Lemonade and bitters was a precursor to lemon, lime and bitters, a drink unique to Australia. The history of lemon, lime and bitters is unclear but its predecessor was a popular alternative to alcoholic drinks as early as the mid-19th century. In 1872, The Argus wrote of the Victorian parliament: Many of the most discreditable scenes in the House would have been avoided had the hon. members confined themselves to lemonade and bitters.
Today, the term “bitters” commonly refers to Angostura Bitters. However, there were (and still are) other manufacturers producing bitters, which were originally seen as a way of settling the stomach. Among the Australian producers of “stomach bitters” was A. M. Bickford & Sons of Adelaide, later most famous for their lime cordial.
Angostura Bitters was invented in Venezuela in the 1820s by one Dr Seigert. The brand seems to have been first advertised in Australia in 1861. Its ubiquity is linked to British colonialism. Adopted by officers of the Royal Navy to liven up their gin it became popular in outposts of the Empire. The combination with lemonade (not American-style lemonade but the clear, fizzy variety) was sometimes known as the Campbell. A variation using ginger ale, ginger beer and a dash of lemon juice was called a Gunner. In the 1930s, lemonade and bitters was touted as a cure for car sickness.
At some point, possibly as late as the 1980s, some enterprising mixologist added either lime juice or lime cordial to the classic Campbell and a new drink was born. It never acquired a catchy name, continuing to be known simply by its three ingredients. In 2018, Kit Kriewaldt’s article for the ABC drew attention to the confusion experienced by ex-pat Aussies when they ordered a lemon, lime and bitters overseas. Turns out it’s unknown beyond our shores. Kriewaldt’s story suggests that there’s a link to golf clubs, where it’s a non-alcoholic favourite at the 19th hole. Even the Angostura people give credence to this legend.
In 2019 there was a controversy when some pubs began refusing to serve lemon, lime and bitters to children. The problem is that Angostura Bitters is actually quite high in alcohol (44.7 per cent by volume). When just a few drops are added to the other ingredients, the amount of alcohol in the final drink is negligible, but when does a drop become a dash? And how many dashes add up to too much? Many pubs elected to play it safe.
There is one place in the world where Angostura Bitters is regularly served neat in shots. Washington Island in Wisconsin, USA, has a tavern that was able to serve the drink right through prohibition as it was purportedly a “stomach tonic for medicinal purposes”.
Several soft drink brands have introduced ready-mixed lemon, lime and bitters in cans. However, these, including the version introduced by Angostura itself in 2007, do not have any alcohol content at all. Angostura describes their product this way:
ANGOSTURA® Lemon, Lime and Bitters is the only soft drink in the world with ANGOSTURA® aromatic bitters already in it. It is non-alcoholic, gluten free, low sodium, caffeine free, kosher certified AND, made with pure cane sugar.
As a footnote, as I searched for early mentions of lemon, lime and bitters I found a 1961 American recipe for a drink made with bitters and lemon/lime soft drink. So was it the same as our Aussie favourite? No indeed. Called a Whitecap, it also included a generous measure of cold milk.