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Nostrum Remedium: Bitters
An Extraordinarily Brief history of Patent Medicine
The term “snake oil salesmen,” the modern advertising industry (which, some might consider to be synonymous) and dozens of liquors and spirits owe their existence in our lexicon, on our televisions and behind countless bars to something prosaically referred to as patent medicines. Patent medicines were the early industrial age expressions of nostrum remedium, or, “our remedy” – various concoctions of secret ingredients, sold as miraculous cures, with varying degrees efficacy. Mid-19th century pushers of snake oil liniment claimed their product would cure everything from arthritis to dropsy. It didn’t; and a pejorative was born. Lest these liniment salesmen take all the blame, let it be known that outrageous claims weren't restricted to the snake oil marketing department. Competition amongst patent medicine producers was fierce. Thus, the task at hand for pioneers in advertising was to differentiate their products, or, in other words, to create a brand. As a result of advertising’s big bang, products such as Mug-wump Specific were born. Mug-wump was touted as a, “cure and preventative for all venereal diseases.” Not to be outdone, Bonnore’s “electro magnetic bathing fluid” was hailed as a cure for necrosis, epilepsy, cholera, scarlet fever and something called “mercurial eruptions.” It’s nice to see that ad-men and ad-women aimed high right from the get-go. Aside from cure-alls for V.D. and speedy eruptions, many products of the patent medicine age made more believable claims. For example, Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper were introduced primarily as energy elixirs. While the paleo soft drink manufacturers duked it out on the pep-in-step front, one maker of an herb-based, alcohol-containing tonic went for the gut.
Bitters For the Belly
In 1824, Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, Surgeon-General of Simon Bolivar’s revolutionary army in Venezuela, searched for a cure for the large number of soldiers taken ill with stomach disorders. Dr. Siegert began mixing, matching and concocting all manner of tropical botanicals. He struck on a blend, which he called “Amargo Aromatico” (aromatic bitters). Word spread that Doc Siegert was on to something. Satisfied customers were particularly fervent in their praise for the bitters’ nausea-fighting prowess. The active ingredient was most likely Gentian, a common flowering plant. This plant’s power had been known for ages. In fact, around 170 BC, Pliny the Elder wrote that Gentian’s healing properties were discovered by an Illyrian king. The world was about to rediscover Gentian during happy hour.
Bitters for the Bar
Sailors in the British Royal Navy began adding bitters to their gin as a prophylactic against seasickness. The bitters turned colorless gin an appealing pink color. Back in jolly old England, landlubbers were introduced to pink gin, and a fad was born. British society craved pink gin cocktails. Dr. Siegert was overwhelmed by the non-medical demand for his creation. The good doctor resigned his commission in the army and, assisted by his sons, cranked up bitters production. Carlos, the eldest son was a natural spokesperson. He exhibited Siegert’s bitters across Europe, North America and Australia. Carlos marketed the family’s bitters as both aperitif (appetite stimulant) and digestif (digestion aid). The junior Siegert must have been one fantastic salesman, as his family’s bitters, later named, "Angostura Bitters," stands as the single most widely distributed bar item on the planet (though I hear beer nuts run a close second). As with many tonics born of the patent medicine era, the precise recipe for Angostura Bitters remains a tightly held secret. In fact, legend has it that only five people know the recipe. Now, produced in Trinidad, Angostura Bitters is common in both gin- and rum-based cocktails. It also has a permanent spot in many a Caribbean chef’s kitchen.
Bitters of the World
While Angostura may be king of Bitters, it is not the only player in the alcoholic herbal tonic game. Other bitters producer’s include Campari (Italy), Jägermeister (Germany), Gammel Dansk (Denmark), Fernet Branca (from Italy, but made famous in Argentina), Unicum (Hungary) and Peychaud’s (New Orleans). The hallmark of these beverages is their origins as health elixirs in the vein of nostrum remedium. Be thankful that bitters, rather than Bonnore’s Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid, remains one of the most popular by-products of the patent medicine era. Cheers.
Cocktail recipes calling for bitters at Webtender
Food recipes calling for bitters at Epicurious
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