The earliest origins of bitters can be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians, who may have infused medicinal herbs in jars of wine.This practice was further developed during the Middle Ages, where the availability of distilled alcohol coincided with a renaissance in pharmacognosy, which made possible far more concentrated herbal bitters and tonic preparations. Many of the various brands and styles of digestive bitters made today reflect herbal stomachic and tonic preparations whose roots are claimed to be traceable back to Renaissance era pharmacopeia and traditions.
By the 19th century, the British practice of adding herbal bitters (used as preventive medicines) to Canary wine had become immensely popular in the former American colonies. By 1806, American publications referenced the popularity of a new preparation termed cocktail, which was described as a combination of “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
Of the commercial aromatic bitters that would emerge from this period, perhaps the most well known is Angostura bitters. In spite of its name, the preparation contains no medicinal bark from the angostura tree; instead it is named after the town of Angostura, today’s Ciudad Bolívar, in Venezuela. In 1824, German physician Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert compounded a cure for sea sickness and stomach maladies, among other medicinal uses.Dr. Siegert subsequently formed the House of Angostura to sell the bitters to sailors.