A traditional Old Fashioned cocktail recipe calls for whiskey, sugar, ice, a cherry, orange peel, and a quick dash of one sneaky ingredient: Angostura bitters. Though it is a quick step in the creation of the cocktail–it may be one of its most important. With its bright yellow cap and signature “one- size-too-big” label, Angostura is the secret weapon to many a bartender, but its origins don’t start at the neighborhood saloon.
Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, besides owning the name of a storybook protagonist, was a field doctor who had participated in the Napoleonic Wars, even serving with the Prussian army in the Battle of Waterloo. Moving with his family to Venezuela in 1820, Siegert would become the Surgeon General of revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar’s army as it fought for the country’s independence. Taking up residence in Angostura, Venezuela, J.G.B. Siegert would become enthralled with the local flora and fauna, taking interest in herbal remedies for the stomach conditions of Bolívar’s men.
His perfected creation? The bitters we know well today, bearing the name of the town with which they were born. By 1850, Siegert began to export his bitters to the US, England, and Europe.
Taking over for their father upon his death in 1870, sons Carlos, Alfredo, and Luis Siegert moved the business to Trinidad and Tobago, making the island the base for their global expansion. The sons’ adventures explain many intricacies of the famous Angosutra bottle. Taking the creation on a world tour, the family would win gold medals in Philadelphia and a Medal of Excellence in Vienna.
Legend has it that the bottle’s unique 5th grade art project looking label comes from this era of the company’s existence. With a competition looming, one brother was tasked with getting bottles, and another was in charge of creating the labels. The usual “sibling senses” may not have been working that day, as the bottles were smaller than the labels that had been created for the event. With no time to rectify the mistake, the bottle was entered into the competition with its oversized jacket. Though the brothers lost, a judge informed them it was an excellent marketing trick, and Angostura bottles have been playing hide and seek with their labels from then on onward.
The recipe that is now almost 200 years old is only currently known by five people. Like a designated survivor situation, they are not allowed to travel together or stay in the same hotel—an intense pact to continue the secret ingredients of the small bottle. Furthering the mystery behind Angostura’s formula, a special agreement is even in place with the government of Trinidad & Tobago that imported ingredients won’t be inspected.
Though lips may be sealed on the creation of Angostura bitters, its impact on the cocktail industry is no secret. The Manhattan, Daiquiri, Queen’s Park Swizzle, and even the modern Egg-White Whiskey Sour all owe their fame to Angostura’s dotted dashes. A staple in bars public and personal, Angostura may no longer be used for stomach maladies, but it’s proved to be a fine Friday night medicine.