Doc Yale

For Before, After or During the Meal

After the Meal is Over – or Even Before – the Bitter Approach 

A bottle of Angostura Bitters

Those who, like Doc Yale, enjoy holiday feasts with family and friends—periodically find a moment when our body tells us to stop.  You are full, yet there are four courses to go—you haven’t tried Auntie Mary’s yams much less Olivia’s sweet potato pie.  Fret not—there is a solution—gentian or, as it is more commonly called “bitters”. 

Years ago, DY was visiting his brother in Germany.  One evening we were working our way through a delicious multi-cours meal hosted by one of his friends when we both hit the wall.  I’m not sure I can keep going I confessed to him privately.  “No problem” he said—the Germans have a solution as usual.  He then proceeded to give me a small bottle of Unterberg bitters.  Just swallow it down in one gulp he directed which I proceeded to do.  (For the uninitiated this is a little like taking a swig of hard liquor for the first time).  But minutes later, my stomach was feeling better, and digestion as well as feasting was resumed. 

 Since that time I have studied and experimented with the various forms of bitters—with quite pleasant results.  My initial exposure to bitters was as a strange little bottle which my dad used when making “old fashioneds” a popular cocktail at one time.  Just a few drops would add an orangish tinge to the drinks.  The bitters were “angostura bitters” which are the most popular and widely available bitters in this country. 

Angostura Bitters were first formulated in 18324 by a German physician, Dr. J.G.B. Siegert, who had emigrated to Venezuela to help Simon Bolvar in his fight against the Spanish throne.  Like many physicians of that day he was a scientist with a keen enquiring mind.  He noted that many soldiers were suffering from internal stomach disorders.  In response he developed a blend of herbs which he called “Amargo Aromatico” or aromatic bitters.  The effectiveness of these bitters was quickly recognized, and being in the port city of Angostura, word spread quickly.  Within a decade, the bitters were being commercialized and by 1850 Dr. Siegert resigned his commission in the Venezuelan army to concentrate on his bitter business.

Another formulation of bitters is Peychaud’s bitters which is closely associated with New Orleans and can be difficult to find elsewhere.  The Sazerac cocktail, formulated by Antoine Peychaud was originally made with cognac, absinthe and bitters and was first served in 1830 in New Orleans.  It is rumored to be the first cocktail—named as such.  Peychaud served his drinks in cocquetiers, French for egg cups, and speculation is that the word came from anglicizing the French word.

Although manufacturers of the various bitters do not reveal their formulations—the main ingredient in the traditional bitters, including the three already mentioned, is gentian, an herb derived from one of several species of Gentiana but primarily Gentiana lutea.[1]  Gentian in various tinctures and other forms is readily available in health good stores.

DY’s guru for alternative medicine, Dr. Andrew Weil, highly recommends gentian.  He writes “Gentian…is a bitter root and an excellent digestive remedy…Angostura bitters, a popular ingredient of cocktails is essentially a tincture of gentian root and has good medicinal properties.  For sluggish digestion, poor appetite, or flatulence, try taking a teaspoon of Angostura Bitters before or after meals…Gentian root is quite harmless and quite effective.”[2]

So eat drink and be merry this holiday season but come prepared.  Of make your grandmother happy and help her digestion with a “medicinal cocktail” such as a Manhatten or Old Fashioned.


  • 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey
  • ½ oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 dash of Angostura Bitters

Stir with ice.  Strain into a cocktail glass.

 As Drinkboy, our bar guru says “Making a Manhatten without bitters is like making a soup without salt.  Sure, you can do it, but why?”[3]

 Old Fashioned

  • ½ orange slice
  • 1 cube sugar
  • 2 dashes Angustura Bitters
  • 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey

Muddle orange, sugar, bitters together until the sugar is mostly dissolved.  Fill glass with ice, then add the shiskey.  Garnish with an additional orange slice.  Serve with a swizzle stick and/or straw

But beware!  As Drinkboy admonishes “When properly made, this cocktail can represent the pinnacle of the bartenders trade.  When done improperly, wich is more often the case, it can be a disaster of mediocrity.

[1] In recent years a great variety of bitters have been developed, primarily to enhance the flavor of cocktails and other drinks.  They do not necessarily contain gentian nor have its digestive properties. DY is particularly interested in learning to make Ruculino or bitters from arugula.

[2] Andrew Weil, Natural Health, Natural Medicine—A comprehensive manual for wellness and self-care. Pp 238-239.