Nowadays bitters are an aroma and a flavor used in building cocktails, or a digestif taken in small doses after heavy meals. Prior to the twentieth century they were a medicinal infusion of vegetable material in alcohol. In the Galenic humoral system, they countered an excess of choler or bile in one’s system.
After the Islamic invention of the distillation of alcohol, distillates of bitter herbs could be preserved and volatilized more efficiently than in a water solution. Bitters became a standard stomachic in Renaissance pharmacology. Physicians had such faith in the power of bitter plant matter to right disorders of the stomach that they gave a general prescription for Extractum amarum, not specifying which bitter plant should be used, or what variety of gastrointestinal disorder was being dosed.
From the 1750s to the 1850s bitters were patent medicines prepared according to secret proprietary formulae. American newspapers brimmed with ads for improbable tonics: Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilious and Stomachic Bitters; Dennison’s Improved Jaundice Bitters; Plantation Bitters; Stoughton’s Bitters; James Gartland’s Genuine Herbaceous Bitters.
What did these elixirs promise?
“These Bitters stimulate and strengthen the coats of the stomach and intestines, expel wind, correct the bile, remove redundancies, assimilate the nourishment, and possess a suitable proportion of nervine and diaphoretic properties; which, by restoring to the nerves their tone and firmness, and acting on the surface of the body by insensible perspiration, restore that balance and equilibrium so necessary to health.” [“Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilius & Stomachic Bitters,” Norfolk Commercial Register (November 29, 1802), 3.]
When Dyspepsia (acid reflux indigestion) became a cultural obsession in the early nineteenth century, bitters enjoyed an efflorescence in popularity.
In North America, the flora differed from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the materia medica ready to hand for concocting bitters recommended a change in formulae. In William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States the bitter medicinal plants are flagged: tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera; marsh pink, Sabbatia angularis; bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis; flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum; small magnolia, Magnolia glauca; stinking chamomile, Anthenis catula; checkerberry, Gaultheria procumbens; black alder, Prinos verticillatus; yaupon holly, Ilex vomitorium. Yet the one repeatedly published recipe in American newspapers from the 1780s to the 1830s used none of these common bitter plants. Furthermore, it had a curious set of features: water as a liquid base rather than alcohol; and calamus as the principle bitter agent, rather than gentian (the favorite old world bitter).
“Take the common meadow calamus, cut into small pieces, or rue, wormwood, and chamomile or centaury of hore-hound, or each two ounces, add to them a quart of spring-water, and take a wine glass full of it every morning fasting.” (1788) [“A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3].
Calamus as the central ingredient of bitters became a peculiarly American choice. Even enormously famous British bitters formulae—Stoughton’s Bitters,a gentian and sour orange peel brew dating from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, would be transformed in the United States by the substitution of sweet flag for gentian. Here is the recipe for the transmuted American version of the Stoughton’s Bitters found in The Independent Liquorist.
½ pound wormwood
1 dozen canella bark
1 dozen cassia
1 dozen coriander
1 dozen grains of paradise
¾ dozen cardamoms
1 ¼ dozen chamomile flowers
4 dozen orange peel
½ dozen calamus
The ingredients were infused ten days in ten gallons of 20% spirits; “then take 60 gallons spirits proof and run it through a felt filter containing 9 pounds red sanders, after which you run the infusion through; then add one quart white syrup and 10 gallons water.” (p. 62).
If gentian was the hallmark of European Bitters, and the prime ingredient of Angostura Bitters (1822) , the preference for calamus was not universal in America. In that most European of American cities, New Orleans, tastes tended rather toward gentian. Peychaud Bitters (New Orleans 1830), the city’s historical cocktail concoction, made the taste central in its amalgamation of orange oil, caramel, oil of cloves, and maybe cinnamon oil to spirits. Some thought a synthesis of bittering agents—a formula using both gentian and calamus such as Seaman’s Bitters, doubled the tonic effects.
The non-alcoholic recipe calling for calamus, rue, wormwood and chamomile first appeared in the Pennsylvania newspapers toward the end of summer in 1788. In 1812 it appeared again in St. Louis. In 1826 it found its way into papers in South Carolina and was reprinted in state’s first cook book, The Carolina Receipt Book by “A Lady of Charleston” in 1832.
Why the firm retention of water as the base of the decoction, despite its comparatively modest capacity to volatilize? I suspect it may have to do with children as much as the rising popularity of temperance. Water based bitters can be administered to children without qualms about the effects of alcohol. The number of recipes devoted to stomach problems in household manuals cue the acute cultural concern for the digestive health of offspring.
Sources: “A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3.
David Dennison & John Parker Whitwell, His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent. Improved Jaundice Bitters (Boston, [1800-1813). Charles Julias Hempel, A New and Comprehensive System of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (New York: William Radde, 1865), 2: 570. L. Monzert, The Independent Liquorist (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866), 95.
David S Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation. He publishes monographs in the fields of early American literature and culture, the history of photography, and Food Studies.