A few months back, I was able to visit herbalist Jim McDonald for an herbal consultation, and we spent a lot of time talking about bitters, specifically, digestive bitters. Jim suggested to me that part of the reason that so many Americans suffer from digestive issues is that we’ve largely cut out the bitter flavors in our diet, and these bitter flavors stimulate digestion (our own digestive enzymes). So rather than taking digestive enzyme pills (usually coming in a $60 or so bottle for the good ones) to increase the digestive enzymes in our stomachs to help us process food, we might switch to eating some bitters, which essentially encourage our own bodies to produce our own digestive enzymes.
After seeing Jim, I decided to do some more research on the concept of a digestive bitter, and I learned a lot of really interesting things. Bitters are found quite a bit in the wild, and as humans evolved, we most certainly ate a lot of bitter foods (just go sample any number of wild greens and you’ll get exactly what I mean). But when we cut bitters out of our diet, our digestion began to suffer. In fact, according to an article Jim had written for Llewellyn’s 2010 Herbal Almanac, bitters stimulate all digestive functions, including “saliva, acids, enzymes, hormones, bile and so forth…” and each of these, in turn, help break down food.
Beyond the immediate physical benefits, there is also a spiritual side to the bitters. You are taking and extracting the essence of a plant, preserving it in alcohol, and then taking that plant as medicine. This puts you in communion with the plant (even more so if you harvest/grow the plant itself). This has powerful spiritual implications for those who choose to seek them.
If you want more bitters in your diet, besides the obvious choice of eating more bitter foods (dark chocolate, bitter greens, etc.) you can also craft your own digestive bitters by tincturing them in high-proof alcohol. You can mix various tincture flavors to produce a nice effect, but the key is, the bitter flavor must be there.
I decided to focus on locally sourcing and wildcrafting/wild harvesting my bitter blends, and so, I began with some basic recipes from materials I could either A) easily obtain and B) find locally. I started with making a blend that I had bought from Jim–Ginger, Orange (both of these for flavor and medicinal) and Dandelion root (bitter). I’m now experimenting with other bitters and other flavors I can source or grow locally (black raspberry, blackberry, etc).
I’m going to walk through the basic process here so that others can try this approach. It’s actually really a basic tincture recipe, which can be used for all sorts of things, both magical and mundane.
1. Obtain/Gather Spirits.
You need to obtain some high-proof, rather neutral spirits. I’ve tried tincturing in Everclear (190 proof, not available in all states) or Vodka (80 proof). Everclear is a bit faster and way stronger (so you need to dilute). I recommend vodka for most applications (I’ve tinctured vanilla beans in Vodka and Brandy quite successfully for years)
2. Obtain/Gather Ingredients.
So for my first blend, I purchased organic oranges and ginger, and then wild-harvested dandelion root from my yard. (For those of you who have been reading this blog, you’ll also note that I also made wine from the dandelions a few months ago! Dandelion is a wonderful plant!). Since this first batch, I’ve been experimenting with other ingredients that I can grow and/or harvest (like various berries….yum).
3. Finely chop ingredients.
At this stage, you want to make sure your ingredients are clean (this particularly applies to roots and wild-harvested ingredients). Then you can finely chop them up (use a food processor for large batches, but I really do like using the knife, it brings me closer to the ingredients without the use of any fossil fuels).
4. Put the ingredients into the alcohol.
In his book Making Plant Medicine, Rico Cech gives a basic tincture formula for tinctures– 2 parts plant to one part alcohol for fresh ingredients and 5 parts plant to 1 part alcohol for dried plant ingredients. (By the way, if you are interested in a good book on medical herbalism, this book is really great, and its a worthy compliment to Matthew Wood’s Book of Herbal Wisdom because they talk about plants so differently). So you can use a small kitchen scale to weigh out your plant ingredients and a measuring cup to portion out your spirits and add them together in a jar. Put a label on it and tincture away!
5. Let sit for some time (in a dark area) with an occasional shake of the jar, typically 4-6 weeks.
Some ingredients can be tinctured longer to have increased flavor (vanilla beans being a good example of this). Other ingredients should only be tinctured for the amount of time specified.
6. Strain your materials.
I used a cheesecloth to strain out my plant material after 6 weeks. Sorry my photo is a little fuzzy!
6. Mix your flavors.
Now you want to spend some time mixing your flavors–I’m using a variation of Jim’s recipe, which includes orange, ginger, and dandelion root.
At this stage, you are ready to enjoy your bitters. Try to take them with every meal, typically 5-15 drops. You can also take them in between meals to promote good digestive health. Before I took bitters I was taking digestive enzymes, but now, I’m happy to say that the bitters do the job (and they are a lot cheaper!)