Did you ever wonder what Angostura Bitters is? And why you use it?

There are dozens of bitters, liqueurs with distinctively bitter taste. Some, like the French Picon or Italian Compari, are familiar themselves as beverages — ones that most of us have to develop a taste for given their absolutely intense flavors. Angostura, perhaps the most famous bitters, is considered an ingredient, not a beverage. Take a taste, a little taste, and you’ll know why. It’s bitter. It’s strong. By itself, it’s pretty terrible. Tastes like medicine.

That’s because it was a medicine. In the early 1800s a German doctor served in Simon Bolivar’s army as Bolivar liberated Venezuela. Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert had an immediate need: find an antifebrile. That’s a medicine to reduce fevers and in the jungles of South America, fever was a serious problem, affecting the mobility and readiness of every army.

Siegert had a head start: the local remedies of the native Indian populations. Based on theirs, he concocted a medicinal drink using over 40 ingredients, including: angelica, cinchona, galangal, ginger, red sandalwood, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, clove, and bitter orange peel. Later, the cinchona and bitter orange peel would become standard ingredients in many other bitters created the world. The cinchona is a family of evergreen bushes whose bark had already been exploited by the local Indians for its medicinal powers.

And the word Angostura? Siegert lived in Venezuelan town that was then called Angostura, and he used that name. There is an angostura tree, and its bark can be used, but there is a competing tree with poisonous bark and Siegert, a wise doctor, steered clear.

Siegert’s concoction worked for his patients. Siegert was successful and ambitious. He began selling his bitters in 1824 as an ingredient for beverages and other foods. After his death, and after political conditions proved dicey, Siegert’s family moved the business to Trinidad where it still exists. The formula is secret, but ever powerful.

When you see a recipe calling for dash of bitters, remember this: there are 12 dashes to the teaspoon. Think of it as beverage nitroglycerine. One dash will do you. Its enduring power is the ability to complement sweet flavors, particularly citrus. They are natural partners for a great beverage.