“Grateful Belly” Mulled Cider with Maple Bitters. Photo by: Ben Sarle
By Zoe Helene
Holiday eating is all too often excessive. When your belly groans, consider a natural solution that cultures throughout the world have been turning to for digestive issues since antiquity: bitters. Typically reserved in Western culture for use in cocktails, these formulas made from bitter aromatic herbs can soothe gas and bloating, relieve occasional heartburn, and build digestive health.
Urban Moonshine, a small family business in Burlington, Vermont, makes fine, handcrafted bitters formulas in original, citrus, maple, and special limited edition flavors. The company’s mission is to bring herbal medicine “out of the cupboard and onto the counter” in everyday life. The bitters can be mixed with water or stirred into a delicious cocktail to stimulate healthy digestion.
What makes bitters work? I asked Chris Kilham, ethnobotanist, media personality, natural health expert (and hubby) to explain the benefits of bitters.
Chris Kilham, The Medicine Hunter
What are bitters?
“Bitters,” any of a variety of formulas that typically utilize bitter herbs, are safe, effective, time-tested botanicals that aid digestion. Bitter principles in herbs often mean those herbs are good for liver cleansing and digestion.
What do they do?
Bitters are a great way to keep your digestion in really good shape. The herbs in these formulas detoxify the liver and enhance digestive enzyme production.
How do they work?
Food goes in, food comes out. In between… Our digestive system is a big, long pipe that starts at the mouth, ends at the anus, and involves a lot of complex processes in between. Many people experience indigestion, and symptoms can include a feeling of being too full, sluggish or gassy and experiencing acidic stomach and queasiness, to name a few.
Herbalists have known for centuries that certain plants, especially those that are bitter or aromatic, can aid digestion, reduce digestive discomfort, and actually improve the daily function of that big, long pipe that travels from north to south in your body. Bitters help to feed the micro-bacteria that becomes healthy intestinal flora.
Tell me a little about the herbs in Urban Moonshine Original Bitters.
Basically, they contain the best herbs for enhancing digestion, including dandelion, burdock, yellow dock, gentian, fennel, ginger and more.
Why this brand?
These are fine, hand-crafted herbal products. I’m an herbalist, so I actively look for stuff like this, and I wish there were more of it. This is artisan herbal manufacturing done beautifully well, with fine ingredients, good concentration–and with a great group of women running this company. Plus, they’re from Vermont!
I’m very fussy about herbal products. The reason that I have such regard for Urban Moonshine is exactly because I am an herbalist. I’m usually underwhelmed by herbal products, and then once in a while something comes along and I say, “Wow! That’s really great.” These are superb, artisan quality bitters. The formulas are well thought out and they’re very good-tasting.
And they’re earth-friendly?
They’re certified organic, and that’s very important. It can’t be good for your digestive system to consume agri-poisons. It can’t be good for any part of your system for that matter, or for the soil or water or any living being. The packaging is super high-end beautiful eco, and I like that they’re in glass bottles. Glass comes from the earth and returns to the earth and is 100 percent recyclable. That matters because plastic pollution is a very real waterways crisis. It also matters from a human body health perspective because plastic leaches chemicals that mimic hormones into the contents, and when you consume those contents, you’re consuming those toxins and your body absorbs them. That doesn’t happen with glass.
Why do they have to taste bitter?
Bitter compounds in plants stimulate the production of digestive juices and help detoxify the liver. In addition, they promote regularity. In our culture we don’t tend to favor bitter that much–we’re very into sweet–but in India, China and Southeast Asia, they seek out bitter foods and flavors because they understand this.
Why have bitters typically been put into cocktails?
Bitters products have always been part of the alcohol-making world. The single most popular bitters product is Angostura Bitters, which can be found in just about any bar in the world. Bitters are sometimes added to cocktails for flavor, but they do a lot more than add to the flavor profile.
Your cocktail recipe calls for maple bitters.
The original is my favorite, and the maple-flavored one is the original with maple flavor, which works well in a mulled cider.
Unlike cocktails, digestion is not exactly a glamorous subject matter.
No, but what bitters do is great! This is what you want! If you don’t have a healthy, strong, functioning digestive system, all sorts of other health disorders arise–and that can really be unglamorous.
Is it better to drink them before or after a meal?
After a meal is actually a little better, but you can take them before a meal too. Either way is good. I put a couple of teaspoons in a glass of filtered water. Or you can serve my “Grateful Belly” mulled cider concoction with maple bitters in festive glasses with a cinnamon stick, which is like putting a cherry on top of an ice cream sundae.
And will this keep you from having heartburn?
That all depends on what you’ve eaten and if you’ve eaten too much. Nothing can save you from pigging out, but bitters can soothe your passage. Some people sit down for a holiday meal and plow through something like seventeen thousand calories and eat pounds and pounds of turkey and cranberry sauce and stuffing and gravy and potatoes–and then the deserts come out. So they eat cake and pumpkin pie and apple pie and ice cream and whipped cream, and then they need help. And this is help.
So it is smart to have bitters handy when you know you’re going to eat?
Oh, I think bitters should be mandated for the holidays. I like it in a mulled cider.
“Grateful Belly” Mulled Cider with Organic Maple Bitters
Maple bitters are an excellent complement for apple cider. The cinnamon and cloves in this recipe aid digestion, and ginger is good for the belly. Orange slices give it delicious zest.
Makes 6 cups
4 cinnamon sticks
4 thick orange slices
2 tablespoons grated ginger root
1 quart certified organic apple cider
6 tablespoons organic maple-flavored bitters (1 tablespoon per cup)
Pour cider into a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Try not to let the cider boil. Stir in cinnamon sticks, cloves, ginger and orange slices. Let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add bitters toward the end or put 1 tablespoon into each cup before ladling in the mulled cider. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
NOTE: Cider is not the same as bottled apple juice, which has been pasteurized. You can buy local apple cider during harvest season or pick up a bag of organic apples and juice them for fresh energy and flavor.