What is Angostura bitters, and why isn’t it sold at liquor stores?

By / Magazine / December 6th, 2016 / 20

You mean, of course, that little yellow-capped bottle with an enlarged, text-heavy label that, if you own one, is probably resting quietly at the back of your liquor cabinet. With the modern cocktails craze showing no signs of fading, its popularity as a purchase has grown, though few, like yourself, have any idea what to do with it.

First some facts. Angostura is a bitters, which means it’s a boozy mix of herbs, botanicals and spices. It has a recipe so secret that apparently only five people alive know its components (which some might consider a good thing). Tasting like it was aged in an old fisherman’s boot, Angostura’s thick, medicinal goodness is actually not bitter at all, adding a balancing yin to the aggressive yang found in many liquor-forward mixed drinks.

Named for a town in southeastern Venezuela (now called Ciudad Bolívar), its blend was created from local ingredients by Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German serving as surgeon-general in the Venezuelan military, as a tonic for the troops. Taken in small amounts, and heavily diluted with water, it was considered an all-purpose cure-all and surprisingly effective digestive. Siegert began to sell it commercially in 1824 and eventually moved its production to Trinidad.

With advances in modern medicine stealing its thunder, Angostura began promoting its unique attributes to chefs and bartenders. While I don’t know anyone who cooks with it, mixologists are big fans with classic whiskey drinks like the Rob Roy, the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan (among many others) each getting their Angostura on.

Why is it sold in supermarket and not liquor stores? Though it clocks in at 44.7%, Angostura’s dense, herbaceous flavour places it firmly in the “non-consumables” category. Which means you’d have to be off your nut to drink more than the bare minimum in one sitting.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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