Since the middle-ages, man has attempted to concoct medicinal tinctures for common conditions such as stomach upsets, headaches and arthritis. In later years these were 'pushed' by the reputable 'Doctor' as well as the charlatans and quacks of the day.
The ingredients used were often 'bitter' in taste, consisting of aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and sometimes fruits for flavouring, well before the days where a high level of alcohol would be added to preserve all these botanicals.
In 1820, a German General Practitioner, Mr Johann GB Siegert, practising medicine in Venezuela, issued his soon-to-become famous 'Amargo Aromatico' - Spanish for Aromatic Bitters whilst in the town of Angostura, (now known as Ciudad Bolivar), and supplied his 'medicine' to troops and rebels on the side of Simón Bolívar fighting the Spanish for control of Venezuela and other South American countries.
Travelling troops and sailors took these bitters with them during long tours and voyages to help them cope with sea sickness and other ailments, and soon the popularity of Siegert's Angostura Bitters spread throughout the world.
Meanwhile, the temperance movement was underway campaigning against the consumption of alcohol in America, and was where 'patients' were mixing their bitters with poor alcohol to make it more palatable, and/or were adding alcohol to their bitters to make the medicine go down more easily. Whichever came first, the cocktail was born, first referenced as such in 1803 in the Farmer’s Cabinet periodical of America.
In 1830, Antoine Peychaud of Peychaud's bitters fame introduced his gentian-based bitters and was similar to Angostura but was more floral, sweeter and lighter bodied and is the bitters called for in the famous Sazerac cocktail.
More Modern Times.
By the end of the 19th century, bitters were a mainstay of drink-making and were seen on many a back bar in saloons across the country. The early pioneers of cocktail making, the likes of Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson pushed the boundaries for their uses in the by now famous bars they operated, but, by 1919, prohibition, the banning of alcohol in the US, lasting until 1933 saw the demise of bitters until their resurgence in later years.
Today, companies continue to research and emulate the many bitters recipes from yesteryear, where we are now spoilt with so many variants available and the list of cocktails to be made becoming inexhaustible.