Angostura is a South American shrub-like citrus tree with the scientific name of Galipea officinalis or Angostura trifoliata. Angostura also used to be the name of a town in Venezuela, which is now officially called Ciudad Bolivar. Angostura bitters(sometimes mispelled as agnostic bittersor agostino bitters), the most popular brand of cocktail bitters, were actually named after this town, not after the tree, since the original bitters were actually invented there. There seems to be confusion, however. Some sources state that not only are the bitters named after the town, but they also contain an extract of the bark of the angostura tree. However, according to the label and to most sources, the principal bitter ingredient is gentian root. The rest of the formula is a secret.
So, if we do not know all the true ingredients of Angostura bitters besides gentian, and we know for a fact that the product was named after the town, why do some insist it contains angostura? The truth is, it may or may not have contained angostura bark.
The principle chemical of Angostura bark is Angosturin. It is a type of quinolone, specifically tetrahydroquinoline. This certainly has a bitter taste and it is traditionally thought to be a good digestive, as well as an antibacterial. It is also known as an antimalarial. What we now know as tonic water, which contains quinine, another quinolone antimalarial, used the bark of another South American tree called the cinchona tree. Tonic water gave birth to the famous Gin and Tonic, which allowed British colonists in India to enjoy their medicine a bit more, albeit in smaller doses. Quinine is found in other bitters and also in some vermouth. It is certainly plausible for angostura bark to have been used in Angostura bitters. As we shall see, it seems likely that it would have been used.
The bitters were invented by a German doctor named Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, who went to South America in 1820 to help liberate the country from the Spanish, under General Simón Bolívar, after serving as a surgeon in the battle of Waterloo. Although Bolívar succeeded and moved on to liberate other countries such as Ecuador, Peru, and Columbia, Siegert stayed in Angostura. He wanted to study the native plants there for their medicinal potential.
By 1824 he had developed his bitters, using the aforementioned ingredients, along with other unknown ingredients, as a stomach tonic, to help with stomach problems typically suffered by British and other foreign colonists in the tropics, which also resulted in a lack of appetite. Bitter tonics have always been used as an appetite stimulant. British colonists mixed the bitters with gin to make pink gin, similar to how tonic water was used. Dr. Siegerts “aromatic bitters” was eventually marketed world-wide under the name of Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters. That’s right, the original product was not called Angostura bitters, nor did it mention angostura as trademark, or ingredient. It stated, instead, that the product came from Angostura.
The bitters became popular world-wide, and the company claims that much of this was due to them becoming standard stock on ships for treating seasickness, fever, and scurvy. To this day, the recipe is closely guarded.
When Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters became popular in other countries, they began to be called Angostura bitters by many dealers, since this was where they originated. This name came to be associated pretty much exclusively with Dr. Siegert’s bitters, so that by 1868 the company registered the name as one of its trade-names. They began using the name in advertisements and other printed materials. By 1872, it had become the most prominent name on the labels of the bottles. Siegert died that year, and his sons took over the business. In 1875 the sons moved the business to Port of Spain, in Trinidad, to take up shop in an abondoned monastery there. This is where the company remains to this day.
Along the way, there had been some imitators. One such imitator was made by C.W. Abbot, in Baltimore, and sold Maynard & Co., which Siegert brought a lawsuit against. The company had started selling Abbot’s bitters under the name of Angostura Aromatic Bitters and, according to the Siegerts, were putting it in bottles made to look like Siegert’s bottles, of the same size and shape, even sometimes using second-hand Siegert’s bottles.
Abbot registered the name Aromatic Angostura Bitters as a trademark in 1877. He then dropped the word aromatic” and started calling them simply Angostura Bitters. In fairness, neither Abbot or Maynard ever directly claimed that their product was the same as the Siegert product or that they had any connection to Siegert. But, the Siegerts believed that they were engaging in unfair competition and blatantly imitating and misrepresenting their product. The lawsuit was brought against Maynard (and Abbot) by J.W. Wupperman, the U.S representatives of Siegert, but from henceforth I will refer to the plaintiffs as “the Siegerts”, for simplicity’s sake.
Abbots bitters were made, as mentioned, in Baltimore, certainly a long way from Angostura. So, in order to justify the use of the name for their product, they actually did use some angostura bark in their formula. At least, this was the way the Siegerts saw it. According to Abbot, he simply made a bitter tonic with angostura, and so called it be the obvious name of Angostura bitters. If the product contained angostura, then surely they were justified in calling it Angostura Bitters.
So, since a product existed with the label name of Angostura Bitters, and since it stated that it contained angostura bark, it is possible that this gave rise to the notion that the real and original Angostura Bitters contained angostura bark.
It has been suggested that the Siegerts did not really start using the name Angostura Bitters until after Abbot and other competitors began using the name Angostura Bitters. Oh, yes, Abbot was not the only one. Another lawsuit was brought in England against a Dr. Teodoro Meinhard. He also, used angostura bark, and proclaimed so on the labels. The law was on his side. You could trademark a name if it reflected an ingredient in the product. The idea was not to claim the name Angostura elusively, it was just an ingredient, after all. The ideas was to keep the Siegerts from claiming it exclusively. The courts in England met the Seigerts half-way, saying that Dr. Meinhard’s product was clearly intended to defraud customers by making them think they were getting the Siegert’s product, but that the term Angostura Bitters did not deserve full protection under the law. There was another case in Germany with similar results.
The Abbott lawsuits, which began around 1884, however, did not go as well for the Siegerts. In the first lawsuit, the judge said that it was improper for anyone to claim a monopoly on the name of a city, even if the name of the city had been changed long ago. As well, of course, no one could trademark the name of an ingredient, or any product name that simply says what the product is. For example, you cannot trademark the term “orange juice,” even if you were the first to ever sell it commercially.
The judge didn’t stop there. He reminded the Siegerts that they had not even started using the name Angostura Bitters until their competitors did so. It was actually the public, through the dealers, who had began calling the product by this name. It is not clear whether the Siegerts had simply been taking up the public’s preferred name, or reacting to the competitors. In addition to the name, the judge complained that the labels still read ‘Prepared by Dr. Siegert’ even though the doctor had died years ago.
The Siegerts appealed, and later judges didn’t like them any better, accusing them of making unsubstantiated claims about the product’s medicinal uses and its lack of intoxicating ingredients. Finally, in an appeal in 1903 things started going the Siegert’s way and judges began granting them exclusive rights to the name Angostura bitters. Later, in 1905, trademark laws changed, and the Siegerts took advantage of this to seal the deal, saying that their trademark had been used continuously by them for 74 years and that no other entity had the right to use the trademark.
There is no indication, whatsoever, however, that Siegert’s Angostura Bitters ever contained any angostura. In fact, the company filed an updated label design in 1952, which removed the medical claims and warned that the bitters should not be given to children. It also added the following: “Does Not Contain Angostura Bark.”
Only a few people in the company would know, and their lips are sealed. However, Amy Stewart, in her entertaining and informative book The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the Word’s Great Drinks, which has been a principal source for my descriptions of the court cases, along with the federal registers, makes a good case that angostura bark probably would have been used in the formula. Angostura was well known in the area for just the symptoms Siegert wanted to treat, and it grew right in the area that Siegert was working in. The bark was widely used, in fact.
It could be, as Stewart points out, that even if the product originally contained angostura bark, the company may have removed it to protect their trademark play. If anyone who used angostura as an ingredient could legally use the name angostura bitters, the only way that they could really get an exclusive trademark would be to base it on something other than the ingredients. Since this is exactly what they did, not having angostura as an ingredient would be in their interests.
But, druggists at the time were warned against angostura bark, since it was sometimes adulterated with the bark of the poisonous “strychnine tree” ( Strychnos nux-vomica). This is still a common problem, where plant species, such as herbs, are mixed up with a poisonous plant they resemble, so that batches of the medicinal plant may well contain some of the poisonous plant. Dr. Siegert may have realized this danger and simply choose to leave out the ingredient. On the other hand, angostura bark is not the only part of the plant that can be used. The formula could have used leaves, roots, seeds, or another part. Whatever the true formula is, only a few people in the company know. The recipe is not even written down.
Regardless of what they contain, or once contained, Angostura bitters are the main bitters of bartenders the world over, and are the most popular and well-known cocktail bitters in existence. They are even available in most supermarkets.
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