Bitter has often been the most maligned flavor. Our taste buds are genetically and reflexively primed to reject bitter tastes, which generations ago may have signaled toxic compounds.
Fortunately, humans have warmed to the judicious use of bitters in their food and drink. This is a good thing, especially now: After a winter’s worth of cheese, fat and other indulgences, the digestive track can use a sucker punch. Liquid bitters, or alcohol-steeped botanicals such as gentian or dandelion, are able-bodied soldiers in this crusade.
“Aperitifs and digestifs are a wonderful way to frame out a meal,” said Angus J. Towse, an herbalist and founder of Green Man Natural Health in Sea Cliff, referring to bitter liqueurs sipped before or after a meal to stimulate digestion.
Loosely speaking, a bitter aperitif can spark your appetite, while a digestif helps things move along smoothly. The Italians are wise to this process, having long ago created a class of amari (Italian for “bitters”) to sip before or after meals. These include ruby-hued aperitifs such as Aperol and Campari, which can be blended into floral, bittersweet spritzers. After a meal, bracing amari such as Fernet Branca are sturdy digestive stimulants. (For the uninitiated, Amaro Montenegro is a more forgiving place to start).
Italians don’t have the lock on historical use of bitters, though. For the average Early American, a “dram” of bitters in the morning was as routine as a bowl of cereal might be today. Though that tradition faded, it’s easy enough to revive. A few dashes of earthy Angostura bitters (made in Trinidad since the 1800s, and found in grocery stores) in sparkling water is a mild digestive kick. Also, a growing body of digestive and medicinal bitters, such as those from Vermont’s Urban Moonshine, are created specifically for this purpose.
Use them in a bitter mocktail: Squeeze the juice of a lime, orange or grapefruit into the bottom of a tall glass. Shake in a few dashes of bitters, add ice, top with sparkling water and stir. Et voilà — a refreshing, herbaceous toast to spring.