Angostura: a brand history

5th October, 2016 by Annie Hayes

Created as a health tonic by Dr Siegert in 1824, Angostura Bitters has become a world-famous brand dominating an increasingly on-trend category.

angosturaBitters are having a moment. Everyone from celebrity chefs to UK Vogue is raving about the salt and pepper of the drinks world. But look back over more than 200 years and it becomes clear this renewed interest is no flash in the pan.

One brand in particular is synonymous with the bitters charge: Angostura. The brand’s Aromatic Bitters can be found in both back bars and kitchens all around the world, the oversize label and yellow cap making the little bottles instantly recognisable.

The key protagonist in it all was Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, born in Germany in 1796. He studied at university at the same time as Napoleon led his armies across Europe – and the battles inspired the now Dr Siegert. He joined the fight against Napeoleon, serving as an army surgeon to the 2nd Regiment of the Prussian Infantry.

“Napoleon was concerned about stomach upsets by his men and at the time Dr Siegert took note of that,” explains Giselle Laronde- West, Angostura senior manager of public affairs and communications.

Europe eventually calmed, but Dr Siegert was never one to enjoy a quiet life. Fast- forward to 1811 and, 8,700km away, modern-day Venezuela had just declared independence from Spain. For the next nine years, military and political leader Simón Bolívar led a bloody war against the Spanish forces. In 1820 Dr Siegert left his homeland to join Bolívar in his fight.

Bolívar recognised Dr Siegert’s skill as a doctor and named him surgeon general of the Military Hospital of Guyana, situated in the town of Angostura – today known as Ciudad Bolívar – on the shores of the Orinoco River. It was here in 1824 that Angostura Aromatic Bitters was created.

“Dr Siegert embarked on a scientific study of health problems and the medicinal qualities of the herbs and plants which abound in the tropical lands of Venezuela,” Laronde-West says. “After four years of research and analysing, he finally arrived at the unique blend of herbs and spices that is Angostura Aromatic Bitters or ‘Amargo Aromatico’, to give it its original Spanish name.”

The bitters business

While Dr Siegert’s hopes for his product were modest, word quickly spread. Within six years, Dr Siegert had exported his first shipments, to England and to Trinidad. By 1850 he retired from the Venezuelan army to focus on the booming bitters business. He worked in Angostura until his death in 1870, leaving his business to his younger brother and sons.

After a period of relative peace in Venezuela, war broke out once more. The unrest eventually forced Siegert’s sons, Carlos, Alfredo and Luis, to seek a means to escape. In 1875, Carlos and Alfredo managed to sneak onto a British ship disguised as crew, making it across Venezuelan waters to the safety of Trinidad. Luis stayed behind to send production equipment across, later joining his brothers.

It was from Trinidad, the home of Angostura today, that the reputation of the company’s bitters really grew. The 1900s was a time of great maritime activity. “The great nations of the world were sending their ships to the Caribbean area,” Laronde-West explains.

“The town of Angostura was an important trading post, so here they came, these sailors, from Liverpool, Bristol, Boston, New York – hardy men, but plagued like the most land- loving of us with seasickness.” From the residents the sailors soon learned of the restorative qualities of Angostura Bitters and took the product onboard. From there, Angostura began its global voyage around the world.

The secret blend

Today, Angostura production starts in a secret room, The Sanctuary, at the company’s production site in Laventille, a short drive from Port of Spain. It is thought that just five people know the secret blend of botanicals which make up the bitters, and they are forbidden from flying on the same aircraft, or even dining in the same restaurant together.

Another quirk from the Angostura archive is the provenance of that oversized label. Two schools of thought prevail. “One is that of the two brothers responsible, one had to buy the labels one had to buy the bottle – and someone got it wrong with the sizing,” Laronde-West explains.

“The other story is that the bottle started off a lighter colour – I think it was clear – and to make sure that the sunlight didn’t affect the product the label was higher on the neck. So although they changed the bottle, people liked the label so much it stayed.”

With distillate the base for bitters, it made sense for Angostura to explore adding rum production to its activities in Trinidad. Angostura now has two column stills in operation: the first is 80ft tall and known as Old Boy; the second, built in 2005, stretches 120ft into the air.

Also on-site is a working cooperage dating back to the early 1900s. In recent times, Angostura has developed a training facility for both Angostura coopers and those from rum producers based on other islands. David Adams, a Scotch industry cooper, travelled to Trinidad in 1996 to train employees and help set up the course. Today, skills such as barrel repair and assembly, hoop replacement and tool identification are taught by in-house cooper Lennard Lewis, the courses attracting trainees from St Lucia, Barbados and Jamaica.

“We train anyone who wants to be a cooper because we want to keep the trade alive,” Laronde-West continues. “We also extended it to the other islands which produce rums, and we encourage them to send their people to learn.”

Another modern Angostura incarnation is the Global Cocktail Challenge, now an established feature on the bartender competition calendar. Founded in 2001, the cocktail competition focuses on both the rums and the bitters, and attracts entries from on-trade talent around the world – at stake, a US$10,000 purse and a global brand ambassadorship position. Competition in the 2016 edition was as fierce as ever: 900 bartenders were whittled down to 12 finalists, with local competitor Neal Ramdhan triumphing.

From the initial battlefield inspiration, today the Angostura portfolio comprises two bitters – the original and Angostura Orange Bitters – an expansive local and international rum portfolio, and the recently introduced Amaro di Angostura. If only Dr Siegert could see it all now…

Click through the following pages to see the timeline of Angostura’s brand history.

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