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A bitter is an alcoholic beverage that contains herbal essences, has a bitter or bittersweet flavor, and is typically flavored with citrus. There are numerous brands of bitters, which were formerly marketed as patent medicines but are now considered to be digestifs rather than medicines.

Bitters commonly have an alcoholic strength of 45% ABV and normally consumed only in small amounts as a digestif or when added as a flavoring agent (similar to vanilla flavoring, which is also dissolved in alcohol).

Left: A bottle of Angostura Aromatic Bitters.

Bitters are principally used as digestifs and as flavorings in cocktails.

A bitters derives it name from the fact that is does not contain added sugar or sweetener. If the bitters is a drink additive, it therefore does not change the sweetness level of the drink. If the bitters is a tonic it may have some sugar added, although EU legislation dictates the definition of a bitter is that it does not have sugar added.

Common ingredients in bitters include angostura bark, cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel, and quinine from Cinchona bark (grown in Peru and Indonesia). The flavor of Angostura bitters, Suze and Peychaud's Bitters derives primarily from gentian, a bitter herb. Bitters are prepared by infusion or distillation, using aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit for their flavor and medicinal properties.

Angostura bitters was first compounded in Venezuela in 1824 by a German physician, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, as a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies. Dr. Siegert subsequently formed the House of Angostura, a company selling the bitters to sailors.

It was exported to England and to Trinidad, where it came to be used in a number of cocktails, following its medicinal use by the Royal Navy in Pink Gin. Angostura and similar gentian bitters can be of some value for settling a mild case of nausea. It is used to stimulate the appetite, either for food or for cocktails.

Angostura bitters was named after the town of Angostura in Venezuela. It contains no angostura bark, a medicinal bark which is named after the same town.


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