Cocktail culture has inspired an entire revival of the ancient art of herbal mixology, especially as pertains to herbal bitters. It’s hard to browse a cocktail menu without seeing the words dash of bitters multiple times. Just a little dash helps to accentuate other tastes, like sweetness or tartness, and also bring out the other flavors in the cocktail.
Bitters just add a certain something to bring depth and cohesiveness to the cocktail’s flavor profile. But long before cocktail culture got a hold of them, bitters were purely medicine and preparing them as sweetened cordials was a way to make them not only more palatable, but actually pleasant to consume. To quote the immortal and remarkable Mary Poppins, a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.
Cordials are an Ancient Herbal Medicine
Cordials, now also known as liqueurs, are European in origin and are said to have first appeared in Italian apothecaries during the Renaissance. In essence, they are sweetened distilled spirits consisting of an alcohol base in which herbs, spices, and fruits were steeped in. Most follow a basic 3-part recipe template of bitter herbs plus aromatic herbs plus sweet or starchy plants to help mask the bitterness. They were used to cure diseases, to invigorate the body, to help settle sour stomachs, and were even used as aphrodisiacs.
Perhaps one of the oldest cordials still around today is Bénédictine, a golden elixir created by a French monk and dating back to 1510. It’s a mix of 27 local medicinal plants including angelica root and saffron with a little touch of oriental spice that has endured the test of time for over 500 years! As the popularity of cordials spread through Europe, it didn’t take long before they were being enjoyed more for their alcohol content than for their medicinal properties. Leave it to us humans to quickly turn medicine into recreational libations!
Other antique cordials originally used as medicine and still around today making appearances in our cocktails include:
How to Use Cordials
Cordials are traditionally served in 2-3 ounce quantities, are taken either before or after a meal, and are often served in cordial glasses that look like miniature wine glasses. It’s customary to fill these little glasses, which typically hold anywhere from 1 to 4 ounces, about half full if you want to be proper about it. When taken before a meal, they are used to stimulate digestion and prepare our bodies for the food we’re about it eat. After a meal, they help to prevent indigestion, heartburn, bloating, and other digestive disorders that commonly follow after ingesting food. The general recommendation for medicinal use is to take bitters 5-10 minutes before or after a meal, but taken at anytime during the meal is perfectly okay.
I highly recommend getting yourself a tiny cordial glass and enjoying a sip or two before or after your meal. It’s guaranteed to make you feel a little extra fancy. Plus, just look at you being proactive about your digestive health!
Food is Medicine
This dandelion leaf bitters cordial contains two plants highly revered for their bitter qualities. Common mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) a wild herb with a silvery underside that has a rich history steeped in lore and magic. It’s often placed on the bedside table or under the pillow to enhance and vivify dreams and is a close relative of the herb used to make absinthe, Artemesia absinthe. The aromatic spice of the ginger and the sweetness of the brandy and honey help to tone down the bitterness, making this cordial an incredibly pleasant sipper. Together, dandelion leaf, mugwort, and ginger make this cordial perfect for aiding digestion.
|Dandelion leaf||high in vitamins C, E, and K |
iron, and potassium
| alterative, bitter tonic, |
diuretic, nutritive, tonic
|Mugwort||rich in minerals like|
calcium & magnesium
|bitter tonic, antibacterial, |
antifungal, regulates menstruation
****not for use during pregnancy****
|Ginger root||contains moderate amounts of |
vitamin B6 and minerals
magnesium and potassium
|carminative, anti-inflammatory, |
|Honey, raw||high nutrient profile that|
includes B vitamins, calcium,
copper, iron, magnesium,
phosphorus, potassium, & zinc
|antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal,|
calming & conditioning
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dandelion & mugwort bitters cordialCourse: Libations
This dandelion leaf and mugwort bitters cordial can help to support healthy digestion by not only helping you to absorb more nutrients from your food, but also helping to prevent digestive ailments like indigestion, bloating, or an upset stomach. If you can’t find dandelion greens, you can always used dandelion root (fresh or dried). I generally let the herbs infused the brandy for at least one month. Less time will yield a less potent cordial. Get yourself a fancy cordial glass and sip to your digestive health!
1 1/2 cups chopped dandelion greens
1/2 cup chopped fresh mugwort leaves
1 cup peeled & diced fresh ginger
~4 cups brandy
1 1/2-2 cups honey
- infusing the brandy
- In a quart-sized glass jar, add the chopped dandelion greens, mugwort leaves, and fresh ginger root.
- Pour brandy over the herbs. The herbs should be covered by at least 2 inches of brandy. (Oftentimes, the herbs float and make it difficult to tell whether or not you have enough alcohol. You just don’t want any herbs sticking out of the brandy. You can always add a little more brandy.)
- Seal the jar with a tight fitting lid. If using a metal lid as you might if using a mason jar, I recommend putting 1-2 layers of wax paper between the lid and the jar so as to not have any negative reactions between the alcohol and metal as the herbs infuse over the next 30 days.)
- Be sure to label your jar with the contents and date. Store in a cool place out of direct sunlight. As often as you think of it, give the jar a couple of shakes. This helps to continually expose the herbs to better contact with the alcohol and can help extract more of the medicinal components (and minerals!) Let the brandy infuse for about a month.
- making the cordial
- After herbs have infused for about a month, use a fine mesh strainer to strain the brandy from the herbs. You can discard the herbs.
- Measure the amount of infused brandy you have. Once you know the amount of brandy you have, you can determine how much honey to add. Adding 1/2 part sweetener is what turns your infused brandy into a cordial. So if you have 4 cups of brandy, divide that number by half. 1/2 part of 4 is 2. Add 2 cups of honey.
- Serve 1-2 ounces before or after a meal and enjoy the benefits of bitters!
- Herbal substitutes? Other herbs with bitter qualities include chamomile, burdock root, yarrow, catnip, and hops. Experiment with making your own blends!
- Storage: The high alcohol content of this cordial acts as a preservative and can keep this cordial viable for years! Store out of direct sunlight. I keep my finished cordials in the refrigerator to enjoy them chilled.
- Nutraceutical values of natural honey and its contribution to human health and wealth. Abdulwahid Ajibola, Joseph P Chamunorwa, Kennedy H ErlwangerNutr Metab (Lond) 2012; 9: 61. Published online 2012 Jun 20.
DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.