One of the important things to understand about Angostura is that they are extremely protective about their recipe for Angostura Bitters. In fact, only five people in the world know the recipe and they’ve signed an agreement not to travel all together or all eat at the same restaurant at the same time (or so I’m told). The recipe is also in a vault in the US, but the whole not flying together or eating together thing adds to the mystique (it’s a lot like the lore around Coca-Cola or Chartreuse). Unfortunately, this means that this article doesn’t have any pictures from where Angostura makes their bitters: photography is strictly forbidden, and Angostura will not talk about any of the elements that go into their famous bitters.
[Watch our video: Behind The Scenes of Angostura Bitters and Rum]
All the mystery and protectiveness over the world’s best selling bitters comes from a long history of trying to fend off competitors, imitators, and counterfeiters in the bitters space. Angostura Bitters got its start in 1824 when Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German doctor living in Venezuela, developed a medicinal remedy for stomach ailments within Simon Bolivar’s troops at the military hospital where he was the Surgeon-General. He named these bitters simply “Aromatic Bitters” and administered them as medicine. These bitters remained a well-regarded tonic with the troops and among family and friends. It wasn’t until 1853 when Dr. Siegert’s son, Carlos C. Siegert, returned from his education in Europe and devoted himself to the bitters business that things really took off. Angostura went from selling less than 20 bottles a year to having worldwide distribution. One of the amazing things about this is that Carlos C. Siegert toiled at the bitters business without any participation in the profits – he did it because he wanted to help his father. In 1870 Dr. Siegert died and Carlos decided to bring on his brother Alfredo to help with the business.
In 1875 the brothers moved the business to the Island of Trinidad (only 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela). Trinidad was an English territory and the bitters, now known as Angostura Bitters (after the Siegert’s home town), began to find favor among British troops, who brought the bitters back to the UK. They found that mixing it with their Navy gin rations it made a simple drink which was both delicious and medicinal. This drink became became known simply as “pink gin” after the pinkish hue that Angostura bitters gets when it is diluted. It was here that the bitters would move from being a medicine to something that was used to help imbibe.
The Siegert Brother’s business became successful and with its popularity came a great deal of imitators and counterfeiters. It was quite by accident that Angostura would have such distinct and iconic packaging. Trying to rush a bottle of bitters for a competition, one of the Siegert Brothers ordered the bottles and the other, the labels. Unfortunately they miscommunicated and the label was bigger than the bottle. They lost the competition but the judges said that they should keep the distinct mismatched packaging. This helped make the bitters one of the most recognizable spirits-related products in the world. You can’t miss it: it’s the one with the label that’s too big.
Angostura’s label helped define the iconic bitters, but it was Prohibition that really made Angostura bitters into the leading bitters in the world. Prohibition killed a majority of Angostura’s competition, and so when it was repealed, Angostura quickly became the dominant bitters in America and then the rest of the world.
Secrecy has always been extremely important to Angostura, and that secrecy began with the Siegert Brothers. They made a deal with Trinidad customs not to inspect the packages of herbs and spices that are imported to make the bitters. The actual process of assembling the herbs and spices is a complex one. The herbs and spices are first shipped to England where they are are bagged in coded, nondescript bags, and then shipped to Trinidad. In Trinidad, one of the select few assemble the blend of herbs and spices in a secret room called “The Sanctuary.” This herb blend is dumped down a shoot into a grinder which crushes and mixes the blend. The worker on the floor doesn’t even know what herbs and spices are in the mix. The only ingredients which are known for sure are gentian (a bittering agent), sugar, caramel, and a spirit base. It’s clear that the bitters also have some sort of citrus, and the bitters room smells like baking spices. Aside from what’s on the label, we will never know for sure.
This blend goes from the grinder into a large cylindrical container. This container is put on top of a tank filled with a sugar-based distillate which is heated and percolates through the blend. The bitters tanks look like big coffee percolators. This process takes at least 8 hours (again, the exact time is a secret). The liquid is then pumped into big tanks (which are painted to look like Angostura bitters bottles) where the caramel and sugar are added and diluted with distilled water from 95% alcohol to 44.7%. A lot of whiskey and vodka producers spend a lot of time talking about their water, and you wouldn’t think a small island off the coast of Venezuela would have great water. The island of Trinidad actually has a large area of dense rain forest and the city of Port of Spain sits at the base of many of those mountains and hills, so the fresh spring water from the rain forest flows down the mountain to the city. I think this is an important element both for Angostura bitters and their rum. The bitters are then bottled and the signature oversized label is affixed.
From its origins as a digestive tonic, Angostura bitters has become one of the consistently important tools used in preparing cocktails. Many of the world’s best cocktails use Angostura bitters, including The Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Champagne Cocktail, and Pisco Sour. Angostura bitters are extremely important in spirit-based cocktails that don’t contain citrus to balance out the sweet and strong elements. Angostura bitters also temper the acidity when used in citrus cocktails (the same impact it has on stomach acid), which is why Angostura bitters are so good as a digestive. Angostura’s popularity has lead to its use beyond cocktails into soft drinks, cooking, and, ironically enough, taken directly as a tonic (which is very popular among bartenders who have over-imbibed or overeaten).
Mixed with soda water, Angostura bitters creates a very light and sippable drink that is ideal for people who want to get something at a bar without alcohol. Five dashes of bitters in 8 ounces of soda water only has 0.24% alcohol by volume, which is low enough to be labeled as ‘non-alcoholic’ in many countries. In Trinidad, Angostura sells a product called LLB which is a lemon and lime soda with Angostura bitters. It’s extremely delicious and is often used as a mixer for rum.
On the culinary side, Angostura performs many of the key functions that it does in cocktails. It enhances and binds flavors, tempers acidity, and acts as a digestive. Angostura bitters pairs very well with fish, lamb, and does something magical to sauerkraut. A fantastic use for Angostura bitters in food is in a dry rub for barbecue, dehydrated in salt.
With the current classic cocktail revival, there’s been a lot of attention on the bitters space and many new products offering a variety of flavors (Angostura even offers orange bitters). Along with that have been a few cocktails that have explored using Angostura and its complex blend of flavors as the base spirit, including the Trinidad Sour and the Santisma Trinidad, which was created by Argentinian bartender Ezequiel Rodriguez for the 2012 Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge.
1 ½ oz Angostura 7 Year Old Dark Rum
½ oz oz Angostura Bitters
1 oz Dubonnet
¾ oz Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
¾ oz Simple Syrup
Shake and serve in a short rocks glass over ice. Garnish with grapefruit zest.
While the Trinidad Sour is an amazing exploration of Angostura as the base spirit, the Santisma Trinidad is a drink you can actually enjoy more than one of, and it showcases the fantastic flavors in the bitters without being overwhelming.
It’s amazing to think that a little tonic developed in a military hospital in Venezuela and then produced in the tiny island of Trinidad could become such a major part of how people imbibe, and just how much history, and secrecy, is contained in each little dash of bitters.
Watch our video: Behind The Scenes of Angostura Bitters and RumAngostura - Behind The Bitters by Geoff Kleinman