I’ve been guilty of a little hero worship on this site. I’ve focused on the big name booze that forms the basis of every cocktail and glossed over the importance of the other beautiful contributors.
But this week I’d like to focus on an unsung hero, one that I became interested in when writing about the Old Fashioned two weeks ago.
Not the aperitif bitters – like Campari, which although bitter to the palate is drinkable on its own – we’re talking about the smaller bottles that do for cocktails what spices do for cooking.
Without a few drops of Angostura Bitters, the Old Fashioned is just bourbon with a sugar cube. And yet we so often overlook these pungent little drops.
Bitters are liquid extractions or infusions of bark, herbs, seeds, roots, flowers, leaves and fruit and were originally used by apothecaries to cleanse the body of toxins and aid digestion.
Like me, you probably first heard of an apothecary in high school. The apothecary was the precursor to modern pharmacists – dispensing herbal and chemical solutions to the old and infirm. Like the buffoon from Romeo and Juliet.
“O true Apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.”
Romeo’s last words. Then yep, he died.
Or more cheerfully, like Miracle Max in possibly the greatest movie ever made – The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen this 1987 movie, immediately go and watch it. If you have seen it and don’t like it, we’re going to need to rethink our relationship.
Thanks to science, bitters have been extracted from the medicine cabinet and put behind the bar but we must pay homage to the apothecaries for this fine work (and simultaneously ask the homeopaths to stop peddling the same pointless shit).
References to apothecaries appear as far back as ancient Babylon. Notable apothecaries include Nostradamus, Benedict Arnold and ludicrous over-achiever John Keats, the English poet who wrote, amongst other things, Ode to a Nightingale, To Autumn and Ode to Fanny, while completing his apothecary apprenticeship.
All before succumbing to tuberculosis at age 25.
I know as much about Keats as I know about any poet, thanks to high school English. In Year 10, Keats was the source of much mirth in my class thanks to his reference to panting lovers on the side of that Grecian Urn and of course because he had several works that legitimised repeated use of the word “Fanny” in class. Never not funny.
Not quite as good as Religious Education classes affording opportunities to make our male teacher explain circumcision to our all-girls’ class, but entertainment aplenty on a hot Brisbane afternoon.
While there has been some maturing of my humour in the
intervening decades, when you see the quality of the material I was producing 1982, we’d all agree I’ve wasted a genuine comic talent.
See? Here’s my school dictionary – the very tome designed to help you spell words CORRECTLY.
Look, it was the 1980s, we were close to two decades away from having the advantage of Dawson’s Creek’s Joey Potter showing us how to be proper 16 year olds.
“She’s sixteen years old and so are you. We talk like we know what’s going on, but we don’t. We don’t have any idea. Look, we’re really young and we’re gonna screw up a lot! You know, we’re going to keep changing our minds and…and sometimes even our hearts…Don’t let yourself get so angry that you stop loving because one day you wake up from that anger and the person you love will be gone.”
Because, yes. That’s totally how 16 year olds talk. Go to any Westfield Food Court and listen.
No, all we had was Mallory from Family Ties and Denise Huxtable from Bill Cosby’s knitwear-clad perv-fest. We were adrift in a sea of hormones – something an apothecary might have given me some bitters for in centuries past had that not fallen out of fashion.
And even the cocktail use of bitters nearly disappeared from use last century.
Thanks to our old friend, Prohibition.
Bitters were so heavily in use during the P – to mask the flavour of the booze – that they fell out of fashion after the 21st Amendment and only three pre-Pro brands still exist – Angostura Bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters and one that died and was resurrected.
The fantastically-named Abbott’s Bitters.
Seriously. If there aren’t a few bars in Canberra stocking that right now, that is a real opportunity missed.
Bitters have had a resurgence in popularity though and there are hundreds of good ones on the market with different flavour bases for different uses – orange, grapefruit, chocolate and even celery bitters for your Bloody Mary or Red Snapper. Try here, or here.
But the one that I guarantee you know the best is Angostura Bitters and it has led me to today’s unsung hero, Doña Manuela Sáenz, a broad I would love to have had a drink with (in kind of the same way I’d like to have a drink with Courtney Love – because you just know something really bizarre is going to happen before you’ve paid your bill).
Angostura Bitters was invented in 1824 by Dr Johann Siegert in Venezuela.
Siegert was Surgeon-General for Simón Bolívar. Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios was a South American soldier who was instrumental in the continent’s revolutions against the Spanish empire.
Siegert created the bitters in the town of Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar) to treat tropical stomach ailments. Apparently many sailors would feel sick after their time on the Orinoco River and would feel less sick when they had the bitters.
Now as someone who gets horrendously seasick, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that some of the healing may have come from getting onto dry land, but that’s the tale anyway.
Angostura’s recipe is secret, but is apparently not from the root of the Angostura tree. It can be bought for less than $20 a bottle (and yes, the ill-fitting label is a design feature – it started as an administrative cock-up but is now a “signature feature”).
Manuela was a Revolutionary and a Spy and Bolívar’s lover for the last eight years of his life. At age 26, Manuela ditched her lacklustre English husband and joined the rebels.
She saved Bolívar’s life twice by thwarting planned assassination attempts, including once by showing up at a Masquerade Ball she wasn’t invited to and making such a scene that Bolívar had to come out, thereby saving his life (see? There’s that Courtney Love thing).
For this, Bolívar gave her the nickname “the liberator of the Liberator”.
Manuela participated in some of the greatest battles of the revolution – as a combatant, sporting my old favourite, the fake moustache – and attained the rank of Colonel. Back in the cities, she would revert to the waist-cinching attire of a noblewoman and sniff out valuable intelligence under the guise of gossip.
There may or may not have also been a pet bear.
A true Renaissance woman (and read more about her and other kick-arse women at this fantastic site – Rejected Princesses from Jason Porath, former Dreamworks Animator who will soon have a book to go with his site about “Women too Awesome, Awful or Off-Beat for Kids’ Movies”).
Of course, Manuela died a pauper.
When Bolívar died in 1830, his enemies came to power in Colombia and Ecuador and she was unwelcome in those countries. She died in a diphtheria epidemic in Peru in 1856 and was buried in an unmarked, communal grave (where were the goddamned apothecaries then?).
Manuela was reburied in 2010, beside Bolívar’s grave in the National Pantheon of Venezuela, the final resting place for national heroes.
Given the nature of her original burial, some soil from the mass grave was treated as symbolic remains and it was those transported with much ceremony through Peru, Ecuador and Colombia before being given a full state funeral in Venezuela, 154 years after her death.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Manuela Sáenz – an unsung hero with every right to be
PS – Sit, Ubu, Sit. Good dog.
(Who knows where that’s from without looking it up?)