Tradition has it that Brouwer himself spent much time in the alehouses of Flanders and Holland. His works are typically detailed and small, and often adopt themes of debauchery, drunkenness and foolishness in order to explore human emotions, expressions and responses to pain, fear and the senses.
The Bitter Tonic is an example of the type of work that depicts such responses, in this case the sense of taste. His work was well liked, to the point that forgeries were sold in his own time. Both Rubens and Rembrandt owned a number of his works.
Nevertheless, Brouwer appeared in financial trouble throughout his life. He died at the early age of 32 in Antwerp, where he was first buried in a common grave, but, upon instigation of the members of the guild, was reburied on 1 February 1638 in the church of the Carmelites.