Angostura bitters: raising the bar

James Fuller was a “bitters virgin,” but after discovering that Angostura goes with everything, including his morning cuppa, he’s now a seasoned user

Photograph by David WearsTwo-time Trinidad and Tobago bartending champion Raymond Edwards exhibits his skill. Photograph by David Wears

“No cocktail bar worth its salt is without a bottle of Angostura aromatic bitters,” says two-time Trinidad and Tobago bartending champion Raymond Edwards. “You can go anywhere in the world and you will find a bottle. It’s the taste that changed the world they say, and I believe that because it has such an effect on other tastes and flavours, accentuating them and drawing them out.”

As Edwards suggests, versatility is the hallmark of Angostura bitters.

“It has a unique blend of secret herbs and spices which brings out the inherent flavours in so many concoctions, totally,” says the man who was also named Caribbean Bartender of the Year 2007. “As a professional bartender, when you create and mix a cocktail, there is supposed to be a balance, with neither the alcohol nor the base overpowering the other. And then, with the bitters, you pick up the hints of everything that is in there.”

The 25-year-old Edwards, a former pro footballer with Trinidad’s North-East Stars, is now on the staff at Angostura’s distillery in Laventille, on the outskirts of Port of Spain.

Women are more adventurous when it comes to cocktails, says Edwards, often being tempted by the visual impact of a drink and how it is presented. This does not always end well, though.

“Women love things that are pretty and they say they must try that, without maybe considering what’s in it. They get it, taste it and then the expression on their face often changes. Before they sip you have a 24-year-old princess—and then afterwards she’s screwing her face up like she’s 90.”

Edwards had his own face-churning moment when, as a boy growing up in the seaside village of Toco, he discovered Angostura bitters for the first time.

“For years growing up, it’s something that Granny would have hidden in the back of her cupboard. You always ask yourself, what is this? It looks kinda funny, with the big label, and you see it being used, so out of curiosity you sneak in, open the bottle and take a swig. It’s like, ‘Yuck!’” he laughs. “And you learn that you’re not meant to drink it straight.”

Edwards is venturing more and more into the kitchen in search of inspiration and it’s a crossover with which the adaptable bitters is equally at ease.
“When you look at it, a drink is just liquefied food; it’s ingredients which go to make up a recipe. There are so many culinary creations out there, and bartenders are slowly creeping into the kitchen, pulling out ingredients from different avenues to create cocktails.”

It’s this creativity that earned Edwards the People’s Choice Award at this year’s third staging of the bi-annual Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge. Started in 2004, the competition challenges international cocktail specialists (2008 saw representatives from as far afield as Europe, Australia and the USA) to create two new drinks in a battle to be crowned Global Cocktail Challenge Champion. This year’s winner was Englishman Jamie Stephenson.

Edwards says constant re-invention and flavour experimentation are the key to cocktail-making.

“I like to look at the indigenous flavours of our island and incorporate them in drinks, so I look at things like lemon grass (fever grass), sorrel and even pumpkin.

“I created a cocktail called Orange Fever, which uses the Angostura Orange Bitters with fever grass, and also one called Mellow Yellow, which utilises pumpkin. The pumpkin acts as a sponge when cooked, and absorbs the other flavours. There’s nutmeg, cinnamon, orange, pineapple, rum, triple sec and bitters in there, and it’s then all blended with ice.”

 

Mojito

2 oz Angostura white rum
3 dashes Angostura aromatic
bitters
1 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
1 bar spoon sugar syrup
soda water
12 fresh mint leaves

Method: stir the mint leaves in a glass with the sugar and lime juice to extract the mint oils. Fill glass with crushed ice and add the rum and Angostura aromatic bitters, then top up with soda water and stir
Glass: Collins
Garnish: Mint sprig

Singapore Sling

2 oz Bombay Sapphire Gin
1 oz cherry brandy1/2 oz Benedictine
1/2 oz freshly squeezed lime juice
3 dashes Angostura aromatic
bitters
soda water

Method: Shake and strain into an ice filled glass and top up with soda water
Glass: Sling
Garnish: Lemon slice

Bloody Mary

1 oz Sobieski vodka
1/4 oz dry sherry
2 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters
2 oz tomato juice
1/2 oz lemon juice
6 drops Tabasco sauce
1/2 shot Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon horseradish sauce

Method: Shake and strain
Glass: Highball
Garnish: Ground pepper and celery stick

Angostura Orgasm

1 oz Grand Marnier
1 oz butterscotch liqueur
1 oz Drumgray Scottish Cream liqueur
1/2 oz grenadine syrup
1/2 oz heavy cream
3–4 dashes Angostura aromatic bitters

Method: Blend
Glassware: Cocktail
Garnish: Honey and cinnamon-rimmed glass

 

Better with bitters

When a brand becomes as well loved as Angostura Bitters, it becomes not so much an ordinary product as part of the local culture. Therefore, it was to general disbelief amongst Trinidadian friends and family that I announced I was a “bitters virgin” before embarking on this article. “Whoa! Lord, boy, yuh not Trini yet!”

My Trinidadian mother-in-law’s story is more typical, in that most West Indian women have grown up with that fruity bitters zing.

“I’ve used it since I started cooking, and that was back in the 1960s: sweetbread, cakes and puddings; omelettes, pancakes—all egg dishes; pone; callaloo; seasoning meats and fish; gravy; and soups, cowheel and corn…You can use it for so many things—Oh, and drinks, of course.”

In cooking, adding “a dash of bitters” is a Caribbean staple, and the idiosyncratic little bottle with the oversized label is found in expat kitchens around the globe.

“It’s a habit I picked up from Mum,” says my London-based Trini sister-in-law. “I store it next to my Worcestershire sauce and use both in all my marinades.”

Giselle Laronde-West, Angostura’s corporate communications manager and former Miss World, offers up yet more possibilities: “Tea; coffee; fresh fruit; ice cream, especially coconut and vanilla; lime juice, orange juice, grapefruit juice—any citrus. Pastry chefs use it a lot to decorate their pastries.

“And the Orange Bitters that we launched in 2007 is fantastic with chocolate. People are having fun with it,” she says. “They’re playing with the product, and there’s nothing that’s off limits.”

Just as you’re envisaging Angostura aromatic bitters heading inexorably towards the title of “world’s most versatile food and drink additive,” you learn that its uses are not even limited to the gastronomic.

A woman in a restaurant was once spotted rubbing Angostura bitters into her legs. When asked why, she said she found it made an excellent mosquito repellent. Many also sing its praises as a hangover cure, so if you’ve over-indulged in the coladas the night before, the aromatic bitters is there for you come the veiny-eyed dawn.

Faced with this bewildering multi-purpose barrage and, in the spirit of research, I’ve spent most of the last month liberally splashing bitters on everything in sight. The dog took exception, but amongst other things, bitters has indeed proved a surprisingly tasty addition to my morning cuppa.