Say it's 1860, and I'm nauseous in a well-stocked bar
October 6, 2011 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Calling all enthusiasts of bitters and historians of spirits! Do bitters actually have practical value in dealing with a weak appetite, nausea, or other digestive upsets? Do digestifs and aperitifs actually work? If so, which ones are especially effective?

Over the past year, I've had major digestive problems that are now finally being taken seriously by a new GP and specialist. (Hooray!) During the most recent wait between appointments, I started thinking above how my forebears would have handled the problem, and it looks like the answer was bitters, either as patent medicine, or just a normal part of a large meal.

While I have some training as a historian, I know virtually nothing about spirits, so I was wondering: were/are they actually useful for this? Some appear to contain an incredible mixture of substances ("97 herbs and an infant's tears, pairs well with fish"), while others seem quite simple, like orange bitters. I know about the use of quinine, so I'm assuming that digestif and aperitif were more than French for "fancy drinks". Help a non-drinker satisfy his inner history nerd!
posted by StrikeTheViol to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The short answer: No. Bitters are mostly made of alcohol, and alcohol is generally terrible for your digestive tract.

The alcohol "burn" might feel good on the way down, but that doesn't mean it's actually helping.

Liqueurs that are high in sugar, like sambuca/ouzo, Jagermeister, Benedictine etc. -- might help with nausea, but the alcohol will do you in.

What you're looking for is Ginger Beer. Ginger is a thousand year-old remedy that actually does work to prevent and treat gastrointestinal upset. Here's a great recipe from one of the masters of cocktails, Dale DeGroff.
posted by hamsterdam at 12:10 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sorry, wrong link. Here's the recipe.
posted by hamsterdam at 12:11 AM on October 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Fernet Branca not for the faint of heart
posted by hortense at 12:57 AM on October 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Do bitters actually have practical value in dealing with a weak appetite, nausea, or other digestive upsets? Do digestifs and aperitifs actually work? If so, which ones are especially effective?

I'm afraid not, it's all bunkum and whatever herbs they do contain, most of them contain a hell of a lot more alcohol and sugar, neither of which are great for digestif issues. You have to put this into the historical context of a time when:

a) Germ Theory didn't exist; medicine was based around the Hippocratic/Galen notion of humours, black biles etc. This is all horseshit, frankly.

b) Clean drinking water was few and far between, and most people didn't drink a lot of straight water, especially those that were not poor. Alcohol is a great antiseptic and preservative.

c) Alcoholism was endemic. It wasn't a question of not drinking before dinner etc, it was a question of what to drink that wouldn't make you 1) falling down drunk, 2) puking drunk, and 3) too full for a meal. Also, marketing existed even then. Making alcoholic swill that tasted bitter and claiming it was medicinal, was good business!

Sorry. You'd be better off with some ginger or peppermint tea, which research has shown is better for stomachs. :)
posted by smoke at 2:00 AM on October 7, 2011

Best answer: I'm not sure where I heard this and don't have time to find a cite now, sorry (about to go to lunch!). Maybe someone else will.

Digestifs do work - after a fashion. The 97 herbs and infant's tears don't really do anything; instead, the alcohol numbs the nerves in the stomach that complain when you're really full after a large meal. Thus, taking one after a heavy dinner might make you feel better but I doubt it would have any beneficial affects for someone suffering from actual digestive problems.

I also find that ginger and mint are helpful for this sort of thing. I hope you're feeling a lot better soon!
posted by daisyk at 3:14 AM on October 7, 2011

I swear by Underberg.
posted by beyond_pink at 3:35 AM on October 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Licorice tea is another fine option. Tastes incredible, too.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:41 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

(Yogi actually makes a licorice mint tea. Fantastic stuff)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:44 AM on October 7, 2011

I don't think it's only the alcohol. Chinese herbalists sell Po Chai pills or "curing pills" which are little vials of small bitter pills. They work for a certain kind of indigestion where you feel too full or bloated after eating – you swallow the contents of one small vial, with water – but like all these things, you shouldn't use them chronically, just occasionally.

From what I have been told, certain bitter compounds stimulate the liver and get your digestion moving a ltttle better.

In the long run you may have to eat smaller meals, eat more slowly or adjust your diet, but these bitter pills do help in some cases. IANAD, of course.
posted by zadcat at 6:50 AM on October 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, if the bitter in question is quinine, it will help treat malaria. Thus a gin and tonic in malarial areas.
posted by jb at 10:37 AM on October 7, 2011

But yes - mint or (even better) peppermint tea is a nice mild way to treat digestion. I get serious gas bloating at times, and I use gas pills for quick relief, but for milder situations I will use a strong brew of mint tea.

I've brewed a ginger tea before that worked very well for indigestion, but it involved real tea as well, which can be a bit stressful to your stomach (don't know if it's the tannins or caffine).
posted by jb at 10:39 AM on October 7, 2011

Underberg is wonderful after a large meal.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:09 AM on October 7, 2011

Response by poster: Just to clarify, I know firsthand that ginger is quite useful for upset stomachs, although I've never tried "ginger beer", and it looks quite interesting! (Possible askme followup...) It seemed illogical to me that something with so much alcohol would actually be useful for this, but I've got at least one plausible clue where the idea came from. Feel free to continue chiming in!
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:03 PM on October 7, 2011

What makes bitters bitter is a base of some sort. This will counteract acid in your stomach.

There are also non-alcoholic bitters.
posted by DaveP at 5:37 PM on October 7, 2011

Best answer: Actually, there is at least some medical indications to show that it can cure hiccups.

Other digestives, such as Fernet Branca, contain strong amounts of mint / spearmint, and the usual collections of herbs and so on. The notion behind them is they stimulate the stomach to start releasing digestive juices, and used either before (aperif's) or after (digestive) a meal.

And yes, in the 1800s, people did get prescriptions for them as a medicinal tonics.

In fact what we call the Old Fashioned is so far as we can tell the oldest Cocktail in record (in fact there was just one kind of Cocktail: the Cocktail), which was a combination of Spirit (usually whiskey or bourbon), water, sugar and dashes of bitters. This apparently came amount because, well, bitters were bitter. So pharmacists came up with a way to make them more palatable for the industrious gentleman about to start his day (the Cocktail was supposedly a morning pick me up drink: hence the tail of the cock, or the end of the cock's crow).

The other aspect of Bitters as Medicine is what also allowed for the creation of all the other myriad of bitters based cocktails that we know of during the 1800s (Cocktail itself being first documented in 1806 in NY State). Strong spirits, as opposed to beer, were already getting a bad stigma due to the excessive drinking and alcoholism associated with it. However, if you were drinking a medicinal concoction as prescribed by a pharmacist, you could skirt legal and social mores to have a nice drink.

So was it truly medicinal? Possibly, some characteristics of it might have helped people who had it, which is why they kept going back to using it again and again. Do I enjoy a nice glass of Fernet or Campari after a good meal? Yes.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:22 PM on October 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

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