A History of Bitters


Finger Lakes Distilling welcomes Joe Fee of Fee Brothers and their renowned array of cocktail bitters on February 12 at the distillery.  Joe, who is the fourth generation of his family to own the company, lectures all over the world.  He will demonstrate his world famous bitters in what should be a very interesting evening.


–        by John Pulos

Elmira, New York native, Olivia Langdon, received this letter from her husband in 1874:

Livy, my darling

I want you to be sure to have in the bathroom, when I arrive, a bottle of scotch whisky, a lemon,  some crushed sugar and a bottle of Angostura Bitters.

 Ever since I have been in London, I have taken in a wine glass what is a so-called cock-tail (made with these ingredients) before breakfast, before dinner, and just before going to bed…

To this I attribute the fact that up to this day my digestion has been wonderful, simply perfect…

Now, my dear, if you will give the order now To have these things put into the bathroom

 And left there ‘til I come, they will be there when I arrive. Will you?

I love to picture myself ringing the bell, at midnight – Then a pause of a second or two-

Then the turning of the bolt, and “Who is it?”….then ever so many kisses –

Then I, drinking my first cock-tail and undressing, and you standing by- then bed,

 and everything happy and jolly,  as it should be.

Yours with love,


This letter was penned by Mark Twain – who penned many letters to the love of his life and in his spare time wrote a few novels.  He was first introduced to “the cocktail” while in London and, in turn, bitters.  This letter suggests the two most common uses of bitters – as a digestif (medicinal) and in flavoring alcoholic beverages in the form of “cocktails.”

So, just what are bitters?  Most bitters are nonpotable, meaning they are not meant to be consumed on their own.  Not that they can’t be, but they are so strongly flavored that they would be classified as something to add to food or drink – not as a beverage on their own.  They are traditionally a water and alcoholic preparation with spices derived from roots, tree bark, seeds or pods, flower buds, dried fruits, and more.  The list of ingredients used to produce bitters is endless.  The most popular seem to be horehound (also used to produce Rock & Rye), anise, jesuit’s bark, gentian, fennel, cardamom, caraway, lavender, nutmeg, liquorice, wormwood, hyssop, and cinnamon.   The chosen spices and extracts are combined together in a neutral alcohol which is infused via distillation or maceration.

The Renaissance physician and alchemist, Paracelsus, is generally considered to have created the first bitters.  He pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine.  Paracelsus was thought of as a radical during his time – he is considered the Founder of Toxicology.  He had great success in treating his patients with his botanical/alcohol concoctions.  Many people followed Paracelsus concocting bitters, known for medicinal purposes as elixirs.  The elixirs were sold in tiny, hand-blown bottles with labels expounding the many maladies that the bitter liquid found within could cure.  (These empty bottles are today, collectors’ items, and many are quite valuable.)  Roll forward to the early 1800’s (1824) in Angostura, Venezuela where German physician, Johann Siegert, compounded the (now) world famous Angostura Bitter.  He called his medicinal concoction “Amargo Aromatico” (aromatic bitters).  Siegert was a staunch supporter of South American freedom fighter, Simón Bolívar.    The bitters were widely used as a medical elixir by Bolívar’s troops and later by sailors traveling in and out of Venezuela, who found them to cure sea sickness.  The sailors, who traveled the world, were the best advertisement for Siegert’s elixir.  By 1850, Siegert formed the House of Angostura – a company that began distributing the bitters throughout the world.  (An Interesting fact is that Angostura tree bark became the ingredient for many modern-day bitters, but is NOT part of the secret formula developed by Siegert.)

Many of the pre-Angostura bitters made their way to the relatively new United States or were concocted here.    Wines from the Canary Islands entered the States as part of Triangular Trade.  As has been stated, bitters were (and are) just that – bitter.   It soon became popular to add a drop or two of the bitters to the Canary Wines to make them go down easier.  In the late 1700’s, people would also mix the bitter exiler with a spirit – perhaps rum, brandy, or whiskey from New World farm distillers.   Could the cocktail be soon to follow?

The origins of the term “cocktail” are disputed, but it became commonly used by the early 19th century.  By 1806, the first published definition of “cocktail” appears in the Balance and Columbia Depository – “The cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”  Bitters began serving much the same role as spices serve with food:  they add depth and complexity to the finished product.  The House of Angostura (1850) stared exporting its bitters to England, the Caribbean, and the United States.

Cocktails using bitters flourished until The Volstead Act of 1920, which ushered in the Prohibition intended by the Eighteenth Amendment.  The production, sale, and serving of alcohol were banned in the United States.  Although alcohol and cocktails were forced “underground” during the next 13 years, bitters went into decline during and after the “dark ages” of Prohibition.  Angostura, Peychards (1830 – New Orleans), and Fee Brothers (1864 – Rochester, NY) were among the very few bitter companies that survived this period.

The “Classic Cocktail Movement” that has driven the spirits business over the last two decades has also fueled a resurgence in bitters sales.  The industry stalwarts like Angostura and Fees have expanded their product lines and many new bitters companies have joined the marketplace.  Modern day bartenders continue to push the envelope as to how this important component of any good cocktail is used to create new concoctions and drinks of the past.

Mark Twain sipped a London cocktail in 1874 that contained a bitter created by Johann Siegert in 1824 that was inspired by the 16th century physician, Paracelsus.  For Livy, the term “bitter” must have been confusing.  Although bitter is a taste that all bitter spirits have, the effect that bitters can have on drinks (and food) is not imaginable from this term.  And although it is not uncommon to see our distiller, from Alabama, mix together a few of our Fee Brother’s bitters to cure an early morning upset stomach, it is cocktails that have taken the forefront of modern day bitter use.

We hope that you join us for Joe Fee’s visit, at the Distillery, on Thursday, February 12.  The evening promises to be a very lively and educational.  You can call the distillery to register (607.546.5557) or register on line at www.fingerlakesdistilling/finger-lakes-distilling-winter-seminar-series-2014/

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