One of the most ubiquitous condiments, if indeed it can be classified as a condiment, is Angostura aromatic bitters. For those who may have noticed this small, unassuming bottle in the cocktail mixers section of your grocery, perhaps we should first tackle its pronunciation: ang-go-store-ah.
Now that we can pronounce it, explaining what it is may be a bit more complicated. Like the recipe for Kentucky Fried chicken, the recipe for Angostura bitters is a long-held secret.
The ingredients listed on the bottle in microscopic lettering are not particularly enlightening. Alcohol, water, sugar and caramel color are pretty straightforward, but “gentian” and “natural flavorings” leave a body wondering.
Gentian is a blue-flowering plant that grows in temperate and mountainous regions. Its roots are incorporated into a tonic used for medicinal purposes, and the original Angostura bitters was invented for medical use.
Angostura aromatic bitters were developed in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert as an alcohol-based tonic to alleviate stomach ailments. Siegert was born in Germany in 1796, and moved in 1820 to the town of Angostura, Venezuela, to serve as surgeon general for the armies of Simón Bolívar.
He used this medical elixir to treat digestive problems, hypertension, muscle spasms, malaria, parasites and other maladies afflicting Bolivar’s armies.
Siegert’s three sons immigrated to Trinidad and established the brand as an integral ingredient for cocktails.
Today, the term “cocktail” refers to most any mixed drink, but when first defined it specifically described a mixed drink containing spirits, water, sugar and bitters.
By the time of the Golden Age of the cocktail in the early 1900s leading up to Prohibition, Angostura bitters had become a fixture in cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.
Angostura bitters, while almost 50 percent alcohol by volume, has never been treated like a controlled substance. It is such vile-tasting stuff it does not entice one to using more than a drop or two in a cocktail.
Its quirky 4-ounce bottle is decorated with a label that looks like it was made for a larger bottle. The label extends up over the neck of the bottle like a loose collar.
A second label affixed to the neck of the bottle is small and not to be read by those with failing eyesight. Magnification of this label will reveal a royal seal indicating that Angostura is the bitters of choice for her majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.
The bottle’s closure has given way to a modern-day yellow plastic cap. Bottles are now housed with cocktail mixers, but there was a time in the Dark Ages when Angostura bitters was shelved with herbs and food flavorings.
What is in Angostura bitters? One can only speculate. For the purpose of this article, I tasted Angostura right out of the bottle. It smells floral with a hint of spice on the nose. It is very sweet and rather medicinal in taste. Think of it as the umami for cocktails.
Though it can be used to enhance flavors in foods like deviled eggs, glazed nuts, cocktail sauce and various soups, it is more often used in cocktails, and no home or professional bartender should ever be without it.
My favorite use for this intriguing concoction is for the Champagne cocktail. A sugar cube soaked in bitters is essential to the success of this simple cocktail.
Soak a sugar cube momentarily in bitters. Place the soaked sugar cube in the bottom of a Champagne glass. Top with chilled Champagne and garnish with a thin slice of lemon peel. Such a sophisticated cocktail.
Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.