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We drink more than 100 million a year and its all ours

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You may think the closest thing Australia has to a national drink is XXXX or a flat white. But there's another drink that's so well-established here, most Australians don't realise it's our own creation.

More than 100 million lemon, lime and bitters are served in Australia every year.

"With the exception of Coca-Cola, it's probably the most commonly ordered soft drink with a meal," says Jessica Moxon, bar manager at Brisbane's Electric Avenue.

But like musk sticks or drop bears, mention of lemon, lime and bitters is often a source of confusion for tourists. The shortened name doesn't help, but even asking for lemonade, lime, and bitters outside of Australia and New Zealand is likely to get you a quizzical look.

Ms Moxon has just returned from the US and insists that lemon, lime and bitters is "a very Australian thing".

The combination may be a simple one, but unlike AC/DC, it just hasn't caught on overseas.

It started with seasickness

Perhaps a little more recognition is due for a drink with its roots in colonial times.

Tracing the origins of something as incidental as a drink means sifting through the offhand comments of history — there are always plenty of gaps.

The story of the beloved yet unsung lemon, lime and bitters really begins at the end — that is, with the bitters.

Lemon, lime and bitters is traditionally made using Angostura bitters. Back in the 1840s, these little bottles were commonly found aboard British Royal Navy ships, where bitters was used to treat seasickness.

The sailors mixed Angostura bitters with their gin rations to make Pink Gin, which rapidly became a hit back on dry land, too.

Within a few decades, the Royal Navy had helped cement the popularity of Angostura bitters throughout the British colonies. In 1879, Carlos Siegert, the son of Angostura's founder, came to Australia on a promotional tour. By then, Angostura bitters was being added to much more than just gin.

Popular in the colonies

A non-alcoholic alternative to Pink Gin was made with lemonade and bitters. Sometimes called a Campbell, it had become particularly popular in the colonies. The hotter climates meant refreshing drinks were all the rage.

Wooden box with angosture bitters bottles inside

When London journalist George Augustus Sala arrived in British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the 1880s after touring Australia and New Zealand, he described a tropical ritual involving the forerunner of lemon, lime and bitters:

"You put your legs up on the chair's broad arms; and you sip your lemonade, angosturas, [sic] and ice; and you need not speak to anybody; and you watch the Passing Show."

A 'sugary turmoil'

Not long after, ads for Angostura began touting the "exquisite flavour" the bitters brought to "Champagne, Sherry, Whiskey, Lemonade, and all liquors".

Lemonade and bitters was so popular that during the Australian banking crisis of 1893, a tongue-in-cheek piece in Victoria's Kerang Times compared the country's financial situation to the drink. It argued that people losing their savings was a dash of bitters necessary to make life all the sweeter:

"I always like to dash my sweets with bitters … if life were all honey how monotonous it would be."

Before the 19th century was out, lemonade and bitters had even become a favourite summertime drink for fashionable Londoners and their children. Just like today, lemonade and bitters was seen as a mildly sophisticated drink that could be served to people of all ages. In 1910, one writer was struck by how enthusiastically middle-class London teenagers embraced "the sugary turmoil of lemonade and angostura".

Local quirks

Back in the colonies where the trend had started, things were changing. People began to make the drink their own, creating local variations. In Nigeria, mixing orange juice and grenadine with lemonade and bitters created the Chapman. Meanwhile, drinkers in Hong Kong swapped the lemonade for a blend of ginger beer and ginger ale, added lemon juice and called it a Gunner.

Australia's own tweak to the formula was more laconic. It's impossible to say who mixed the first lemon, lime and bitters, or exactly when the drink came to prominence. But by the early part of the 20th century, lemonade and bitters was so commonplace, it was even being used as a remedy for car sickness.

A tall glass of lemon, lime and bitters

A golfing creation?

It was only a matter of time before someone decided to add another flavour to the familiar mix: something sour. It's possible our deft drinker reached for fresh lime, but considering the popularity of fruit cordials at the time, it's more likely they used cordial to make the first lemon, lime and bitters, as many bartenders do today.

Tanya Mah, Angostura's Australian brand manager, links the drink to the rise of golf in Australia — lemonade and bitters became a popular post-game refreshment. But any traces in golfing history have long since disappeared. Dr Michael Sheret of the Australian Golf Heritage Society says it's "certainly a popular drink in golf clubs", but he has "no idea" where the legend came from.

He does note that two previously popular orders in golf clubs were the Gunner — this time with the addition of Clayton's — and the Chapman, which was "popular with British expat golfers in Nigeria". If nothing else, golf clubs certainly reunited the lemon, lime and bitters with its overseas cousins.

Rainbow lorikeet on a lemon myrtle tree

Should we 'decolonise' it?

At a time when just about every bar has its own version of a gin and tonic, it's surprising there aren't more twists on the lemon, lime and bitters. The only common variation is the straight-laced Soda, Lime and Bitters — and the less said about that, the better.

Apart from a bitter divide over whether to use fresh lime juice or cordial, bartenders don't seem keen to tinker with the drink's ingredients.

With renowned chefs like Rene Redzepi praising native Australian flavours, and bars serving more low and no-alcohol drinks, it's high time to revisit the lemon, lime and bitters. Swapping in lemon myrtle and finger lime is an obvious starting point. And as for bitters, Australians have a lot more options than they did in the 1800s.

An unassuming drink, made with ingredients from all over the world, the lemon, lime and bitters is the story of colonial Australia in a glass. Our forebears made it by mixing together what they had — a mongrel drink for a mongrel country.