It's officially patio season, the time when we want to spend all of our time outside, cocktail in hand. I thought it would be wise to turn to a European tradition to uncover the health benefits of a particular (and delicious) drink.
This drink requires nothing but a trip to your local liquor store or speakeasy. It features gin and bitter spirits.
Health Benefits of Bitters
When we think of tastes, we know sweet, salty, sour and pungent. But we rarely think of bitter, the fifth and most often forgotten flavour. Sure, coffee and dark chocolate have a bitter taste too, but think of all the cream and sugar that we add to both to make them more palatable by covering the bitter taste.
The bitter taste provides the greatest health and metabolic benefits by enhancing digestion and toning the internal organs. And yet, it's almost completely missing in North American culture. This could explain why we have so many digestive issues, such as IBS, gastric reflux (GERD) and even constipation... even skin conditions that are tied to digestion, such as eczema, psoriasis and acne. Because we're missing bitter!
When you put something bitter on your tongue, your whole body gets excited about the prospect of receiving food and begins to produce digestive juices:
- Your mouth produces digestive enzymes and saliva.
- Your stomach produces stomach acid and enzymes.
- Your liver and gallbladder produce bile; your pancreas produces bicarbonate.
- Your intestines contract.
So for any of us who experience any of the conditions that I mentioned above, or even bloating, gas or discomfort after we eat, bitter can help. It's like that Buckley's cough syrup ad, "it tastes awful, but it works."
In many cultures (especially Italian), a salad of bitter greens is eaten before a meal. If salads made from bitter greens are not your thing, a bitter cocktail is a great way to introduce the flavour in beverage form.
Lately I've been all over the Negroni, a lovely drink that originated in Italy.
Negronis are known as aperitifs. The term aperitif is a French word used to describe concentrated alcohols used in the middle ages, traditionally consumed before a meal to help whet the appetite. The word literally translates to "uncover or open." It's a punctuation mark to symbolize the beginning of a meal.
Some famous aperitifs include Lillet (from France), and Italian Aperol and Campari. The latter, which is used in negronis. But what all of these spirits have in common is that they are made with top-secret blends of aromatics, bitter herbs and fruits that open up our digestion.
Health Benefits of Cocktail Hour
Aside from the science of bitters, having a drink before a meal can also help you relax like those lovely Europeans and get in the mood to eat. Research also suggests that alcohol, especially beer and wine, can help to stimulate the secretion of digestive hormones in the stomach . And some studies have found that people who have a drink before dinner are less likely to call in sick to work the next day due to stress reasons. This must have something to do with the fact that a post-work/pre-dinner cocktail signifies an end to the work day's stress.
So try this lovely bitter cocktail before a meal and test out the bitter flavour for yourself. All the old Italian men do it, so you should, too. Just make sure you don't drink too many -- the benefits of drinking alcohol decrease as consumption increases.
How to Make a Negroni:
1 part gin
1 part Campari (or use Calisaya, which is made with more natural ingredients)
1 part sweet vermouth
Add to a glass full of ice and stir to mix. Add a slice of orange peel to garnish and sip before a meal.
Here's to drinking healthfully and responsibly.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
Like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans? How about Sazeracs, Champagne Cocktails and Pink Gin & Tonics? They all have one not-so-secret ingredient in common: Angostura Aromatic Bitters. Though most bitters have been relegated to craft cocktail bars, Angostura has endured in all types of joints over the past two centuries—from dives to hotel and airport bars. The brand is a quintessential ingredient in classic and modern cocktails, and its famed (and secret) recipe has remained the same since 1824. Hell, you can even cook with them! If you’re going to invest in just one bottle of bitters, Angostura is your answer.
Speaking of the Sazerac, these ruby red bitters are an essential component of the classic. Created in New Orleans in 1838 by apothecary owner Antoine Amedie Peychaud, Peychaud’s Bitters were an essential ingredient in the drink, along with Sazerac Brandy. Over the years, the cocktail’s recipe has been altered countless times, and now often employs rye whiskey, absinthe and Angostura Aromatic Bitters—but always in addition to the original aromatic, Peychaud’s. The Sazerac is only one way to showcase Peychaud’s particular flavor, which is sweet and anise-forward, rather than heavily herbal. Like Angostura, it’s incredibly versatile and a wonderful addition to cocktails, including the Vieux Carré and Spiced Rhubarb Gimlet. It also has a special way of sprucing up a boring glass of seltzer. Also of note, Bitter Truth’s Creole Bitters appeared on the market in 2010. While styled after Peychaud’s, its noticeably less sweet and more herbal. If you already have a bottle of the stalwart Peychaud’s, give this newer take a try.
To round out a formidable start to your home bitters arsenal, snag bottle of orange bitters. The flavor is far more straightforward than Angostura and Peychaud’s, both of which could leave you guessing their contents, and, frankly, no Dry Martini is complete without them. Aside from its traditional offering, Angostura also has its own version of orange bitters, which are lovely. Another fantastic orange bitter comes from veteran mixologist and cocktail guru Gary (aka Gaz) Regan. His Regan Orange Bitters No. 6—named for the number of attempts it took to perfect the recipe—are luscious and spicy. Lastly are The Bitter Truth Orange Bitters. A solid brand all-around, this citrus flavor is one of its strongest offerings.
Now that your bitters arsenal is taking shape, it’s time to round it out with a couple of less classic bottles. Gin & Tonics practically beg for a little something extra. The first good option? Straightforward and juicy Scrappy’s Grapefruit Bitters. The second, Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, wields even more bitter power. Hops and grapefruit complement each other and lend themselves well to flavoring all kinds of drinks. Try them in an Old Fashioned or a Martini.
With the previous four bottles, you’ve got a sturdy grouping of bitters for any home bar. Plus, you’re now off to a great start to learning how to experiment with aromatics and seasoning cocktails. Once you’re sucked into this flavorful world, it may turn into an obsession. If you want to keep adding to your collection, there are literally dozens of brands of bitters on shelves now. Two solid choices are The Bitter Truth Celery Bitters (a bit trickier to use, but a blast to experiment with) and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters. Both pack impressive flavor and aroma and can hold their own in a cocktail.
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