Hailing from Venezuela, Angostura aromatic bitters are a mixture of spices, herbs, and other botanicals used to create a highly alcoholic beverage with an intense flavor. Produced by the House of Angostura in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, these bitters add complexity and flavor to cocktails, mixed drinks, and food.
These bitters were invented in the early 1800s by German surgeon Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert while working for the celebrated Venezuelan military leader Simón Bolívar in the Venezuelan town of Angostura, which is today called Ciudad Bolivar. Siegert searched for a medicinal tonic to cure the stomach ailments of Bolivar's soldiers.
The list of ingredients and steps to make it are a closely guarded secret. Only a selected, small group of people have access to the exact recipe. However, the bitters are said to contain spices like cloves, gentian, cardamom, and cinnamon.
But what exactly are Angostura bitters? How do they affect the taste of cocktails, and are there any other types of bitters?
Angostura Bitters Fact sheet
- Producer: Angostura Bitters Ltd.
- Origin: Angostura (now Ciudad Bolivar), Venzuela
- Manufactured in: Port of Spain, Trinidad
- ABV: 44.7%
- Bottle sizes in ml: 200ml and 473ml
- Bottle sizes in oz: 6.76 oz and 16 oz
- Price: $10 (small) - $25 (large)
What are bitters?
Cocktail bitters, or bitters in short, are small bottles of high-proof spirits infused with a mix of botanicals, including herbs, spices, fruits, roots, and tree bark. They serve as essential flavoring agents in cocktails, adding intricate layers of complexity to drinks with their unique blend of ingredients. Think of them like salt and pepper for your cocktails.
Bitters, like the well-known Angostura bitters, were initially developed as medicinal tonics in the mid-1800s but have evolved into a vital component of modern mixology. They produce unique flavors that are not easily recognizable, becoming essential in creating delicious and refined drinks.
What are bitters made of? Aromatic bitters are made from neutral alcohol infused with ingredients like orange peel, coriander, gentian root, cassia bark, cascarilla, cinchona bark, and many more. The result is a high-proof beverage with an intense, complex flavor profile.
How to use bitters? When mixing a cocktail, you add a dash of bitters to the drink to enhance the flavors and increase complexity. These mighty ingredients are the key to classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned or Manhattan cocktail.
How to substitute bitters? If you don't have bitters at home, you may use small amounts of herbal liqueurs or spirits like Campari, Absinthe, Fernet Branca, or Green Chartreuse as an alternative for herbal bitters in your drink.
So, what are Angostura bitters?
Angostura bitters are the most popular type of bitters and also the most-used bitters in cocktails, with an alcohol content of 44.7%.
They're part of classic drinks like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Pink Gin. Produced by the House of Angostura in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, Ango bitters are known for their oversized label and yellow bottle cap.
Ango bitters are a strongly alcoholic spirit infused with various ingredients. Their taste is very intense and highly concentrated, so a few drops are enough to enhance or alter the taste of mixed drinks.
What do Angostura bitters taste like?
Angostura bitters have an intense, complex, and spicy flavor profile. The taste is bitter, herbal, and spicy, and carries hints of cinnamon, clove, and vanilla - almost like a Christmas spice mixture. It also has a distinct bittersweet note from cinchona or angostura bark.
The aroma is warm, spicy, and with earthy notes. On the palate, the whole range of flavors shows. The bitters are intensely flavorful, bitter, herbal, and spicy; Almost too intense and complex to drink.
When you use Angostura bitters in cocktails, the bitters add depth and complexity and balance sweet and sour flavors. Like this, they marry all the flavors of a drink and enhance them with spicy and herbal notes.
Unfortunately, the exact recipe for Angostura bitters is a closely guarded secret. All we know is that herbs and spices like gentian cinnamon, cardamom, and other herbs and spices are part of the mix.
The secret recipe for Angostura bitters
The recipe for Angostura cocktail bitters is said to contain more than 40 ingredients. But it is merely a guess because the formula is an incredibly well-protected secret. Only five people in the world know the recipe for the Angostura bitters.
To make sure this secret survives, these five made a pact to never fly on the same flight and not eat at the same restaurant simultaneously. So even in the events of a plane crash, a terror attack, or a gang shooting at a restaurant (how unlikely it may be), the recipe won't be lost.
If this story is true, or if it's just another brilliant marketing stunt, nobody can tell. Only one thing is known for sure: the recipe always was and still is a big secret.
That also shines through in the way the different ingredients are gathered. Obtained in England, each component is packed secretly and sent separately to Trinidad and Tobago. That still is the location of the production of the bitters ever since Dr. Siegert's sons joined the business.
The packages repeatedly pass customs without inspection to keep the secret safe. A huge sign of trust. Due to the long tradition and the importance of the Angostura Bitters production for the country.
Once the ingredients arrive in Trinidad, everything is mixed.
The exact recipe for making Angostura bitters is a closely guarded secret. Only a few selected members at the House of Angostura know what's going into the aromatic bitters.
However, we do know that it is a blend of over 40 different herbs, spices, and botanicals infused with high-ABV alcohol. The list of ingredients includes:
- Citrus fruits
- Vegetable extracts
- Gentian root
How to use Angostura bitters?
Angostura bitters can be used in many ways, not just to enhance flavors in alcoholic drinks.
You can use it as:
- Cocktail ingredient
- Garnish for cocktails
- Marinades and sauces
- Cooking with Angostura bitters
1. Mixing Angostura bitters as an ingredient in cocktails
The most common way to use aromatic bitters is as a flavor enhancer in cocktails. For this, a few drops or dashes are added to the other ingredients while measuring. This way, the overall complexity of flavors is increased, leading to a deeper flavor.
One of the first recipes and most popular drinks mixed with Ango bitters is Pink Gin, a combination of Plymouth Gin and said bitters. Later, classics like the Old Fashioned, Vieux Carré, and Manhattan cocktails ensured every bartender had a bottle of Angostura handy.
If you want to try an Angostura bitter-forward cocktail, try a Trinidad Sour. The recipe doesn't use a few drops of Angostura bitters. No, it demands a whopping 1.5 oz. -A flavor bomb that's certainly not for everybody.
2. Use Angostura Bitters as Cocktail Garnish
Using a few drops of Angostura bitters on the foam of cocktails is another amazing way to use the bitters.
Many classic cocktails like Pisco Sour, Whiskey Sour, and Mezcal Sour use these elegant bitters garnish on top of egg white or aquafaba foam. That makes the drinks smell more fragrant and complex, which ultimately also alters the flavor profile of the drink.
3. Use Bitters in Sauces and Marinades
With its savory taste and alcohol content, Angostura bitters can enhance marinades and sauces by adding flavor and softening meat. Yet, when adding alcoholic ingredients to marinades, there's a risk of overpowering flavors.
While vodka, being tasteless, doesn't pose a problem, wines, rum, or bitters should be used cautiously. Many bitters-based marinade recipes include ingredients like citrus, garlic, or soy sauce to balance flavors.
Avoid over-marinating to prevent undesirable textures and colors, and ensure thorough cooking to eliminate alcohol-related aftertastes.
4. Cooking with Angostura bitters
Besides marinades or sauces, there are many more ways you can use Angostura bitters for cooking.
Cooking with Angostura bitters brings a slice of the Caribbean to the kitchen, even when physical travel isn't an option. This flavorful ingredient, known for its role in cocktails, such as the classic Manhattan, holds a special place in the heart of West Indian cuisine.
In rich and flavorful dishes like a West Indies Shepherd's Pie, the bitters work their magic by harmonizing with ingredients like lime zest, scallions, and habaneros, intensifying their flavors. To achieve a balanced and rich profile, it's best to incorporate bitters early in the cooking process, allowing their penetrating essence to meld seamlessly with other components.
Other Popular Bitters
Besides classic aromatic bitters like Angostura or Peychaud's bitters, new brands develop more fine-tuned infusions like celery, chocolate, and orange bitters.
Here are some popular brands and products and how you can use them to balance the harshness of spirits and add a layer of complexity to your cocktails.
- Peychaud's Bitters: The flavor profile of Peychaud’s bitters is sweeter, with distinct notes of anise and mint. These bitters are key to some classic drink recipes, like when making a Sazerac cocktail.
- Orange bitters: Orange bitters have an intense orange taste derived from essential oils from orange peels. They're quite common, and even Angostura produces its own product called Angostura Orange.
- Chocolate bitters: Chocolate-flavored bitters have a distinct dark chocolate flavor and are delicious bitters in Old Fashioned cocktails.
- Celery bitters: Celery bitters are just one example of modern, specialized cocktail bitters. These kinds of bitters are great in a Martini to enhance the flavor of other ingredients in the drink.
- Lavender bitters: Another prime example of bitters, these floral bitters are excellent in a Gin and Tonic. They balance the harshness of acidic contents and bring a flowery touch to your drink.
You can not use Peychaud's and Angostura bitters interchangeably. In some drinks, Angostura works better, in others, Peychaud's is the best option. It needs a more in-depth comparison, to understand when to use which.
The oversized label
The bitters are not only known for their complex taste but also their visual appearance. The big and oversized label is one of the striking visuals that makes this brand so memorable.
However, it was no brilliant marketing gag, nor was there any practical reason. Instead, it was poor communication, poor planning, and a mistake made by the Siegert's sons.
More About Bitters
- What are cocktail bitters - a more in-depth explanation of the intense flavors and purpose of bitters
- Where to buy bitters - A guide on how and where to get bitters for cocktails
- Best bitters for an Old Fashioned Cocktail - find out which bitters work best in an Old Fashioned cocktail.
Usually, a dash or two is enough to add complexity to your drink. But some drink recipes are based on Angostura and use much more. The Trinidad Sour and Angostura Colada are just two of them.
The bitters are made from a secret recipe that contains 40 different ingredients. Some known components are gentian root, cardamom, citrus fruits, and vegetable extracts.
They sure do get you drunk. Angostura's aromatic bitters contain 44.7% ABV. That's more than most Vodka, Rum, and Gin.
Actually, yes. The bitters aid with the production of saliva, which ultimately helps with digestion.
The name Angostura comes from the town of Angostura (today Ciudad Bolivar), where the bitters were originally invented.