Bitters can sweeten holiday meals

The holiday season is upon us and instead of my usual column talking about vinous or spirited gifts or matching them to food, I’ve decided to take somewhat of a more therapeutic approach. It’s a pretty good bet that many of us will be overindulging at this time of year, so here’s some information on a product that will help alleviate that overstuffed feeling. I’m referring to ‘bitters’.

Bitters are traditionally a liquid concoction made from alcohol and water, usually flavoured with botanicals. Aromatic herbs, roots, bark, flowers and even fruit are utilized and render a bitter or bittersweet taste. The alcohol generally acts as a solvent, also preserving the botanicals, and varies in strength from one to another.

Bitters usually serve two purposes. The first is to flavour cocktails. If you’re a mixed drink kind of person, then you’ll know the value of bitters for this purpose. A dash or a couple drops in many mixed drinks is part of the recipe and is very common. They help illuminate the other ingredients in the drink and add a further interesting flavour. However, the second, and perhaps more interesting and therapeutic purpose of bitters are as digestives.

For centuries, people have been taking bitters for medicinal purposes, at the end of meal to ease the tummy. We’re all too familiar with that overfull feeling and the festive season is the time it happens the most. Some folks sip it straight up or on ice. That having been said, let us examine some of the more popular ones.

Several decent ones come from Italy. Amaro utilizes more than 40 herbs and has around 23 per cent alcohol by volume. Campari is very versatile. It’s not only a digestif, but considered a liqueur and aperitif as well. The well known Campari and soda is a very popular drink. The bitter is dark red in colour and is an infusion of herbs and fruit weighing in at up to 28 per cent alcohol.

One of my favourites is Fernet Branca. Made up of 27 different herbs from 5 continents, aged for at least one year in oak and anywhere from 39 – 43% alcohol, it really is a great stomach remedy.

Germany creates two very famous bitters. Underberg, with its distinctive, individual serving, tiny bottle surrounded by a straw, paper wrapper, is created from herbs from 43 countries and aged in Slovenian oak. Its secret recipe is heavily guarded. Then, there’s Jagermeister. This 35% alcoholic, liqueur-type bitters, is comprised of 56 different herbs, roots, spices and fruits.

From Trinidad comes a very popular version, Angostura. With 44.7% alcohol, this spice and herb remedy can pack quite a punch.

Hungary provides us with Unicum, a 40-herb, oak-aged elixir that is also considered a liqueur and aperitif as well.

Having spent much time in Denmark many years ago, I fell in love with Gammel Dansk. This drink, containing 29 types of flowers, herbs and spices, is traditionally consumed by Danes during festivities like birthdays and weddings, and if you can believe it, often with breakfast.

The UK offers us Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a brownish-red, gin-based tonic, flavoured with herbs and liqueurs. At around 25% alcohol, it is a very versatile beverage.

These are but a few of the many bitters available from around the world. Even though they contain alcohol, and many are available at the LCBO, some can be found in supermarkets as well. If you already have any around for mixed drinks you’re set, otherwise, it might pay to pick up one or two. After overindulging in holiday feasts this season, even unbuckling your pants or loosening your clothing may not quite do the job, so bitters of some sort could come in very handy. Happy Holidays!

NOTE: My new, award-winning, comic, wine mystery novel “Pinot Envy” is now available online, at selected bookstores or through my office. Makes a great Christmas gift!


Edward Finstein a.k.a. The Wine Doctor ­— wine writer, educator, judge, consultant

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