In March I visited the Angostura distillery in Port of Spain, Trinidad. They make not only Angostura Bitters here but also the line of Angostura rums and rums for several other brands. In this post, I'll focus on the bitters.
The History of Angostura Bitters
Angostura Bitters were created in 1824 by Dr. Johann Siegert. They were originally called "Dr. Siegert's Aromatic Bitters" and later renamed Angostura Bitters. (The folks from The Bitter Truth Bitters have some interesting information about a lawsuit over the name "Angostura" between these bitters and Abbott's Bitters.)
The bitters were created for tropical stomach ailments in Venezuela, as Dr. Siegert was the Surgeon General of Simon Bolivar's army. In fact the town of Angostura is now called Ciudad Bolivar. The bitters were first exported to England in 1830.
According to this good history on Angostura's website, Siegert's son exhibited the bitters in England in 1862 where they were mixed with gin. Thus the Pink Gin was born.
After Dr. Siegert died in 1870, his sons relocated the business from the politically unstable Venezuela to Trinidad in 1875. The company was renamed Angostura Bitters in 1904. Sometime shortly after this, the son in charge of Angostura lost all of his money in bad business deals and Angostura was taken by his creditors.
Why is the Angostura Bitters Label Too Big for the Bottle?
For a competition of some sort, one brother designed the bottle and another brother designed the label. By the time they figured out they should have consulted each other on the size of each, it was too late to change. On the advice of a judge in the contest, they kept it as their signature. Here, our tour guide does a better job of explaining it in this 1-minute video.
How Are Angostura Bitters Produced?
The secret ingredients for the bitters are shipped from wherever they come from to England. There the ingredients are put into coded bags and shipped to Trinidad. I believe they said they have a long-standing arrangement with customs that the bags are not inspected when they arrive in Trinidad to maintain their secret.
At the distillery, there are five people known as "manufacturers" who prepare the ingredients. They weigh out the relative quantities of each in a room known as the Sanctuary. The ingredients are then dropped into a crusher that crushes them all together as they fall into the room below - the Bitters Room.
At the base of the crusher are carts that hold the ingredients. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the room due to the high-proof alcohol vapors (but later did of the bartenders there), but we did get to peak into the crushed herbs. I remember seeing largish chunks of something that looked like gum arabic, and a lot of rice-sized grey grains about the size of lavender seeds, though I doubt they were because there was a lot of them. (There you go: gum arabic and lavender- make your own Angostura at home :) )
The crushed herbs then go into a "percolator" tank with 97% alcohol to extract their flavor. After this infusion is done, the liquid is then transferred to another tank where brown sugar and caramel color are added. Then the liquid is transferred again and distilled water is added to bring them down to the 44.7% alcohol level for bottling.
This is all done in a relatively small room with a bunch of tanks in it. It's impressive that the world's supply of Angostura Bitters is made here.
Later that day, they did publicity shots with the bartenders in the Bitters Room. They let the professional photographers take photos and let me take them without flash. As you can see the bitters tanks have the bottle labels on them. Except in this case, they actually fit.