There is no brand more intrinsically Trinidadian than Angostura bitters which is odd and ironic since the Angostura story began in Venezuela and its inventor never set foot in Trinidad. Born in Germany and qualified as a physician in Berlin, Dr. J.G.B Siegert went to Venezuela and became during the Wars of Liberation, Simón Bolívar’s Surgeon-General and, at its end, settled in the town of Angostura.
Like most great drinks, the bitters were intended for medicinal purposes but ended up as a preferred garnish and flavouring. In much the same vein, Dr. Pemberton’s Coca Wine , a mineral health potion of the late 1880s panned out into the most wildly successful brand ever, Coca Cola. It is possible that as early as 1830 (the year Bolivar died) Dr. Siegert exported a few barrels of his formulation to Europe under the name Angostura Bitters. The product became a success and Dr. Siegert’s Germany-educated sons, Carlos, Alfredo and Luis were brought into the business and taught the secret of brewing the bitters. Dr. Siegert died in 1870 and the sons , led by Carlos , expanded the business under the name ‘Dr. J.G.B Siegert Y Hijos’ . In the 1870s century, severe civil unrest in Venezuela and the assumption of the terrible Antonio Guzman Blanco to a dictatorial presidency saw an influx of thousands of Venezuelans to Trinidad. Now this was not new since from at least the 1840s, peons known as the cocoa panyols had supplied seasonal labour for the booming chocolate industry and that country provided at least 70% of all food imported into the island in the period 1820-1930 with corn, cattle, pigs, plantains, leather, tasso (dried meat) , cheese and yams being shipped in great quantities to San Fernando and POS.
The Siegert brothers left Angostura (then called Cuidad Bolivar) and came to Trinidad which already had a sizeable population of their countrymen. Initially in rented premises at the corner of Charlotte St. and Marine Square, the factory and warehouse moved to George St. around 1880. This property was an ancient one, having served as the presbytery of the Cathedral of the Immaculate conception since the 1820s at least. It was a building with a gate allowing access into an enclosed courtyard much in Spanish Mediterranean fashion.
Angostura bitters prospered exceedingly. Samples and a booth were regularly sent to World’s Fairs in Chicago and NY as well as to the annual Empire Exhibit at the Crystal Palace in London. Alfredo Cornelio Siegert became the driving force behind Angostura and was a foresighted man who saw potential in Chaguaramas as a harbour (he was a property owner there) and tried unsuccessfully to press the colonial government into developing it. In 1897, Stark wrote:
“The most important manufactured article in the colony is the world-wide known Angostura Bitters. This article was originally manufactured by the inventor and founder of the firm, Dr. J. G. B. Siegert, at Angostura, Venezuela, from which it derives its name. Dr. Siegert died in 1 870, and the manufacture was carried on at Angostura by his two eldest sons until 1875, when through the exactions of the Venezuelan government and the uncertainty of protection to life and property, they removed to Trinidad and established their factory in Port-of-Spain, where it has been carried on ever since. Messrs. Siegert have gradually extended their factory until it now occupies a large block of buildings with a frontage on both George street and Nelson street. The exports of Angostura Bitters, which for the first five years after the transfer of the manufacture to this colony only averaged 19,000 gallons per annum, have for the past five years averaged 41,622 gallons a striking proof, were any needed, of the purity and excellence of these celebrated Bitters, which have now become one of the manufactures of Trinidad.”
In 1899, the family purchased the old Woodbrook sugar estate for the staggering sum of 50,000 pounds and lived in the estate house which was behind what is today Woodbrook Fire Station. The sugar cane fields were rapidly transformed into a residential district for the aspiring middle class with lots being rented and leased from the estate office which still exists. The street names were reminiscent of the Siegert brothers and their children being named Gallus, Petra, Luis, Cornelio, Ana, Carlos and Alfredo . The Siegerts also bought the HALL, the ancestral residence of the White Warners, the family of the powerful attorney general , Chas. William Warner (1807-75) They had purchased the house in 1886 where Carlos lived in regal style . The estate was sold in 1911 when the family ran into financial trouble. Carlos and Luis died in 1903 and 1905 respectively and Alfredo Cornelio ALONE held the secret to the formula. Alfredo let his imagination run away with him and invested heavily in enterprises which brought him no return instead of concentrating his resources on the still-successful bitters . In 1909 in order to finance the continued operations of the bitters Luis formed a public company with Gordon Grant and Co. (the conglomerate of the rich and powerful William Gordon Gordon ) as a major shareholder. His sol Alffredo Gallo and nephews George and Albert were taken into the business as directors. The bitters were officially branded Angostura bitters in that year although by then it was a synonymous name for the product which had formally been called Siegert’s Bitters. A sideline introduced in the 1890s was Siegert’s Bouquet which was a liqueur based on the bitters. Carypton, a popular bottled aperitif was marketed as The Green Swizzle of the West Indies and was also an Angostura product. The firm of J.N Harriman and Co. owned by Carl Boos (also of German ancestry) represented the Angostura brand as its distributor. Nevertheless, the losses Alfredo Cornelio sustained in his other investments spelled the end and could not even honour the legacies of his brothers by paying off his nephews and nieces their inheritance. In 1919 Alfredo Cornelio died in relative poverty, all his assets including the Hall (sold to the Stollmeyers in 1920) having been seized by Gordon Grant and Co. which assumed receivership of the House of Angostura. His son Alfredo Gallo Siegert remained on as a director of the firm mainly because it was he alone who held the secret formula for the bitters.
Rowland Poyntz Mackenzie , a Member of the Legislative Council, bought the company from Gordon Grant and Co. (also the local agency for Barclays Bank) in 1921 but himself was declared bankrupt in 1923. Another Siegert returned to the House of Angostura in 1936 when Robert Siegert, grandson of Alfredo Cornelio and great-grandson of Dr. J.G.B Siegert, was employed to operate a research and quality control laboratory, he being a qualified chemist. It was Robert who was responsible for a complete revamping of the production and packaging lines which had largely remained unchanged since his grandfather’s time.
World War II was a good time for Angostura which sent bottles of their product to servicemen abroad and gained unprecedented exposure when thousands of American soldiers invaded as part of the Bases Agreement in 1941 which saw the establishment of military camps in Trinidad. Aside from enjoying the bitters in their rum punches, these Yankees took the product home with them as souvenirs.
In 1949 he charted the course for a subsidiary firm, Trinidad Distillers Ltd. for the production of rum. Robert rose to become a director in 1954 when his father retired , introducing the ill-fated ANGOS gin line which themselves were not bad liquors but not suited to the primary markets for Angostura which were rum-drinking ones.
The company so synonymous with Trinidad hovered near the brink in 1958. As a publicly traded company, Angostura was susceptible to hostile takeover movements which threatened to move the firm to Bermuda which was a tax haven. The Trinidad government bought out controlling interest and set up a holding firm called Siegert Holdings Ltd. to forestall this disaster and the board of directors pulled from the ranks of the company. Robert Siegert and his father held the controlling interest, once again restoring the House of Angostura.
Robert’s son, Gordon Siegert came into the company in 1969 making him the fifth generation of the dynasty. Angostura acquired Fernandes Distillers Ltd. in 1973, makers of the very popular Vat 19 rum The ANGOS gin disappeared and were re-branded as Fernandes products. Angostura was a sponsor of one of the most popular steelbands from Woodbrook, Angostura Starlift, in a bid to establish community relations since in the 1970s they moved from the old location on George St. to Fernandes Industrial Complex on the Eastern Main Rd. In 1997 the CL Financial group acquired Angostura and Trinidad Distillers already the largest rum producer in the Caribbean under the World Brands banner which was one of the terrible investments which eventually led to the demise of the CL group. The collapse of Clico and CL financial did not affect Angostura which divested some of its superfluous brands and continues as proud heritage of local excellence today.