JGB Siegert: a taste for adventure

Judy Raymond traces the long and exciting journey of Angostura bitters’ inventor Dr JGB Siegert, from the battlefield of Waterloo to the rainforests

Dr JGB Siegert, the inventor of Angostura Bitters. Photograph courtesy AngosturaThe museum on Angostura’s compound, detailing the history of the organisation and its most famous product. Photograph by David Wears

Dr JGB Siegert is known as the inventor of Angostura Bitters, but he wasn’t just a stolid German businessman.

In fact he doesn’t seem to have had much interest in or aptitude for business at all: 30 years after he began making his bitters, sales amounted to a mere 20 dozen cases a year, according to historian Fr Anthony de Verteuil.

Siegert was really an adventurer, and the course of his life was directed by the wars that shaped two continents. At 19, he took part in a battle that determined the future of Europe. Five years later, he flung himself into a tide of history that carried him away to the New World, where he joined the struggle for Latin America.

The story of the man who invented the world-famous bitters is one of romance and excitement, and although he never set foot in Trinidad, it’s his spirit, two centuries old, that fills the company museum at the Angostura plant in Laventille, on the edge of Port of Spain.

Born in 1796, Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert studied medicine in Berlin, and was an army doctor at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, tending to the wounded among the 125,000 Prussians who came to the rescue of the Duke of Wellington and defeated Napoleon of France.

In 1820, in pursuit of another great cause, Siegert made his way to Venezuela, along with some fellow Prussians and thousands of British veterans of the Napoleonic wars who were going to the aid of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator. Siegert sailed 240 miles up the Orinoco, to where the river narrowed at the port of Angostura (“straits” in Spanish). This was the headquarters of Bolívar’s revolutionary government and his campaign to free the Spanish colonies of northern South America, and there Siegert was put in charge of the military hospital.

By June 1821 Venezuela had wrested its independence from Spain, and the Liberator moved his campaign westwards, to Ecuador, Peru and Colombia, where he died in 1830. Siegert remained behind in Angostura (renamed Ciudad Bolívar in 1846) and pursued his growing interest in botany and chemistry.

A set of 19th-century surgical tools laid out in a case at the museum consists mostly of scalpels, saws and knives, and looks as if it was designed to inflict pain, not to cure it. It’s no wonder that in his new home in the rainforest Dr Siegert began to investigate the local herbs and other plants for possible medicinal uses. His test tubes, beakers and other equipment have survived and are set out next to the percolator he used to produce various remedies, among them the famous amargos aromáticos that he first devised as a tonic and began to sell in 1824.

Perhaps he drew on the botanical knowledge of the local Amerindians, although the single ingredient named on the label is gentian, extracts of which were used in Europe as an aid to digestion. On the floor next to his desk is a sack full of what look like wood chips. These are the raw ingredients for Angostura bitters: aromatic bark and other tropical botanicals. They give away no clues: the dry chips crumble in your hand and don’t smell of anything, though the air is filled with the familiar fragrance of the bitters, being concocted behind closed doors elsewhere in the building. (The brew is marinated in giant steel tanks, after the formula has been mixed by the five people who know the secret—no longer restricted to members of the Siegert family, but passed on to company executives. To ensure no one else can work it out, they are said to order decoy ingredients, as well as the real ones.)

Also on show are a photograph of the ramshackle Siegert family home in Venezuela and a model of the clipper Dr Siegert, which carried rum and bitters around the globe, before sinking in rough waters off Trinidad in 1895. In a corner stands an anvil from the coopery that still produces the barrels in which Angostura rums are matured.

There’s a cannon, found at the original brewery at George Street, Port of Spain; perhaps it came to Trinidad with the Siegerts in 1875. Dr Siegert had died in 1870, but war still decided the fate of his family, for it was a dozen years of renewed civil unrest in Venezuela that drove out Carlos Siegert, followed by his brothers Luis and Alfredo.

Angostura bitters were first exported in 1830, to England, via Trinidad. But Carlos, who may have inherited some of his father’s adventurousness, marketed them aggressively all over the world, travelling as far as Australia, and collecting a fistful of gold medals from trade fairs. He never fought in a war, but he often battled over copyright, for the bitters were so successful that wherever they went, imitations soon followed (some of the counterfeit bottles are on display).

But pride of place goes to the foundation stone brought from the George Street factory, which commemorates Dr Siegert, the man whose idealism and daring led him from bourgeois Germany to live and die on the banks of the Orinoco, half a world away.

Visits to the museum for parties of at least 10 people can be arranged through Angostura’s Hospitality Department. Call (868) 623-1841