Bitters were a big business in pre-prohibition America. There were dozens (hundreds?) of commercial bitters brands and nearly every pharmacist had his own recipe. When prohibition came into effect, bitters largely disappeared. It has only been in the last few years that they have started to make a comeback.
Before we started Dash Bitters in 2012, we spent a lot of time searching for old bitters recipes and trying them out at home. It was fun to read through the recipes but challenging to locate, or even identify, the ingredients and then to adjust the quantities to something reasonable... no, we don't need 120 gallons of bitters.
Ultimately we arrived at our own modern versions of our favorite recipes, and these became the basis for our make your own bitters kits.
We wanted to share some of our favorite old recipes with you. Here are two that were originally published in American Druggist, Volume 18 (November 1889):
"The recipe from which the celebrated Angostura bitters are made"
Take 4 ounces of gentian root, and slice up very thin; 10 ounces each of calisaya bark, Canada snake-root, licorice root, yellow bark, allspice, dandelion root, and Angostura bark. All these must be broken, bruised, or cut up small. Angostura is imported from South America, and is a very valuable bitter, being both aromatic and pungent. Six ounces of cardamom seeds; 4 ounces each of balsam of tolu, rhubarb, and galanga; 1 pound of orange peel; 1 pound of alkanet root; 1 ½ ounces caraway seed; 1 ½ ounces of cinnamon; 1
½ ounces of cloves; 2 ounces of nutmeg, coriander seed, catechu, and wormwood; 1 ounce of mace; 1
½ pounds of red sanders, and 8 ounces of turmeric. Pound all separately and mix together, steeping for fifteen days in 50 gallons of proof spirit. Before filtering, add 30 pounds of honey.
"Another very elaborate bitter is the following, which, however, has a wonderful flavor and American origin"
Take of plain proof spirit 90 gallons; of red cinchona bark, 3
¼ pounds; calisaya bark, 3
¼ pounds; calamus root, 1
¼ pounds; orange peel, 4
¾ pounds; cinnamon, 3
½ ounces; cloves
, 3 ½ ounces; nutmeg, 3 ½ ounces; cassia buds, 2 ounces; red sanders, 6
½ pounds. First mash all the ingredients, put them in the spirit, and let them infuse for fourteen days, stirring the mixture well twice every day. Rack off and color with 11 pints brandy coloring, to get a dark red tint. Stir a quarter of an hour. Dissolve 30 pounds of white sugar in 30 gallons of water, add, and again stir for half an hour. Let the mixture rest for four or five days, and when bright, bottle. If the sanders is not used, the color will be a bright amber. Compounded according to the above directions, this will yield about 120 gallons at 25º below proof.