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A Brief History of Medicinal Bitters

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Bitters are one of the most ancient medicines know to man.  According to an article that ran in "Science News Journal" in 2009,  "Jars suggest early Egyptians mixed medicinal plants into alcoholic beverage."  https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ancient-remedy-bitter-herbs-and-sweet-wine  The article documents archeological evidence that the herbs were mixed with wine, likely for medicinal purposes.  Although not mentioned as being combined with alcohol (except for a symbolic reference to Wormwood, and the mixture of Myrrh and gall in wine given to those who were about to be crucified, as a sedative) bitter herbs are mentioned prominently in the Bible, such as in the Passover Feast.  It may be assumed that the digestive benefits of bitter herbs were recognized, beyond their symbolic value.  

That leads us to Theriac.  Many herbalists and historians point to Theriac as the first documented use of medicinal bitters in European literature... bitters have centuries old use in Chinese medicine, but that is a topic I'll save for another day.   However, Theriac bears little resemblance to Digestive Bitters.  Theriac was intended to be a universal defense against poisoning.  

According to legends, the history of theriac begins with the king Mithridates VI of Pontus who experimented with poisons and antidotes on his prisoners. His numerous toxicity experiments eventually led him to declare that he had discovered an antidote for every venomous reptile and poisonous substance. He mixed all the effective antidotes into a single one, mithridatium or mithridate. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon and castor, along with some forty other ingredients. When the Romans defeated him, his medical notes fell into their hands and Roman medici began to use them. Emperor Nero's physician Andromachus improved upon mithridatum by bringing the total number of ingredients to sixty-four, including viper's flesh, a mashed decoction of which, first roasted then well aged, proved the most constant ingredient. Lise Manniche, however, links the origins of theriac to the ancient Egyptian kyphi recipe, which was also used medicinally.

Greek physician Galen devoted a whole book Theriaké to theriac. One of his patients, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, took it on a regular basis.

In 667, ambassadors from Rûm presented the Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty in China with a theriac. The Chinese observed that it contained the gall of swine, was dark red in colour and the foreigners seemed to respect it greatly. The Tang pharmacologist Su Kung noted that it had proved its usefulness against "the hundred ailments." Whether this panacea contained the traditional ingredients such as opium, myrrh and hemp, is not known.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theriac

Although Theriac contained bitter herbs, such as Gentian, it seems that the bitters as we know them came into medicinal use by ancient Greek and Roman physicians via Gentius.  As I explained last week, in a post on Gentian, According to tradition, Gentian was named for Gentius, ruler of the Illyrian Kingdom (181-168 BC).  "Dioscorides (the Greek physician) believed that the king Gentius identified the properties of this plant and used the plant root in 167 BC by the incidence of Plague."


Regardless, by the Middle Ages, Medicinal (Tonic or Digestive) Bitters were in common use by the medical practitioners of the day.  The use and documentation of medicinal herbs was especially important to the Benedictine Order.  These Catholic monks and nuns did much to preserve and advance the study of horticulture, botany and medicine.  They maintained large herb gardens, apothocaries and hospitals for treating the sick.  

As can be seen, after Rome fell, the Benedictines quickly became the monastic masters of herbalism, already being focused on the mission of preserving knowledge. Among other things, they perfected the making of tinctures—suspending the essence of an herb in an alcohol base for medicinal and other purposes. Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814 A.D.) so admired the Benedictine gardens and techniques that he ordered all monasteries throughout the empire to plant “physic gardens” to supply the monasteries and the empire with healing herbs. https://traditium.org/2017/11/04/monastic-herbalism-part-one/

Perhaps most prominent among the medicinally inclined Benedictines was Saint Hildegard of Bingen.  Born in 1098, Saint Hildegard was a mystic/visionary from childhood.  She became an abbess, a horticulturalist, an herbalist and physician, teacher, artist, author, philosopher, musician and composer of a very large volume of Church music. She is considered to be the founder of Scientific Natural History in Germany.  Her talents and works are immense and deep... far too much to get into here.  She was a great proponent of digestive bitters and introduced the use of hops in beer both as a bittering agent and a preservative. https://www.healthyhildegard.com/bitter-herbs-for-appetite-control-and-digestion/

Saint Hildegard's influence can be seen in Fr. Kneipp.  Born in 1821 in Bavaria, this German priest is best remembered for his "Kneipp Water Cure".  His cures included a number of herbal baths, soaks and steams, various dietary and lifestyle practices... and yes, herbal formulas that included medicinal bitters. His Kneipp Cure includes Aloe (as a bitter herb), Gentian, Buckthorn, Bog Bean, Chamomile, Anise, Camphor, Centaury, Cloves, Nettles, Fennel, Fenugreek, Grains of Paradise, Juniper, Mint, Chicory, Valerian, Angelica, Wormwood, as well as several other bitter herbs.  He prescribes combinations these Bitters both as tinctures and teas as part of his treatment for a variety  of disorders and diseases.  https://archive.org/details/39002086176469.med.yale.edu

The Swedish Bitters name, at first seems likely that the ingredients come from the country of Sweden (Swedish), but this is not the case. The name derives from the Swedish physicians Dr. Claus (Klaus) Samst. The elixir is said to be the creation of Swiss physician, Dr. Phillipus Paracelsus, who practiced in the 1500s. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that it was formally labelled Swedish Bitters by Swedish physicians – Dr. Claus (Klaus) Samst.

The mixture with the different medicinal herbs was already long known in the family of the Swedish health-care professionals, but forgotten.  The physicians, Dr. Claus (Klaus) and Dr. Urban Samst Hjärn found this in the 18 Century, returned and helped many people with different problems and illnesses.

It is believed that the formulation of a similar drug also belongs to the physician Philippus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim Aureolus (short: Paracelsus), who lived in the 16th Century and suffered much of a criticism from pharmacists and doctors, despite his successes in Herbalism, it was considered as an alternative to traditional medicine.

Dr. Samst died at the age of 104 years in a riding accident. It is said that his ancestors lived a long life and have reached a biblical age.


INGREDIENTS (Large Swedish Bitters)


1. Angelica archangelica (Angelikawurz in German) — commonly known as garden angelica, Holy Ghost, wild celery, and Norwegian angelica.


2. Aloe Vera — also know as Aloe Barbadensis.


3. Lycopodium (Bärlappe in German) — also known as ground pines or creeping cedar.


4. Pimpinella (Bibernelle in German) — is a plant genus in the family Apiaceae.


5. Carlina acaulis (Eberwurz in German) — is a perennial dicotyledonous flowering plant in the family Asteraceae, native to alpine regions of central and southern Europe.


6. Veronica officinalis (Ehrenpreiskraut in German) — is a species of Veronica, native to Europe and western Asia.


7. Althaea (Eibischwurz in German) — is a genus of 6−12 species of perennial herbs native to Europe and western Asia.


8. Gentiana lutea (Enzianwurz in German) — is a plant native to the mountains of central and southern Europe. Other names include ‘yellow gentian‘, ‘bitter root‘, ‘bitterwort‘, ‘centiyane‘ and ‘genciana‘.


9. Acorus calamus (Kalmus in German) — can also be called Sweet Flag or Calamus, among many other names. It’s a tall perennial wetland monocot of the Acoraceae family, in the genus Acorus.


10. Cinnamomum camphora (Kampfer in German) — most known as camphor tree, camphorwood or camphor laurel. Large evergreen tree, native to China south of the Yangtze River, Taiwan, southern Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.


11. Kandis — Rock Candy. If you are Diabetic, you can eliminate Kandis from your Swedish Bitters elixir mix.


12. Viscum album (Mistelkraut in German) — type of mistletoe, known as European mistletoe, common mistletoe or simply as mistletoe (Old English mistle). It is native to Europe and western and southern Asia.


13. Commiphora (Myrrhe in German) — is a species-rich genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family.


14. Juglandaceae (Nusskaben in German) — known as the walnut family, is a family of trees.


15. Rhubarb (Rhabarberwurz in German) — also can be know as Rheum rhabarbarum and Rhei radix is a plant in the family Polygonaceae. Rhubarb is usually considered a vegetable.


16. Safflower (Saflor in German) — also can be know as Carthamus tinctorius. It’s a highly branched, herbaceous, thistle-like annual plant.


17. Senna (Sennesblätter in German) - Comes from Arabic name — sanā. Also knows as sennas. It’s a large flowering plants in the legume family of Fabaceae, and the sub family of Caesalpinioideae. Sennae folium is considered an herb, leaves and the fruit of the plant are used to make medicine. Senna is also FDA-approved nonprescription laxative.


18. Ginkgo (Gingoblätter in German) — Also know as Ginkgo biloba and known as the maidenhair tree. Many years ago, leaves from the Ginkgo biloba tree been used as a treatment in Chinese medicine. The ginkgo supplements helps to improve memory and sharpen thinking. Many people use Ginkgo to improves blood flow to the brain. Ginkgo can as well acts as an antioxidant.


19. Theriaca (Therriak in German) — also know as Theriac, Andromachi theriaca, it’s considered to be antidote against venom.


20. Potentilla erecta (Tormentil in German) — also know as Common Tormentil, Potentilla laeta, Potentilla tormentilla, tormentil or septfoil. It’s a herbaceousperennial plant that belon to the rose family. Potentilla erecta for a long time is known as a remedy in traditional medicine for the treatment of inflammations, wounds, and gastrointestinal disorders. Some people make a tea out of potentilla and use it as a tea for diarrhea. Women take it for premenstrual syndrome, know as (PMS) and for mildly painful menstrual periods.


21. Artemisia absinthium (Wermutkraut in German) — also know as absinthium, absinthe wormwood, wormwood, common wormwood, green ginger or grand wormwood, is a species of Artemisia, native to temperate regions of Eurasia and Northern Africa.


22. Curcuma zedoaria (Zitwerwurz in German) — also know as Zedoariae rhizoma, zedoary, white turmeric or kentjur, is a member of the genus Curcuma, family Zingiberaceae and is a native to India and Indonesia.


Obviously, that is quite a list!  BTW, the "Theriac" mentioned above is a mix of Valerian Root, Cinnamon and Cardamom).  Not surprisingly, there is also a "Small Swedish Bitters" that uses only 11 of the 22 above.  The Small Swedish bitters were popularized in the 1980s by Maria Treben, who based much of her work on Saint Hildegard and Fr. Kneipp.  She also includes Saint Hildegard's recipe for "Heart Wine", which uses dandelion stems as a Bitter in her book, Health Through God's Pharmacy.

By the 19th century, the British practice of adding herbal bitters (used as preventive medicines) to Canary wine had become immensely popular in the former American colonies. By 1806, American publications referenced the popularity of a new preparation termed a cocktail, which was described as a combination of "a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitters

The next major event in the history of medicinal Bitters came with the discovery of Quinine.  

Quinine was used as a muscle relaxant by the Quechua people, who are indigenous to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, to halt shivering due to low temperatures. The Quechua would mix the ground bark of cinchona trees with sweetened water to offset the bark's bitter taste, thus producing something similar to tonic water.

Spanish Jesuit missionaries were the first to bring cinchona to Europe. The Spanish had observed the Quechua's use of cinchona and were aware of the medicinal properties of cinchona bark by the 1570s or earlier: Nicolás Monardes (1571) and Juan Fragoso (1572) both described a tree, which was subsequently identified as the cinchona tree, whose bark was used to produce a drink to treat diarrhea.  Quinine has been used in unextracted form by Europeans since at least the early 17th century.

It was first used to treat malaria in Rome in 1631. A popular story of how it was brought to Europe by the Countess of Chinchon was debunked by medical historian Alec Haggis around 1941. During the 17th century, malaria was endemic to the swamps and marshes surrounding the city of Rome. It had caused the deaths of several popes, many cardinals and countless common Roman citizens. Most of the Catholic priests trained in Rome had seen malaria victims and were familiar with the shivering brought on by the febrile phase of the disease.

The Jesuit brother Agostino Salumbrino (1564–1642), an apothecary by training who lived in Lima (now in present-day Peru), observed the Quechua using the bark of the cinchona tree to treat such shivering. While its effect in treating malaria (and malaria-induced shivering) was unrelated to its effect in controlling shivering from rigors, it was a successful medicine against malaria. At the first opportunity, Salumbrino sent a small quantity to Rome for testing as a malaria treatment. In the years that followed, cinchona bark, known as Jesuit's bark or Peruvian bark, became one of the most valuable commodities shipped from Peru to Europe. When King Charles II was cured of malaria at the end of the 17th Century with quinine, it became popular in London. It remained the antimalarial drug of choice until the 1940s, when other drugs took over. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinine

It is not surprising then, that quinine based tonics and bitters began appearing wherever sailors traveled.  This led to the Gin and Tonic and the great controversy over Angostura Bitters.  Being a source of quinine like compounds and a very bitter substance, the bark of the Angostura tree began appearing in various Patent Bitters.  Multiple brands called their Bitters, "Angostura", because they contained Angostura as an ingredient.  However, the first brand to call itself Angostura has never admitted to using Angostura in the recipe!

A German physician in Venezuela in 1824, who was trying to find a cure for stomach maladies, created Angostura Bitters, the first bitters. The name, Angostura Bitters was named after the town Angostura, in Venezuela. They were first used as cocktail ingredients when they reached England and Trinidad. https://www.cocktailbitters.com/bitters-history.html

This led to lawsuits by the Angostura company we all know and love, over the rights to copyright the name "Angostura".  this went back and forth as one court would find that they had the rights to the name because they branded their product first, then another would rule that any formula that contained Angostura could rightfully call itself "Angostura".  By the time it was eventually settled, it was essentially a moot point.  The Bitters boom in America was grinding to a halt.  The pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 outlawed Patent Medicines and any Bitters that claimed to treat any medical condition... and you would be amazed at the claims some of them made!  Then, Prohibition outlawed the cocktail.

After nearly 100 years of "wandering in the dessert", thanks to dedicated herbalists and cocktail enthusiasts, Bitters are finally making a comeback.  We now have craft bitters at bars and liquor stores.  Even the much maligned Wormwood-based Absinthe can be found in most liquor stores (although it is somewhat of a pricey hipster novelty). In recent years, at least four books have been published on bitters, their history, cocktail recipes and making your own.  Herbalists, such as myself, have a renewed interest in bitters.... and you now have this blog!  Lets celebrate with a nice dose of Medicinal Bitters and maybe a Sazerac, with a nice dash of Peychaud... or your own craft bitters... it is 5 o'clock somewhere!

Sazerac Recipe
1 cube sugar
1½ oz. Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon
¼ oz. Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud's Bitters
lemon peel
Pack an old-fashioned glass with ice. In a second old-fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud's Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube. Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon to the second glass containing the Peychaud's Bitters and sugar. Remove the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint. Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.


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