The recipe was developed as a tonic by German Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a Surgeon General in Simon Bolivar's army in Venezuela, who began to sell it in 1824 and established a distillery for the purpose in 1830. Siegert was based in the town of Angostura, now Ciudad Bolívar, and used locally available ingredients, perhaps aided by botanical knowledge of the local Amerindians. The product was sold abroad from 1853 and in 1875 the plant was moved from Ciudad Bolivar to Port of Spain, Trinidad, where it remains.
The exact formula is a closely guarded secret, with only five people knowing the whole recipe.
Angostura bitters are a key ingredient in many cocktails. Originally used to mask the flavour of quinine in tonic water, itself usually served with gin, the mix stuck in the form of a Pink Gin, and is also used in many other alcoholic cocktails such as Long vodka, consisting of vodka, Angostura bitters, and lemonade; and the Old Fashioned, made with whiskey, bitters, sugar, and soda water. In a Pisco Sour a few drops are sprinkled on top of the foam, both for aroma and decoration. In a Champagne Cocktail a few drops of bitters are added to a sugar cube. Bitters can also be used in soft drinks; a common non-alcoholic drink served in Australian pubs is lemon, lime and bitters. An approximation of ginger ale (as a drink mixer) can be made by filling a glass, almost to the top, with lemon-lime soda, adding a splash or two of cola, and then adding a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. Angostura Bitters Drink Guide, a promotional booklet of 1908, was reprinted in 2008 with a new introduction by Ross Bolton.
Though not in the classic recipe, bartenders sometimes add more flavor to the Mojito cocktail by sprinkling a few drops of Angostura bitter on top.
Angostura bitters are alleged to have restorative properties. It was reported to be a remedy for hiccups, and also can be used as a cure for an upset stomach.
Angostura bitters is often incorrectly believed to have poisonous qualities because it is associated with Angostura bark (although it does not actually contain any), which, although not toxic, during its use as a medicine was often adulterated by unscrupulous sellers who padded out the sacks of bark with cheaper poisonous Strychnos nux-vomica or copalchi bark.
Angostura bitters stain fabrics and surfaces.