The history of bitters goes back to ancient times. Some credit Renaissance alchemist Paraceleus as the inventor; others Dr. Johann Siegert (the Angostura Bitters founder). But they’re older than that; most of the early civilizations had some form of a fermented or infused elixir to cure illnesses. There's evidence in ancient Egypt that people were infusing botanicals into wine, while in China they did the same with fermented rice beverages. Bitters, in the basic sense of the word, are made from water or alcohol infused with spices and herbs -- typically roots, barks, dried fruits, and flowers. Bitters also express terroir. Ancient brewers would use the plant life around them to make these tinctures, much like how wine producers choose to use indigenous grapes.
One of our favorites new bitters is the Quercus by Artemisia, a rural Virginia farm and vineyard run by Kelly Allen and Andrew Napier. Quercus is everything you love about oak outside of wine. Its smells of raw earth, like the dense parts of Rock Creek Park. (It would add a nice woody flavor to meats or veggies if you can't make it to a grill.) Artemisia focuses on expressing the energy of mid-Atlantic terroir, and the first time Kelly and Andrew came to the shop for a tasting they mostly talked about their love of this region. Because their farm is still in the developing stages, there's only so much they can source from their own land at the moment. However, they work with producers who focus on “sustainable production and fair-trade wages for their farmers.” Right now, they have four different expressions: Junio, elder; Aestas, sumac; Incendia, smoked cherry; and Quercus, oak. (Have a look at their website to see their full beauty when you get a chance.)
I've found these bitters are great for altering other liquids. Try adding them to sparkling water or coffee, or use them to make a syrup (for a way to extract the flavors without alcohol). And there are two cocktail recipes that I think best capture their spirit. The first is a version of an Upside Down Manhattan: Wurmut Erborista — another product that focuses on micro-terroir — plus both the Aestas and Incendia bitters. The second is a take on a Trinidadian Sour and uses a full ounce of Quercus; it fully expresses the oak in the bitters without scaring you, and you instantly feel surrounded by fire and earth. The notes of tobacco and nutmeg linger on your palate in the most thought provoking way, while the lemon is reminiscent of the summer sun.