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A Brief History of Bitters

The author of a new book on bitters explains how they went from medicine to cocktail ingredient

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In 1803, the Farmer’s Cabinet, an agriculture periodical published in Philadelphia, first mentioned the word “cocktail” to refer to a drink—and not a horse with a shortened tail. Another early description of a cocktail, from 1806, calls for four ingredients: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

Bitters occupy a curious niche in the history of food and drinks, especially given their early history as patent medicines with rather dubious reputations. Take one of the oldest, Angostura. Originally, the company’s greenish-tinted bottles contained an herbal concoction made from roots, bark, and spices. The “Aromatic Bitters” took their name from the Venezuelan city where they were first created (Angostura was subsequently rechristened Cuidad Bolivar in 1846). Interestingly, early botanists also gave the name Angostura to three different species of trees, including Galipea officinalis. Because the bitters’ recipe is a tightly guarded secret, locked in a vault and known by only five employees, whether the trademarked concoction once contained the bark from any of these Angosturas remains something of a mystery. Either way, the recipe’s since to be reformulated—in much the same way that Coca-Cola removes the potent alkaloids in coca leaves—and now Angostura neither contains Angostura, nor is it produced in Angostura.

I was curious about how bitters went from being drugs to an intrinsic part of today’s cocktail renaissance. I spoke with Brad T. Parsons, the author of Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas from his home in New York.

How did bitters evolve from a substance kept behind the apothecary to a staple in the modern cocktail?

The English used bitters in this drink called Canary wine. They were putting medicinal herb-based dashes and drops in these drinks, but bitters really exploded in American Colonial times, up through Prohibition. The word “bitters” is in the definition of the first printed usage of the word “cocktail.” It was any drink consisting of spirits, water, sugar, and bitters… There is some murkiness about when it went from being something someone sipped on its own as a medicinal to when it went into a cocktail, but people were taking these high-proof root-, botanical-, fruit-, or seed-based infusions for medicinal value.

Around 1824, Johann Siegert, who was a doctor in Venezuela, began making Angostura as a stimulant for the troops to help them with malaria and keep them on their feet. As we get to the golden age of the cocktail, the late 1800s, bitters became more synonymous with cocktails no matter what bar you went to.

Even during the Temperance movement, people who were teetotalers were still drinking bitters even though it was a high-proof infusion. During that time, people were putting these bitters into a poorer quality spirit, which was a way for it to taste better, or people were applying alcohol to their bitters to help their medicine go down, so to speak. I was never really able to pinpoint the year we went from these corked, apothecary bottles that people would nip to when they started putting them into their drinks and it became more of a concentrated drop versus a splash or a nip.

Then we get up to 2004, when Gary Regan put his bitters back on the market and now you can get a dozen different bitters. There is a little bit of “everything old is new again” charm to it, but also it was a lot of people seeking out old copies and the internet leveling the playing field by finding old, rare books, you didn’t have to physically travel around and buy them at auctions, you could buy them online.

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