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Why 'Australia’s national drink' is not entirely Australian

Bars and pubs have been serving lemon, lime and bitters for decades, but this Aussie icon would never have been invented without some overseas influences.

Lemon, lime and bitters is one of the most popular mixed drinks in Australia. It is commonly regarded as a non-alcoholic cocktail with its main ingredient, the Angostura bitters, containing very low alcohol content (0.2 per cent).

A German doctor who immigrated to Venezuela in the early 1800s created the bitters while experimenting with various local herbs and plants for medicines for his ailing patients.

Dr Johann Siegert travelled to Venezuela to join the army of Simón Bolívar in their fight against the Spanish crown.

He was appointed by Bolívar as Surgeon General of the Military Hospital in the city of Angostura, now called Ciudad Bolívar, where he treated wounded soldiers using his own remedies which he coined as "aromatic bitters".

It was 1824 and a period of great maritime activity in the Caribbean, and the city of Angostura was an important trading port with ship arrivals from all over the world.

Lemon, Lime and Bitters
Lemon, Lime and Bitters

Thousands of international sailors complained of dizziness and seasickness and Dr Siegert's "aromatic bitters" seemed to provide them with some relief.

So they purchased small bottles of the syrup and took them home aboard their ships, helping to consolidate the popularity of Dr Siegert’s bitters across the world.

But it was mainly in the British colonies where the bitters became popular, largely due to the British Royal Navy sailors who spread the word.

The first experiments began on board the British Navy ships where sailors mixed the bitters with their gin rations, creating a new drink called "Pink Gin", which quickly became popular in Britain.

The trend spread to mainland Nigeria, where they mixed the bitters with orange juice, grenadine syrup and lemonade to create a drink called the "Chapman".

In Hong Kong, they replaced the lemonade for a non-alcoholic ginger ale mix, added lemon juice and called it "gunner", and eventually, the bitters reached Australia, where they mixed it with lemonade, lime juice, ice and a slice of lemon and called it lemon, lime and bitters.

While it was unknown where or when the cocktail became a favourite in pubs and bars in Australia or who was responsible for inventing it, many would agree that this simple drink was the country’s most popular and loved non-alcoholic beverage.

And while the sailors on the British Royal Navy Ships helped spread the bitters from Venezuela to the rest of the world, Dr Siegert’s sons also contributed to the phenomena through promotional visits in the early 1900s to the US, Paris, various European cities and Australia.

What happened to the inventor of the Angostura bitters?

Dr Siegert resigned from the Venezuelan army in around 1850 to concentrate on the production of his Angostura bitters, since demand had exceeded supply.

In 1867 he founded a company with his son Carlos, called Dr. J.G.B. Sieger and Son.

Dr Siegert died in 1870, but by then his reputation and that of his syrup were firmly established internationally, so his children moved the business from Venezuela to a place with more political stability; Port of Spain, in Trinidad and Tobago.

In 1904 the company was renamed Amargo de Angostura.

Dr Siegert’s descendants in charge of Angostura bitters in Trinidad and Tobago lost all their money in bad business deals and the company was taken over by creditors.

Today it is known as the House of Angostura and also as Angostura Limited. It is still famous for producing Angostura bitters and it’s also the main producer of rum in Trinidad and Tobago.