At a recent Christmas party, I found myself discussing adult beverages with one of my wife's colleagues. As we are both bourbon drinkers, it wasn't long before the Manhattan came up.
After establishing our preferred bourbon for such a drink (we both agreed that "top shelf" is preferred, but Jim Beam is an affordable "standard"), we found ourselves pondering the Angostura bitters. Specifically, we wondered whether Angostura bitters were, like quinine, originally developed as a medicinal tonic.
A brief trip to Wikipedia later, and I had my answer.
As it turns out, the answer is yes. Angostura bitters were originally developed in the 1820's by Doctor Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, surgeon-general Simon Bolivar's army. His goal was to develop a tonic to improve the appetite and digestive well-being of the Venezuelan soldiers. According to the Angostura website, the transition from medicine to cocktail companion was aided by Dr. Siegert's son, Carlos:
Don Carlos, as Carlos became known, recognised that he was in possession of the secret to a unique product. Bon vivant, impeccable in his dress and manners, he was among the first advertisers.
He exhibited in London in 1862 and sampled his product. It was applauded with gin, the monotony of which was forever altered. It became the magic ingredient, to be used in exotic concoctions. He exhibited in Paris in 1867 and in Vienna in 1873. He visited Philadelphia in the united States in 1876 and Australia in 1879. The hallmark of Angostura® aromatic bitters was firmly established.
So, there you have it. Angostura bitters have been around for nearly two centuries; originally as a medicine to settle the stomach, now as a flavor additive to please the palate.