medicinal uses had been discovered long before this. Dr. Siegert perfected the formula for aromatic bitters to use in his medical practice as Surgeon General to the armies of Simon Bolivar.  Dr. Siegert subsequently formed the House of Angostura, a company selling the bitters to sailors.

Whether brewed according to secret recipes by medieval monks or concocted according to oral tradition by wise women, the first bitters had medicinal purposes. Over time, the theory, if not the actual recipes, passed into the hands of apothecaries and on to the makers of 19th century patent medicines. After bartenders discovered that bitters softened the often harsh liquors of the day, the cocktail was born. Bitters serve much the same role in cocktails that spices serve in food—they add depths of complexity and flavor to the final product. Until the late 1880s, any drink called a cocktail contained bitters-this includes such classics as the Martini, the Manhattan and the Old Fashioned. Today, cocktail lovers the world over are experiencing what some call a renaissance of ‘pre-prohibition’ and classic cocktail recipes, throwing bitters back into the limelight. Urban Moonshine takes it one step further, by reacquainting the public with the healthful roots of bitters.

Many cultures around the world believe that it is important to have foods that provide all the tastes humans can distinguish, i.e., sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Many foods and drinks have some or all of these flavors, but in the Western diet we tend to saturate our taste buds with sweet, salty processed foods that our taste buds cannot recognize as distinct flavors. Our bodies are also unable to distinguish these foods and signal the body’s digestive functions to properly break them down. The majority of whole food in nature has elements of all the tastes - think of berries, greens, coffee and cocoa to name a few.

How do bitter herbs benefit our health?

Bitter herbs are one of herbal medicine’s great contributions to human health. Quite simply, this category contains herbs that have a bitter taste, ranging from mildly bitter yarrow to fiercely bitter rue. Absinthin, a constituent found in wormwood, is so bitter it can be tasted even at dilutions of 1 part in 30,000 parts of water. The strong flavor is often attributed to a “bitter principle,” which can be a volatile oil, an alkaloid, an iridoid, or a sesquiterpene

Following stimulation of the bitter receptors, located at the back of the tongue, a range of physiological responses occurs. Specific taste buds transmit the taste of bitterness to the central nervous system, triggering a number of reflexes. These reflexes have important ramifications, all of value to the digestive process and general health:

  • The stimulation of the flow of digestive juices from the exocrine glands of the mouth, stomach, pancreas, duodenum, and liver aid in good digestion as well as helping a range of conditions caused by inefficient or allergy-distorted digestion.
  •  The flow of digestive juices triggers a stimulation of appetite. This is helpful in convalescence as well as in cases of appetite reduction.
  • A range of liver activities is stimulated, including increased bile production and the release of bile from the gallbladder.
  • A very mild stimulation of the endocrine glands occurs, producing insulin and glucagon secretions from the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. Diabetics need to use bitters cautiously, as these herbs can change the blood sugar balance. In the hands of a skilled practitioner, however, bitter remedies can play a role in the treatment of non-insulin dependent diabetes.
  • Bitter remedies can trigger subtle psychological effects, even acting as mild antidepressants. For example, bitters can help lift the spirits in cases of post-viral-infection depression.
  • The central reflex stimulates peristalsis, an action that moves wastes through the intestines through a series of muscular contractions.
  • Bitter remedies also stimulate the gut wall’s self-repair mechanisms.
  • Bitters promotes ease and comfort of digestion utilizing bitters and tonic herbs to promote digestive functions and support digestive organs.

How does our body detect bitter sense?

Have you ever thought about why foods taste different? It's really quite amazing. Your tongue and the roof of your mouth are covered with thousands of tiny taste buds. When you eat something, the saliva in your mouth helps break down your food. This causes the receptor cells located in your tastes buds to send messages through sensory nerves to your brain. Your brain then tells you what flavors you are tasting.Taste buds probably play the most important part in helping you enjoy the many flavors of food. Your taste buds can recognize four basic kinds of tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.

The salty/sweet taste buds are located near the front of your tongue; the sour taste buds line the sides of your tongue; and the bitter taste buds are found at the very back of your tongue.

Everyone's tastes are different. In fact, your tastes will change as you get older. When you were a baby, you had taste buds, not only on your tongue, but on the sides and roof of your mouth. This means you were very sensitive to different foods. As you grew, the taste buds began to disappear from the sides and roof of your mouth, leaving taste buds mostly on your tongue. As you get older, your taste buds will become even less sensitive, so you will be more likely to eat foods that you thought were too strong as a child.


We choose Urban Moonshine Organic Bitters

Urban Moonshine Original Organic Bitters are used to aid digestion, relieve bloating, upset stomach and occasional nausea and heartburn, as well as to support liver function and healthy skin. Urban Moonshine Bitters are formulated from exceptional blends of Vermont herbs and roots, complemented by a few worldly exotics to create a delicious, quality medicinal.


Avoid if pregnant or nursing. Do not use with acetaminophen, digoxin, ciprofloxacin or chemotherapy. Those with diabetes should consult their medical professional before use.


  Organic Bitters  
  Organic Bitters by Urban Moonshine, Original, 2 fl oz.  
  Organic Maple Bitters  
  Organic Maple Bitters by Urban Moonshine, USDA Organic, 2 fl oz  
  Joy Tonic  
  Joy Tonic by Urban Moonshine, Organic, 2 fl oz