The story of angostura bitters begins as only the story of perhaps the most famous bitters can begin.
It starts like an adventure movie full of dangers and coincidences that change people’s destinies.
In this case, it will change and influence a whole new world – a world where the love of cocktails will rule.
Angostura bitters were created during the tumultuous times of the independence wars in South America. Simon Bolivar, who was fighting in Venezuela then, was helped by veterans from the Napoleonic Wars and, with them, a few Prussians.
Among the Prussians was the German doctor Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert.
As head of the military hospital in the port of Angostura, Siegert faced problems utterly different from those he had encountered in Europe.
To help soldiers suffering from indigestion and malaise, he began experimenting with local herbs to create an effective tonic that would serve as medicine.
Little did he know that those experiments would ensure him and the port of Angostura an eternal place in the history of alcoholic beverages.
In the beginning, Siegert’s bitter was a very popular medicine in Venezuela. Still, when the tonic was offered to the English market in 1850, it quickly found a place on the shelves of pubs instead of on pharmacy shelves.
It’s where the beginning of the story ends because, from that moment on, a new history begins in which the main stars will be cocktails and, of course, bitters, and for Angostura bitters, an honored place behind bars, on the shelf, has been reserved for all time.
And that’s where the legend begins, the tale of an urban myth full of mystery and secrecy.
What is publicly available about how Angostura bitters are made is the claim that Siegert’s original recipe is used all the time.
In addition, it is known that they contain 44.7% alcohol and that sugarcane distillate is used to soak the ingredients, which are, of course, a secret.
According to urban legend, only five people know the secret of Siegert’s recipe.
However, the legend would not be a legend, even if it is an urban one, if there was not a little exaggeration in it because it is claimed that those five people have a firm agreement that they are obliged to respect unconditionally: they must never be on the same plane, nor dine in the same time in the same restaurant.
Although the name bears the name of a Venezuelan port, Angostura bitters have been produced in Trinidad since 1875.
Ever since they started a storm, Angostura bitters have brought new flavor combinations to the cocktail world as a signature ingredient time and time again.
The most famous cocktails with Angostura bitters are Manhattan, Old fashion, and Queen’s Park Swizzle.
As a sign of respect for Angostura bitters, we will provide recipes for these three guiding stars in the cocktail sky.
2 ounces of rye whiskey
1-ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
Garnish: brandied cherry (or lemon twist, if preferred)
1 teaspoon of sugar
3 dashes of Angostura bitters
1 teaspoon of water
2 ounces bourbon (you can use rye whiskey if preferred)
Garnish: orange twist
Queen’s Park Swizzle
8-10 mint leaves
3/4 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces of Demerara rum
1-ounce lime juice, freshly squeezed
4 dashes of Angostura bitters, divided
Garnish: mint spring
What are bitters?
It would be easiest to describe the story of bitters as a path from the so-called elixirs of life made for various medicinal purposes to a product that has an indisputable place in the world of alcoholic beverages.
That story began somewhere in the eighteenth century when every doctor who kept to himself came up with his original recipe.
But, of course, where there are doctors, there are fake doctors, so strange, sometimes life-threatening, elixirs of life appeared everywhere.
But let’s forget that episode with the fake doctors. Those real doctors, humane, who tried to really help people and heal them, tirelessly searched for ingredients to include in their healing tonics.
By the way, the term tonic owes its name to a well-known mixture of carbonated water and quinine, which was made to prevent malaria. The medicinal effects of quinine are tonic, hence the mix’s name.
British soldiers mixed it with gin in India to make the bitter anti-malarial medicine more palatable. And that’s how the famous gin and tonic was born.
And now, let’s go back to Venezuela and the port of Angostura in 1820. At the moment when Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert leaves the ship and steps onto land into the tropical nature of Venezuela.
And that was all it took for the magic to happen because that specific climate offered Siegert ingredients that he could only find in that place and with only those aromas. And that’s where the story of elixirs of life ends, and the incredible adventure of bitters begins because Amargo Aromatico, the first Sigert bitter, will soon be finished.
Since that time, bitters have been added to cocktails, and as some describe them, they represent the character impulse of each cocktail.
The recipes of the most famous bitters are, of course, a secret, but we know that they are made from different ingredients. For example, Angostura, at least according to some stories, consists of over forty ingredients.
Fruits, barks of various trees, roots, fruit peels, seeds, chocolate, herbs, and coffee are used to obtain bitters, and you can still indulge your imagination and list them because, after all, the world of bitters is as mystical and mysterious as secret connections between the aromas of their ingredients.
Mystical and mysterious and immersed in a neutral alcohol base.
When the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in the USA in 1906, the bitters industry was shaken. It was forbidden to sell bitters as unregulated patent medicines.
Labels had to contain an accurate list of ingredients and remove words such as drug or other words that could be interpreted as a medical product. In the end, lower limits of alcohol allowed to be used in bitters were prescribed.
But the bitters industry also survived that blow.
The bottles of cocktail bitters on the shelves behind the bar stand out for their size. They are small and have a dispenser to control the amount added to the cocktail.
There are many types of bitters. The most numerous are aromatic. They are a mixture of many ingredients whose aromas permeate and intertwine.
There are also herbal bitters, citrus, fruit, and nut bitters made from cocoa and coffee.
A few facts about cocktails
A cocktail is an attitude to life. All you need is a small home bar, a shaker, a strainer, and of course, glasses, and a good mood is guaranteed.
Many of the cocktails with which this adventure began a long time ago have never been precisely written down, and many have changed over time.
Of course, some classics are widely known. But if making cocktails inspires us for something, then it is undoubtedly to relax, have fun and experiment with the adventurous breath of the aromas of the ingredients we decide to use.
Thus, the cocktail is enjoyed even before taking a sip.
The world of cocktails is also a world of myths and legends. No one can confidently say when the first cocktail was made or who made it. But, just as there are secret recipes for bitters mixes, so is the secret of which medicinal tonic became the first cocktail bitters.
The very name “cocktail” is entirely mysterious. However, there are several versions according to which it was created.
According to one of them, the name is derived from the word cock’s tail. And here, too, the explanations branch out, as it seems, as the society that came up with the theory was in a mood.
Some claim that they are colorful tails of multi-colored feathers that can be compared to cocktails’ layers of flavors and ingredients. The more bellicose immediately imagine a cockfight and feathers flying in all directions.
Maybe both were talking about the same thing, but they were probably under the influence of different types of cocktails and different numbers of drunk glasses.
There is also the story of the innkeeper Betsy Flanagan, who had a tavern in New England during the Revolutionary War.
Among her guests were officers who drank and grumbled, complaining about some rich man who supported the British.
One evening, Betsy brought a mixture of rum and fruit juice to their table, which she garnished with feathers from a rooster’s tail.
It was no coincidence that those feathers were the feathers of a rooster that he had lost in battle and whose owner was none other than that hated rich man.
Delighted by Betsy’s gesture, a French officer exclaimed: “Vive le coq’s tail!”.
Suggested Substitutes for Angostura Bitter
If you do not have Angostura Bitter, and the company has announced itself, do not despair and by no means resort to panic measures.
Forget the spices you have in the kitchen! It’s not a very good idea to randomly, hastily pick them up and soak them in vodka or rum.
Instead of bitterness, you will only strain despair from it.
If you don’t have Angostura Bitters, you may have some bitter liqueurs in the house.
The cocktails will certainly not be the same, but if you use them as a substitute for Angostura Bitters, they are guaranteed to be interesting.
And finally, what should have been at the beginning of this introduction – if you don’t have Angostura Bitters, replace them with one of these offered bitters, and you can also use them with other flavors.
- Peychaud’s Bitters
Many claims that the Sazerac cocktail, invented by Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole pharmacist, in 1835 in his shop on Royal Street, New Orleans, is one of the oldest cocktails.
Based on the fact that the word cocktail was first used in print in a text from 1800, it is difficult to accept such a claim.
However, in the chaotic world of cocktails, anything is possible because the recipes of many cocktails have never been precisely remembered.
Even if it is not the oldest, Peychaud’s Sazerac cocktail is undoubtedly one of the most famous and influential. In addition, Peychaud’s Bitters has a place in the constellation of legendary bitters.
Antoine Amédée Peychaud came to New Orleans from the then-French colony of Saint-Dominique (now Haiti). At that time, the revolution that lasted from 1791 to 1804 had just ended in Haiti.
Forty years later, around 1850, Peychaud founded the American Sazerac Company, the distributor of Peychaud’s Bitters.
The base of this bitter is pure alcohol, and the primary aromas are the aromas of gentian and anise, rounded off by a hint of mint.
- Bitters Club Aromatic Bitters
Bitters Club Aromatic Bitters have twenty-six aromas of natural herbs, spices, and fruits, which have been carefully selected so that, like in an aromatic spiral, they rise in a row and correspond to each one that comes next.
Four alcoholic beverages are used as the basis of this bitter: Bourbon, Brandy, All Grain Spirit, and Gin.
You should add a dash or two to whiskey or bourbon cocktails.
They are perfect as a substitute for Angostura Bitters in the famous Old Fashion and Manhattan cocktails, which are the trademark of Angostura Bitters.
- Woodford Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Aromatic Bitters
Woodford Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Aromatic Bitters are a blend of aromatic bitters aged in bourbon barrels for some time.
This way of production allows bitters to create new fantastic aromas utterly different from all other aromatic bitters.
As a replacement for Angostura Bitters, Woodford Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Aromatic Bitters will add new depth to classic cocktails.
- Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters
Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters contain the bark of the Angostura tree, which is known for its medicinal properties.
This bark is also used as a substitute for quinine. Angostura grows in Venezuela and Colombia.
Fee Brothers has a long history, making bitters since 1864.
Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters are primarily distinguished from Angostura Bitters by the enhanced aroma of ament. This difference will, first of all, be noticed if you use them as a substitute in a Manhattan cocktail.
Still, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters will open the door to new views of the famous cocktails because of this particularity and the tones of ginger and cardamom they contain.
Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters are caramel brown.
- Dashfire Brandy Old Fashioned Bitters
Dashfire Bitters Co. produces three bitters: Brandy Old Fashioned Bitters, Dashfire Vintage Orange No. 1, and Mr. Lee’s Ancient Chinese Secret.
Brandy Old Fashioned Bitters have a similar flavor composition to Angostura Bitters.
- Strongwater Golden – Old Fashioned Aromatic Craft Cocktail Bitters
Nick Anderson, Co-Founder of Strongwater, best explains the characteristics of the bitters produced by this company.
He says that he grew up surrounded by the magic of natural medicines because, as half Norwegian and half Korean, he was lucky enough to learn firsthand a lot about Scandinavian folk medicine and Asian herbal tonics.
Encouraged by those lessons, which were passed down from generation to generation, he grew up exploring nature and trying to learn how to harness the power of plants. Then, after becoming a chemist, all this acquired knowledge led him straight to mixology.
He says that Bitters designed at Strongwater are powerful potions created to heal the soul and enhance cocktails.
The biggest inspiration for his work was the Strongwater stores of the 16th century, where spirits were used to heal.
The result of that adventure is bitters that enable the creation of superb cocktails and are guaranteed to lift the mood.
- Boker’s Bitters
The Prohibition Era extinguished a miraculous flame Johann Gottlieb Böker had ignited in 1828. Thus, after almost a hundred years of production, the company founded by Böker ceased to operate.
Boker’s bitters, in that century of its existence, became world-famous and popular as a producer of the finest bitters in the glorious age of mixed drinks in the 1800s.
After the cessation of production, the last bottles of this relic in the world of cocktails slowly disappeared from the shelves. But unfortunately, the recipe was never published, so no one could even try to make a replica or start production.
So until 2009, no one had any idea there might still be some remaining samples of Boker’s Bitters somewhere in the world.
And then, out of nowhere, a person appeared in London with a tiny amount of the remaining sample of the famous bitter.
Today, you can find versions of Boker’s Bitters produced by, among others, Philadelphia distillers Dr. Adam Elmegirab and The Bitter Truth.
The Boker’s Bitters replica produced by The Bitter Truth is called Bogart’s Bitters.
Other flavors of bitters
- Angostura Orange Bitters
Angostura Orange Bitters offers the aromas of a complex blend of secret ingredients and tropical oranges.
- Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bourbon Barrel Aged Cocktail Bitters
Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry Bourbon Barrel Aged Cocktail Bitters are, as the name suggests, primarily a mixture of other ingredients behind which the cherry aroma appears. The scent of gentian in bourbon barrels takes on an aura of bitter depth.
- Woodford Reserve Orange Bitters
Woodford Reserve Orange Bitters is a very strong bitter, saturated with the full flavor of orange, but not too spicy and loaded with many ingredients. The time spent in bourbon barrels makes it magical.
- Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 is a bitter produced by the Sazerac company.
Gary Regan was an exciting person. He was born in 1951 in Britain, and in 1973, he immigrated to the USA.
Regan worked as a bartender for more than twenty years. He wrote about drinking and bars. He is known for his book “Joy of Mixology” and his excellent cocktails knowledge.
He was jokingly called the weekend alchemist when, in the early 1990s, he started making his own orange bitters because, at that time, he was not satisfied with the quality of what was offered on the market.
He agreed with the Sazerac company to make bitters according to his recipe. After precisely five failed attempts, Sazerac’s team of scientists finally created a bitter to Gary’s discerning taste. And so now, thankfully, we have Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6.
And finally, two liqueurs as a possible substitute
- Averna Amaro
Averna Amaro is an Italian bitter herbal liqueur that contains 29% alcohol and is moderately sweetened. Among the aromas from the mixture, the scents of anise, berry fruit, and citrus stand out.
It is usually drunk chilled, with ice and lemon. It is used as an addition to many cocktails.
The alcoholic tincture is used as the basis of amar. It contains various herbs, flower roots, neutral wines, and citrus peels. After filtering, it is mixed with sweet syrup.
The mixture is, of course, a secret, but it is known that in addition to the other ingredients, there are essences of bitter lemon oil. The choice of natural ingredients has not changed since the original recipe in 1868.
According to legend, the recipe was composed by Benedictine monks in northern Italy. Textile merchant Salvatore Averna found out about the recipe and made Amaro himself.
The business was later taken over by his son Francesco.
On the exciting label of Averna Amara, filled with medallions, coats of arms, and phrases, you can also see the Italian royal coat of arms found on it as early as 1912.
The label was changing, and one of its novelties was the following words signed by Salvatore Averne: “Absolutely special, obtained from infusions of selected natural aromatic plant products. According to a secret recipe owned by the Averna family.”
Campari is an alcoholic herbal liqueur with a distinctive ruby-red color. In the aroma of Campari, the scents of bitter orange, forest fruits, and herbs are mixed.
The impression is that behind the sweet forest berries, the smell of cinnamon recedes and that everything is seasoned with salty spices until the bitterness of citrus prevails.
Someone said that when he drinks Campari, he feels as if the warmth has spread to all his senses.
Bartender Gasparo Campari invented this liqueur in 1860. Before that, he made various bitter aperitifs for years.
Interestingly, the distinctive ruby red color of Campari was obtained from crushed insects in the beginning. However, it was only in 2006 that the coloring of Campari in this way was stopped.
More topics to discover: