Bitter is Better

There are many products out there that have carved out a monopoly in a particular market to such an extent that you cannot reach for a brand x version, or come up with a homemade substitute. Usually these products have been around for generations, and they often have an interesting history behind them. If you are a bartender or adventurous cook, and are even slightly interested in the provenance of certain ubiquitous products, you need look no further than the bottle of bitters that you’ve grabbed a hundred times for a myriad of uses.

With its trademark oversize label, Angostura bitters is a little bottle that looks as if it is wearing its big brother’s shirt.

Perhaps the reason for the oversized label is the history lesson that is printed on the back of each bottle. If you are the type that reads the back of cereal boxes while munching on your All Bran, you’ve probably already polymathed your way through a captive audience, recounting the derring-do of Johan Siegert who developed the potion in the early 19th Century. But for those of you haven’t, and are planning to audition for Jeopardy, mix yourself a Napoleon and read on!

Doctor Johan Siegert, a German scientist high-tailed it to Venezuela in 1820 to join with Simon Bolivar, who was at war with Spain. Siegert was soon appointed as Surgeon General of the military hospital in the town of Angostura, an important trading post on the banks of the Orinoco River.

Cue the Enya!

Does that song make sense to you yet? No? Then mix yourself a “Slap Me Silly”; it will all become crystal clear.

Anyway, Siegert soon realized he wasn’t in Berlin anymore, and set about to develop a remedy for the multiplicity of fevers and stomach ailments that were afflicting the soldiers. After four years of tinkering with various tropical herbs, he came up with his “Amargo Aromatico”- Aromatic Bitters.

Word soon spread amongst the queasy soldiers and sailors arriving in port of the restorative qualities of Siegert’s concoction, and in no time it became a no-brainer for Siegert to mass-produce the stuff.

Within six years, vast quantities of his “recipe” were being exported to England and Trinidad, and by 1850 he resigned his post as Surgeon General to focus solely on manufacturing this tonic on a large scale.

His son Don Carlos, a well-known bon vivant and now a partner in the company, showed off the potion at a London exhibition in 1862, where it was mixed with gin to overwhelming acclaim; a marriage, panty-pullers everywhere will agree, was a match made in heaven. By the time Siegert the elder died in 1870, Angostura Bitters were renowned worldwide.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Venezuela, things were still pretty politically unstable, so the company pulled up stakes and moved to Trinidad, where it is still located, now in a twenty-acre complex that includes a museum, auditorium and art gallery. Exit through the gift shop.

By the year 2000, fifty million litres of Angostura Bitters was produced annually, 95% of it exported. The little bottle with the big label is going places, from its humble beginnings in the hospital rooms of Angostura to the palaces of Europe. Indeed, the oversize label has various awards printed on it, including a Royal Warrant of appointment to Queen Elizabeth II, who visited the plant in 1985, the same year it became the first company to receive the Hummingbird Gold Medal, an honour awarded to contribution to Industry in Trinidad and Tobago.

Not just used for cocktails, Angostura bitters are also a “secret ingredient” in many recipes of Caribbean origin, ranging from “Melon and Bitters” to “Banana and Toffee Tarts”

So next time you reach for a product, you may want to give a little thought to the story behind it, and raise your glass to Johan Siegert. If nothing else, it makes for a good story while you’re working on your second “Naughty Girl Scout.”


“Slap Me Silly”

Layer equal parts Green Crème de Menthe, Brown crème de Cacao, chocolate syrup, Galliano, Parfait Amour in a sexy liqueur glass, top with 2 dashes bitters

“Naughty Girl Scout”

1 oz Scottish or Irish Cream

1 oz Kahlua

1 oz vodka

I tsp green Crème de Menthe

3 dashes bitters

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into rocks glass. Garnish with cherry.

…and should you make it through these, you may want to try this the next morning.

“Lemon Lime and Bitters” (LLB)

6 dashes bitters in a rocks glass

add ice and swirl around until interior of glass is coated with bitters

fill with lemonade or sprite

add a shot of lime cordial

garnish with lemon or lime

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