The Curious History Behind Your Favorite Cocktail - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Curious History Behind Your Favorite Cocktail

The Curious History Behind Your Favorite Cocktail

By Dan Peleschuk



Because the best cocktails are often created by accident.

By Dan Peleschuk

For a bourgeois doctor educated in the rapidly industrializing Berlin of the early 19th century, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert found himself in an unusual place by his mid-20s: a tropical outpost in southern Venezuela. Perhaps even more puzzling is that he ended up there by choice, combing the dense, sprawling forests to satisfy his burgeoning interest in botany and chemistry. Eventually, though, his work would pay off — as countless avid drinkers can surely attest.

Few have probably heard of Siegert, but anyone who’s ever bellied up to a modern bar has either seen or tasted the results of his experimentation: Angostura bitters, the oldest and most celebrated cocktail ingredient around. From the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned to the rum swizzle and Champagne cocktail, any drink splashed with a few dashes of the spicy liqueur is delectably infused with its sharp herbal kick. And Siegert, a restless Prussian with a penchant for exotic plants, deserves the credit. Even among all the oddballs and colorful origin stories from the world of booze, says writer and bitters enthusiast Brad Thomas Parsons, Siegert’s story is “pretty exceptional.” 

Mark Twain claimed three doses [of Angostura] a day with Scotch whisky, lemon and sugar was a godsend for his digestion.

Often remembered as a consummate adventurer, Siegert signed up with the Prussian army to help fight and eventually rout Napoleon’s forces during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which led to the famous Frenchman’s downfall. But it turns out that wasn’t enough action for the medical graduate, so a few years later, he decamped to South America to join another historic campaign. There, Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar was busy rebelling against Spanish rule across the continent; noticing Siegert’s medical acumen, he appointed him chief surgeon of Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar), a vital port that played a central role in Bolívar’s movement. That put Siegert in charge of making sure the Venezuelan leader’s troops were in prime fighting condition — not, say, writhing in pain from malaria or the stomach ailments common to the tropics. 

A far cry from cobblestoned old Europe, the new environment apparently piqued the medicine man’s curiosity. “From the beginning, Dr. Siegert was determined to wrest a cure from nature itself,” says Giselle Laronde-West, senior manager for hospitality and communications at the modern-day Angostura company. In a 2008 story for Caribbean Beat magazine, journalist Judy Raymond noted his equipment on display at the company’s museum in Trinidad and Tobago “looks as if it was designed to inflict pain, not to cure it.” By 1824, Siegert had developed a stomach-settling — and delicious — botanically infused concoction to use on the troops. Bolívar moved on to liberate other parts of Latin America, but Siegert stayed behind, guided by his newfound fascination with the local flora. 

While he spent several more decades experimenting, his sons took the business to new heights after his death in 1870, moving production north to Trinidad and Tobago and shipping their bitters worldwide. It became popular as a treatment for seasickness with British sailors who passed through the West Indies, and somehow soon made its way into cocktails. Mark Twain even implored his wife in an 1874 letter to procure a bottle of Angostura, claiming three doses a day with Scotch whisky, lemon and sugar was a godsend for his digestion: “It remains day after day and week after week as regular as a clock.”

You won’t exactly find the recipe lying around, though: It remains a family secret, and even today, only a handful of people — none of whom travel together — know it. The label merely lists water, alcohol, spices, natural aromas, sugar and colorant. It’s said that the ingredients are shipped separately from England, along with a number of decoys that aren’t actually used, though Laronde-West says the company is “not at liberty to say where the ingredients originate.” They’re sorted by a super-secret team at the company’s plant in the village of Laventille.

Coupled with the bottle’s yellow cap and awkwardly oversize label, the secrecy is just another part of the legend behind what most would say is the best bitters in the world. “While there are many different brands, expressions and flavors of aromatic bitters now available on the market,” says Parsons, author ofBitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes & Formulas, “Angostura remains one of the most classic and essential bottles of bitters to have behind your bar.” 

Surely, Dr. Siegert would approve.


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