Venezuela’s Bitters History and Why it Matters for your Manhattan

September 15, 2015

Your Manhattan owes a lot to Venezuela’s tumultuous history. Frankly, not just the Manhattan — the Champagne Cocktail, Vieux Carré, Singapore Sling, Pegu Club and many other classic cocktails all have one indispensible ingredient in common: Angostura Bitters. The brand and its iconic, oversized white label are well known. Less known, however, is that without Venezuela’s war for independence and subsequent political upheaval, we may never have had the delicious tincture.

The story of Angostura Bitters begins with the arrival in South America of German doctor and adventurist, Johann Siegert. Seeking to join Simon Bolivar in his struggle for independence from Spain, Dr. Siegert arrived in the town of Angostura in 1820 right in the thick of Bolivar’s war.

Undoubtedly, Siegert was drawn to Angostura by its importance to the independence movement. Bolivar had convened the Congress of Angostura the year before, in 1819, and established the Republic of Greater Colombia. Delegates to the Congress of Angostura elected Bolivar president and continued to meet in the town until 1821. Angostura, situated on the banks of the Orinoco River, was also an important trading hub. Known today as Ciudad Bolivar, the town remains a key shipping port for modern-day eastern Venezuela.

President Bolivar appointed Dr. Siegert as surgeon general of the hospital in Angostura. Dr. Siegert set about treating Bolivar’s soldiers and sailors passing through the town’s port. Many of these men suffered from seasickness and tropical diseases such as malaria. The palliative effect of gentian, a bitter alpine herb that has been used to treat stomach problems and dizziness for centuries, was well suited to treat these ailments. Dr. Siegert combined gentian with other herbs and spices in an alcoholic tincture that he called “Amargo Aromatico” or “aromatic bitters.” He began using it at his hospital to treat the armies of Bolivar, and selling it to sailors in 1824 under the name “Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters.”

Siegert was not the first doctor to make a proprietary blend of bitters and sell them as a cure-all. Bitters were prolific medicines in the 19th century and had even been mentioned as an ingredient in cocktails as early as 1806. Reading some of the advertisements for these bitters brands, it’s easy to think of their purveyors as snake oil salesmen. However, there may be some truth to claims of medicinal properties.

Bitters are essentially alcohol infusions of herbs, spices, and bittering agents. These bittering agents can include a number of different roots, barks or herbs. Two common bittering agents are cinchona and gentian root. Both of these likely have some legitimate medicinal effects when consumed in bitters. Cinchona bark, for example, contains quinine — the key ingredient in tonic water. Tonic was drunk (read: mixed with a healthy splash of gin) by British colonial soldiers for its anti-malarial properties. Quinine is, in fact, still used to treat malaria today, albeit in doses that are significantly higher than those found in tonic water. Gentian root really does help counteract acid, and may aide in digestion. Coincidentally, angostura bark from the eponymous tree native to South America can also be used as a flavoring agent in bitters. Ironically, while some aromatic bitters do contain angostura bark, Angostura Bitters do not (more on this later).

Regardless of whether the palliative effects of bitters are real or imagined, Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters quickly became a mainstay onboard the ships passing through Angostura. From there, it spread to world markets and demand escalated, despite Siegert’s apparent lack of business acumen.

Dr. Siegert quit military service in 1850 to focus solely on his bitters-making business. He opened a distillery and ramped up production, reaching world markets and exporting his bitters as far as England. Dr. Siegert’s son, Carlos, began to aggressively market his father’s bitters and traveled the world collecting gold medals at various fairs and exhibitions. In 1862, Dr. Siegert’s son exhibited his father’s bitters in London where he mixed them with gin, thus inventing the Pink Gin cocktail. Further exhibitions of what Dr. Siegert was now calling simply “Angostura Bitters” earned the Medal of Excellence at the Grand Exhibition in Vienna in 1873.

It was around this time that Mark Twain first sampled the Angostura Bitters in London. He wrote to his wife in 1874 that he had been drinking them daily mixed with scotch, lemon and sugar “before breakfast, before dinner, and just before going to bed. To this I attribute the fact that up to this day my digestion has been wonderful, simply perfect.” You can still get a Mark Twain cocktail, although drinking one for breakfast and throughout the day might raise some eyebrows.

As Angostura Bitters earned an international reputation, trouble at home threatened Dr. Siegert’s thriving bitters business. Venezuela entered another period of political upheaval. In 1875, his sons decided to move his family and his business to the Port of Spain in nearby Trinidad.

The iconic oversized label is the result of the company’s appropriation of laissez-faire island culture. The story goes that two Siegert brothers (who by now had inherited their father’s business) failed to coordinate their label and bottle orderings. They assumed the problem would eventually be fixed, but no one ever corrected the error. Entering their bitters into a competition, the brothers were forced to use the mismatched labels and bottles. While Angostura didn’t win the competition, one of the judges nonetheless commented on its unique label. The brother’s decided to keep it, and so it has remained for the last hundred years.

The Angostura Bitters brand certainly needed help differentiating itself from the competition. While the brand had a successful product, competition in the bitters business around the turn of the 20th century was intense. As already mentioned, angostura bark was a common ingredient in bitters. One American brand, Baltimore-based Abbot’s Bitters, produced their own angostura bitters. The Siegert family eventually went so far as to sue Abbott’s, and the Siegert v. Abbott case went all the way to the New York Supreme Court. Siegert’s bitters prevailed and Abbott’s was forced to change their branding.

The case highlights the importance of the American market to brands like Angostura, which despite their global following, depended on sales in the United States. As Brad Parsons writes in Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, the temperance movement and taxes on booze aimed at curbing its consumption actually helped bitters grow in popularity in the United States. While drinking alcohol became increasingly uncouth, drinking a shot of medicinal bitters with breakfast or after dinner (a lá Mark Twain) remained a socially acceptable custom.

In the United States, bitters were classified as non-potable alcohol. They were exempt from taxes aimed at spirits and escaped persecution during Prohibition. There’s a bar in Wisconsin that still serves Angostura straight up as a shot in homage to their Prohibition days. Angostura, along with other brands of bitters, retains this classification as non-potable alcohol in the United States. That’s why you can buy Angostura online from Wal-Mart and find it in grocery stores even in states that don’t allow such stores to sell hard liquor. (Look for it next to the vanilla extract in the baking aisle.)

Despite the non-potable alcohol loophole, many brands unfortunately did not survive Prohibition or the subsequent eradication of American drinking culture that continued through the 1940s and ‘50s. The myriad bitters brands that existed around the turn of the 20th century were whittled away to a handful by the turn of the 21st. It’s a testament to its uniqueness and quality that Angostura persists.

Fortunately, its popularity is only increasing, even as competition in the bitters business is starting to return to its late 19th-century levels. In 2009, rising demand in the United States met with a bottling snafu at the Angostura facility in Trinidad. The resulting shortage of Angostura Bitters created histrionic headlines across the United States. Calling it “Bittersgate,” the Great Angostura Shortage of 2009 got the full five minutes it deserved on the Rachel Maddow show. One bartender was quoted as saying, “I believe it is the end of civilization as we know it if we can’t have bitters.”

That is, of course, hyperbole. But it’s nonetheless true that there would be no cocktails without bitters. They may have started as a cure-all medicine, but bitters have become a bartender’s salt and pepper, marrying and magnifying flavors while adding subtle spice. And Angostura is one of the oldest and best around.

Nowadays, you’re better off drinking Pepto-Bismol if you have a stomachache. But try making a Manhattan without the Angostura, and you’ll see that its role in a cocktail is indispensable.

Below is a recipe for an Angostura Bitters-based cocktail called a Trinidad Sour. If you try it, or any other cocktail with Angostura in it, don’t forget to raise a glass to Dr. Siegert. Were it not for Simon Bolivar and his surgeon general, we’d all be drinking a little bit worse.

The Trinidad Sour

1 ounce Angostura Bitters
½ ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce grenadine
½ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
Egg white

Build in a cocktail shaker tin. Dry shake to incorporate egg white. Add ice and shake again until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.

 

Frank Swigonski is a recovering bartender. He is originally from Arizona but currently lives in Washington, DC where he works on energy policy.

 

Photo credit: Dave Nakayama