Monday, December 8, 2008

They Sell No Bitters Before Their Time


At this year's Tales of the Cocktail convention, one of the greatest stirs was about the presence of a new Angostura product on the premises. The bitters company, which has surfed through the decades on the strength of one fantastic, one-of-kind item, was ready to roll out its new orange bitters. And if you could find the p.r. rep, she might pull a bottle out of her big black bag and give you one.

I found her, and got her last bottle. I couldn't have been happier if I had been Little Jack Horner pulling a plum out of my Christmas pie. It's a great orange bitters of enormous depth, very likely the best on the market.

It took something close to forever to pin down the bitters' inventor, Peter Traboulay, for an interview, and a few days more to decipher his accent upon transcribing our conversation, but I got it done. Here's the story, just now published on Saveur.com:

After 184 Years, Angostura Visits the Orange Grove

by Robert Simonson

Plenty of snacks and drinks—Snapple, Doritos; take your pick—are wolfed down because they come in so many different flavors. And their parent companies can't stop themselves from rolling out a new product, a new twist on the old formula, every few months or so. Why have one flavor when you can give the people 23?

But there are other companies that are content to innovate at a slower pace. Take Angostura: back in 1824, Dr. Johann Siegert, a German expatriate living in revolution-torn Venezuela, put together a potent mix of herbs and spices he called "amargo aromatico" and used it to provide relief to soldiers suffering from fever and other ailments. Folks found that it hit the spot, in more ways than one. The world over has since come to know the small bottle with the oversize, densely worded label as an indispensable tool in the building of many cocktails.

And that was that: on one, singular product was an empire built. Angostura has dominated its niche industry for a century and a half, enduring as many another once popular bitters (Boker's, Abbott's, and Hostetter's, for instance) fell into disuse or obscurity. The company saw no reason to fix what wasn't broken or to improve on what already seemed perfection.

Now, though, the bitters scene is changing. In 2008, Angostura introduced its first new concoction in 184 years, Angostura Orange Bitters. To understand the effect that has had on the cocktail world, imagine how mechanics might react if WD-41 suddenly appeared.

One might well assume that Angostura jumped into the orange bitters game in reaction to the recent swelling of the category. A popular ingredient in the late 19th century—some historians believe it made appearances in classic gin martinis—orange bitters had all but disappeared from bars by the mid-1900s. But during the cocktail revolution of this past decade, several new varieties of orange bitters have hit the market, include Fee's, Regan's, and the Bitter Truth.

Peter Traboulay, who formulated Angostura's new bitters, says his company was not chasing trends, though. It had been playing around with orange recipes for 20 years but had never struck a formula that satisfied company standards. When Trabouley decided to get serious about making an orange bitters, he first sampled the product of every past failed experiment. "I reviewed what was done before," he said. "That gave us a platform to take it further." Two years ago, he began creating recipes for new versions, more than 15 in all. He narrowed the list down to two finalists, which he then tested with 30 leading London bartenders. The result was inconclusive. "They were split down the middle, because the differences between the two were very subtle," he said. Trabouley broke the tie by letting the bartender who won the Angostura International Cocktail Competition make the ultimate selection.

The Angostura that reached the shelves earlier this fall is composed of 15 ingredients, including five orange oils and six different spices. "We didn't want to take away from anyone's mind that this is orange," Traboulay said, explaining the result he was after when creating the bitters. "We wanted a complex array of orange flavors and a complex array of spice. We never wanted just one flavor." Most reviews of the product have agreed that Angostura's version of orange bitters possesses a depth and complexity not found in competing products. Whereas some other orange bitters have a light, simple taste, Angostura's has a tangy, woody bite and a long finish.

Traboulay said that the world would not have to wait until the 22nd century for Angostura to stir again, as he's toying with other fruit-based bitters. Another new addition to the Angostura model might come to light in two years or so—possibly a peach bitters.

2 comments:

camper said...

Nice. Angostura doesn't seem to release much information about themselves or their products so this is good stuff.

Robert Simonson said...

thanks, Camper. Hope you're doing well.