Sold as a medicinal product rather than as liquor, bitters were not subject to the taxes levied on the sale of all liquors to help finance the Union War effort. Yet, with their high alcohol content, it is not surprising that they were immensely popular among the 19th-century consumer. Their curative attributes permitted the respectable man to satiate his desire for strong drink without incurring condemnation from the temperance union – or from his neighbor. The bitters trade reached new heights from 1860–1880 as thousands of brands were introduced on the market, competing for a share of the multi-million-dollar business.
Drake’s Plantation Bitters was one of the more successful brands. Over 150 bottles were recovered from the SS Republic in varying shades of light and dark amber, including brilliant examples with yellow olive and yellow topaz hues. The distinctive bottle design featuring log cabin sides and three-tiered roof thatching was patented in 1862. Drakes’s was one of the first of more than 40 cabin-shaped bitters bottles produced by various makers during the patent-medicine era. The formula was first manufactured and marketed by Patrick Henry Drake in partnership with fellow New Yorker, Demas Barnes. In 1867, Drake established the P.H. Drake Company with himself as sole proprieter. The famous recipe, “a wonderful vegetable restorative,” contained a mixture of herbs, laced with St. Croix rum from the Caribbean. The potent formula – over 38% alcohol – claimed to cure every disease known to mankind. “Why is it that Plantation Bitters outsells all others?” began one announcement in Drake’s popular yearly almanac, followed by a long list of medicinal claims: “it promotes digestion, purifies the blood, puts new life into a lazy liver,” and “corrects all the defects in the gastric functions,” including “nervous constipation,” to mention but a few.
Competition in the bitters market was intense. By the 1880s, however, the bitters industry was under attack by the medical community. Reform campaigns strove to abolish the blatantly false claims of the proprietary formulas. With the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the government cracked down on the sale of all questionable medicinal products, and the bitters trade was mortally wounded.