Cocktail hour is one time you'll find bitter everywhere. Think: a bold, tannic cabernet or pint of hoppy beer. And then there are cocktail bitters and bitter liqueurs—which may find their way into your Old Fashioned or digestif glass. The bitter liqueurs were originally created for medicinal purposes thousands of years ago. "Plants have been soaked in alcohol to make medicine since Greek and Roman times—the alcohol helped preserve the concoction," says Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist. "Up until the 1800s, that's how all medicines were administered. There were no pills." When the Food and Drug Administration was formed in the early 1900s—and began insisting that these tincture manufacturers prove their concoctions worked—they switched their marketing plan and moved from apothecary shelf to bar shelf. "Making them for cocktail purposes was a way to stay viable when they couldn't be considered medicine anymore," says Stewart.
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Take the ultra trendy Italian liqueur Fernet-Branca, for example, which contains 27 different herbs and other plants—including gentian, chamomile and aloe. It was created in 1845 as a cure-all for everything from fevers to menstrual cramps. Today, people swear by it as a hangover cure and digestive aid. What little research there is about Fernet does not support the whole digestif notion. But try telling 61 million Italians that. The liqueur has been an after-dinner staple in Italy almost since its inception. And at least anecdotally, the logic makes some sense: gentian in Fernet is known to aid digestion and settle upset stomachs. "I liken it to chamomile tea," says Stewart. "It settles my stomach fantastically, but it's not considered a medicine." We'll drink to that. Salute!