A brief history of bitters, from Pharaonic tombs to Jäger bombs

How medicinal elixirs became essential cocktail ingredients, and the doctors and apothecaries to whom you should raise a glass next time you neck a negroni or sip a sazerac

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 3:15pm

Much of what goes into making spirits had their beginnings in medicine – botanical ingredients,believed to have curative qualities, that were steeped in alcohol to preserve them. Many of these ingredients were considered inedible in their original state, as they were very bitter in flavour. The bitterness was imparted to the spirit they were preserved in, which was not sweetened because sugar at that time was a precious commodity.

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In the tombs of ancient Egyptians, traces of medicinal herbs have been found in jars that were used to store wine, so this may be the earliest origin of bitters, if the two had indeed been stored together.

During the Middle Ages, bitters were concocted to calm the stomach and for use as medicinal tonics.

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From this era, Benedictine was created by a monk – Dom Bernardo Vincelli, in 1510, and it is still enjoyed today. There are 27 different botanicals and spices used in Benedictine, and the recipe has been kept a secret and passed down through the generations so that no more than three people know how to make it at any given time.

Angostura, the most common of all the bitters, is a staple of every bar and an indispensable element in many cocktails. And it has an interesting history.The story goes back to 1824, when Dr Siegert created bitters to use in his practice as surgeon to the Bolivian army, as a stomach tonic and cure for seasickness. He lived in the town of Angostura in Venezuela, hence the name. His family later moved to Trinidad in the Caribbean and established a small factory to make his concoction, which had become wildly successful after being awarded a Medal of Excellence at the 1873 Grand Exhibition in Vienna, the first of many accolades.

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Britain’s King George V honoured Angostura with a Royal Warrant in 1912.

Americans have their own bitters too – Peychaud’s, which originated in a 19th century New Orleans apothecary. The concoction was named after its creator – Antoine Peychaud. At the time, it was considered a preventative treatment for malaria. Today, it is a component of a sazerac cocktail – the quintessential tipple of New Orleans that also includes bourbon and Herbsaint (an anise-flavoured liquor).

The Europeans have a wide range of digestive bitters that are usually sipped after a meal. In Italy, they are referred to as amaros. Most popular today is Campari, the bright red blend created by Gaspare Campari in 1860.

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Campari is the base of the classic negroni – equal parts gin, red vermouth and Campari. There’s another bitters that’s rather esoteric – Cynar, which is based on artichokes.

The Germans have one that is also known the world over – Jägermeister (the name translates to “hunt master”).

This is a concoction of 56 different herbs and spices. It has become internationally popular due to the efforts of American businessman Sidney Frank, who began importing it to the US in the 1980s and heavily promoted it as a drink for the young. Today, Jägermeister and Red Bull is a popular mixed drink and considered by many as an essential ingredient for an all-night bender.


Nellie Ming Lee is a food stylist and part-time sommelier studying with the Court of Master Sommeliers