If you went out to buy a bottle after last week’s column, I bet you’re wondering about Angostura Bitters’ oversized label?
Well, the story goes that at one point a batch of labels were ordered that were too large for the bottle and instead of disposing of them, they were used. The error wasn’t fixed on the next batch of labels, or the next and eventually the oversized-label schtick became a trademark for the brand.
Everything I’ve read, including the Angostura website, chalks this all up to a “laidback Caribbean attitude” on such matters — the bitters being manufactured in Trinidad.
Now, Angostura Bitters weren’t always a product of the Caribbean.
They were invented sometime before 1830 in Angostura (now Ciudad Bolivar), Venezuela by Dr. Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert, a German soldier, surgeon and adventurer.
Intended as a tonic and aid to digestion, they were only a modest success during Siegert’s lifetime — 30 years after he started making them, sales still only amounted to a mere 20 cases a year. It’s his son, Carlos, we have to thank for making Angostura Bitters an enduring product. He took over the company after Siegert’s death in 1870 and marketed them all over Europe, America and Australia. And, in 1876, as civil unrest grew in Venezuela, he moved the company to Port of Spain, Trinidad, which is where it remains today.
The bitters was adopted for its medicinal value by the Royal British Navy (Angostura reportedly can help settle mild nausea) where it was incorporated into a drink called the Pink Gin.
(Isn’t it funny how ye olde British military was always trying to trick their soldiers into consuming medicine by hiding it in gin. Bitters with gin to stave off nausea. Quinine tonic with gin for relief from malaria. I used to do a similar trick with the family dog. Although it was an antibiotic pill in a spoonfull of jam. And somehow she’d always manage to consume the jam and spit out the pill. Smart dog.)
The original recipe was a couple dashes of bitters along with a jigger of navy gin, consumed at cabin temperature in a tin cup.
Considering the alternative was rum with water, the Pink Gin sounds positively sophisticated.
An updated, but still traditional preparation involves putting two or three dashes of bitters in a prechilled cocktail glass then swirling them around to coat the sides of the glass. Into this, add 2 oz of gin.
In his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails, Ted Haigh (aka, Dr Cocktail), however has updated the drink even further and here’s where he stands on the subject.
3 oz Plymouth Gin
6 goodly dashes Angostura Bitters
Shake well with ice and strain into a pre-chilled cocktail glass.
He argues that it is absolutely essential to use Plymouth Gin as it is closer to the original Royal Navy spirit. It is a less-dry gin and has a smoother flavour than most of its kin. Thus, it might actually appeal more to the modern, vodka-dulled palate. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, you won’t be able to test that theory easily for in gin-hating Saskatchewan, Plymouth is unavailable.
When in doubt, personally, I say you can’t go wrong with Hendrick’s gin even if the flavour wouldn’t quite pass muster with all those stubborn buggers in Her Majesty’s Navy.
Regardless of the gin you use though, considering the ingredients in the Pink Gin, this will be a tough sell to your cocktail party guests. Neither gin nor bitters have a reputation for delectability. So, I will leave you with a bit of persuasion from Ted Haigh:
You’re still shaking your head. I can see it from the other side of the book. Look, I can’t explain it, but this particular gin when combined with the Angostura creates something more than the sum of its parts. It’s amazing. I’ll cajole you no longer, but think about this: I’ve gotten people who insisted they hate gin and hate bitters to like this drink. It’s chemistry. Trust science.