Sunday, January 10, 2010

One Man's Search for Angostura

As a journalist, products shortages make me suspicious. Sometimes, as with the George Dickel No. 8 Tennessee Whiskey shortage a couple years back, they're real, and you truly can't find the bottle in question. Other times, as with Knob Creek, there's a little hype involved, and the item is not that hard to come by. When I first posted about a potential shortage of one-of-a-kind Angostura, I wondered if New York would truly feel the pinch. If so, I was certain I'd hear about it. Bartenders who are suddenly unable to fill an order for a Manhattan or Old Fashioned are likely to howl about it.

As previously reported by The Guardian back in early November, "Trinidad's House of Angostura has blamed a shortage in ingredients and a financial restructuring. The firm is owned by CL Financial, a Caribbean conglomerate hit by a liquidity crisis, prompting an emergency bailout earlier this year by the government of Trinidad and Tobago. Patrick Sepe, chief executive of the US distributor, Angostura USA, said the production line ran dry in June and was only just getting back on track. "There has been a shortage," said Sepe. "You can't just turn on and off supply of bitters. It's not like producing bottled water – it's a very delicate, intricate process." "

The food blogs picked up on the shortage only this past week with a couple of alarmist posts. So I decided to follow up on the story. I went to local watering hole in Red Hook, where the owner told me he had to go to a friend's bar in Carroll Gardens begging for an extra bottle of Angostura. Was it really that hard to find? "No store between Atlantic Avenue and here has any," he told me.

It set out to investigate. I went to Met Food, Union Market, Stinky NYC, Key Food, Sahadi, Fairway, and several smaller markets. Sure enough, the place on the shelf where Angostura ought to have been was vacant. Store owners—those who knew what Angostura was and what it was used for, that is (outside of the bar world, people don't do a lot of thinking about this product)—seemed surprised they didn't have any, and unaware of any shortage.

OK, so there did actually seem to be a lack of the stuff. I hate not being able to get something I want, so my investigation turned into a mission. Too many cocktail bars in South Brooklyn, I thought. I'll go to some neighborhood where bartenders aren't combing the shelves and buying up the stock. I had to meet a friend for dinner in Morningside Heights, so I aimed for that area. Food Emporium? All out. Garden of Eden? Nertz. I tried about six big markets along Broadway. Then I hit paydirt in a Gristedes around 100th Street! One lonely bottle sitting by intself, all it's brothers having long ago flown the next. I grabbed it and header for checkout.

The girl cashier looked at my only purpose as she scanned it. Twisting up her face into a quizzical expression, she asked, "What's this stuff for?"

If she only knew.


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that so many stores are actually out of angostura bitters. I assumed that the shortage hyped on the blogs last week was just that--all hype and no shortage. Perhaps there is some hoarding going on. Have bartenders scoured the city buying up any bottle they can find? Even if angostura is unavailable, can't some other brand of bitters be substituted? Or, must it be angostura in some cocktails?

Robert Simonson said...

JP: One report last week said account were rationed to 3 bottles. A popular bar can go through a bottle or two in one night, so that won't do. My guess is, after not being able to get it through regular channels, bar owners and bartenders have raided the grocery stores.

Angostura is really a one of a kind product, with a secret recipe. It's not like orange bitters, where one can spell for another if needs be. Nothing's like it. You could use Fee's whiskey barrel bitters as a sub, I suppose, but it's not quite the same.

Apparently, it's available at various on-line sites. But who knows how many days that takes. When bars need it, they NEED it.

frederic said...

I believe the worst of it is over. Some stores that had none for many weeks here in Boston now have a small number on their shelves. Others still have none.

And many bars have switched over to Fee's Aromatic or started making their own housemade bitters. And some have connections or access to dusty warehouses and the flow didn't stop.

It has stopped me from trying any recipe that uses 1/2 oz or more of Angostura as I am trying to make my 10 oz bottle last until something other than the 4 oz bottles are on the store shelves.

Doug Ford (Cold Glass) said...

I've noticed this shortage discussion going on for the last few weeks, too, and with some confusion. I wonder if it's a regional thing? I live in the Minneapolis area, and I can pick up Angostura in any large grocery, and at any of my regular liquor stores--no empty shelves. Perhaps the makers just have an axe to grind with some of their regional distributors?

Robert Simonson said...

Doug: I'm sure the situation is much less dire outside the big metropolitan, cocktail-drinking area, i.e, New York, San Francisco, Boston, L.A., etc. There's just not as much of a demand in some areas. I wouldn't be surprised if some NYC bar owners are making trips to Jersey and Long Island to fill their needs.

Lesli said...

You can buy it on Amazon....

Anonymous said...

None to be had in Lincoln, NE. Going to try ordering it from Mizkan, the new US distributor.

Remy said...

Plenty down here in Oz......Maybe cause we drink a lot???
You guys should move here....hahaha, I've got a spare bed and a bottle or two in the fridge.
Plus the weather's better.

Anonymous said...

awesome blog, do you have twitter or facebook? i will bookmark this page thanks. lina holzbauer