Urban Moonshine Digestive Bitters (Photo: Urban Moonshine)
You’ve probably seen bitters at the bar. As the star ingredient of any craft cocktail-making bartender’s arsenal, the best known is classic Angostura Bitters. Nowadays you can find them in pretty much every flavor from chocolate to curry to Jamaican jerk.
As it turns out, these strange, bartender-beloved potions are actually really good for your health, too. We’re talking digestion-boosting, liver-cleansing, skin-clearing good. To get the full scoop, we talked to Jovial King, founder of Vermont-based Urban Moonshine Bitters (an organic bitters brand focused on herbal apothecary formulations, though you can definitely stick them in your cocktail, too).
King says many traditions believe that there are five essential flavor profiles — sweet, sour, salty, umami, and bitter — that we, as humans, need to consume for optimal health. Centuries ago, when our diets relied more heavily on foraging, we had no problem getting all of them. But now, with the rise of processed food, we get a whole lot of salty and sweet, and not a lot of bitter. “People are so obsessed with food elimination diets,” says King. “Is it the dairy? Is it the gluten? But they never stop to consider whether maybe it’s just that their digestion isn’t in top shape.”
Unfortunately, bitter just happens to be the flavor that best fires up the digestive system. “A lot of plants or berries that can be poisonous when ingested have a bitter flavor,” says King. “So, the digestive system learned early on to work extra hard when it encountered that flavor.”
Fast-forward to today, you can get your bitters fix from foods like dandelion greens, and broccoli rabe. “But not everyone can be in their backyard digging for dandelion greens,” says King with a laugh. “It’s much easier for most people to carry around a little bottle of bitters in their bag instead.” Luckily, those are just as effective.
Urban Moonshine bitters, along with many others on the market, are made from a mixture of bitter roots like dandelion, angelica, burdock, gentian and ginger. Urban Moonshine offers theirs in four flavors — original, citrus, maple and chamomile — and sells them in several sizes, including an ultra-convenient on-the-go travel spray. I now keep one in each of my bags. To take them, all you need is ¼ of a teaspoon (or seven sprays, or ½ dropper full). You just put the bitters on your tongue, swallow, and you’re good to go. For best results, King recommends taking your bitters about 10 to 15 minutes before each meal, and up to six times daily if you’re really into them.
“Bitters are like the gym for your digestive system,” says King. “They help to keep it toned.” They also balance appetite, curb sugar cravings, and signal enzyme production in your stomach to enhance healthy digestion and support liver function, and therefore healthy, clear skin. “The skin is an organ, and bitters help to lower the inflammatory mode in your body. They promote beauty from the inside out!”
And while Urban Moonshine is one of the only brands you can find on the shelf of your local beauty store right now, if crazy flavors are more your speed, check out The Meadow, which boasts a selection of almost 300 different kinds.
An added bonus? Even in cocktails, bitters are delivering their potent health benefits. The rule of thumb: As long as the bitter flavor is detectable on the palette, the bitters will do their work. In other words, you can basically write off happy hour as a necessity for your health (just kidding — sort of).
Read on for a few recipes — both virgin and not — to get more bitters in your life:
Morning Detox Tonic
1 tsp bitters (any flavor)
1 cup water
Juice of half a lemon
Splash of raw apple cider vinegar
Evening Retox Tonics
1 tsp maple or citrus bitters
1 oz Gin
1 tsp Maple Syrup
Splash of fresh lemon juice
Splash of fresh orange juice
Top off with soda water
1 tsp original bitters
1 oz Whiskey
Pinch of sugar
1 squeeze of juice from a fresh orange
Add orange zest to taste
Top with an orange wedge