It was nearly twenty years ago that I first sailed into Trinidad’s Carenage anchorage protected by the westernmost point of Trinidad and a few sparsely populated barrier islands. The trade winds that had powered my sloop from Florida south through the Eastern Caribbean island chain had died to a gentle breeze during the night. The ocean current augmented by the outflow from the Oronoco and Amazon rivers was stronger as I approached the Bocas, a group of small islands that guard the entrance to the Gulf of Paria and Trinidad. The brilliant blue Caribbean water had turned a duller hue and the tropical heat was almost oppressive early on that August morning. Even before I dropped anchor there were signs that this was not just another Caribbean island that wore the scars of hundreds of years of wars, slavery and the fall of the sugar trade on its chest.
In this anchorage, almost everything was different from the other islands, the aroma of the landscape drifting across the water, the sounds of the wildlife and the roar of the outboard motors on the fishing boats confirmed what I had heard Trinidad was a rich island where fuel was cheaper than water on many of the other islands. A few minutes later while clearing customs and immigration a woman wearing a freshly-pressed uniformed looked me straight in the eyes and asked the purpose of my visit to Trinidad and Tobago. “I’m here to research the rum of your islands,” was a reply that I had practiced on more than a dozen islands by that time. Without losing her eye contact she spoke directly to my eyes. “Beware the Puncheon!” She repeated the admonishment. “ Beware the Puncheon!” Then she firmly stamped my passport. She was practiced at imprinting the dark blue seal of her country evenly so that every letter would be easily read. I collected my papers and headed back to my dinghy where I got my first introduction to doubles. Without a doubt, Trinidad was going to be an experience like no other in the Caribbean.
So it didn’t take me long to accept an invitation I received a few months ago to come back to Trinidad and be part of the 2012 Angostura Aromatic Bitters Global Cocktail Challenge. Fortunately, for me, I wasn’t asked to judge the competition, there were more worthy souls to do that. Not that I don’t like cocktails prepared by some of the world’s best bartenders, but all too often it has been my experience that at the end of the day there is one winner and a dozen or more discouraged bartenders, some of whom have had more than enough time to consolidate their hatred of the judges while sipping some of their competitor’s concoctions and waiting for the results to be announced.
Arriving before most of the competitors, judges and other journalists, I wasn’t as jetlagged as some unfortunates who had traveled more than 36 hours to arrive at Piarco Airport outside Port of Spain, Trinidad in mid-February. I had forgotten how absolutely glorious the weather was in Trinidad at that time of year. Traveling from higher latitudes the weather, camaraderie and opportunity to catch up with old friends, connect face to face with people I only knew as Facebook friends or twitter followers really set the mood for a truly festive week. The competition itself was held on Sunday. Monday was the first day of Carnival, followed by the big celebration and parade Tuesday. Timing is everything, but it was only Thursday and there was a lot to do before the competition and carnival.
Each of the fifteen finalists had won regional competitions around the world – North America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Europe, Russia, India, Australia, New Zealand and South America. The rules were straightforward, use Angostura Aromatic Bitters in two cocktails, one with rum – with Angostura being the preferred brand, this was after all an Angostura competition, and the other was a freestyle cocktail where bartenders could use just about anything they wanted to use. And they did.
Even before my first visit to Trinidad I was familiar with the small bottle with the over-sized label containing Angostura Aromatic Bitters but it wasn’t until I arrived on Barbados that I really got to know what was in that iconic bottle. Despite being made on Trinidad, Angostura Aromatic Bitters is more a part of the drinking culture on Barbados than it used to be on Trinidad, but that is changing. Visiting the Angostura compound just east of Port of Spain it is impossible to miss the name Angostura above the door, but until the past few years, my focus has always been on the rum produced here. In fact, in all of my visits over the years it was only recently that I was invited to see where the closely guarded medley of herbs and spices are percolated with alcohol to make the world’s most famous bitters. The ingredients are actually blended on the floor above where the essential oils, fragrance and flavors of the ingredients are extracted. After being meticulously measured by one of the only five people who guard the secret of Angostura Aromatic Bitters, the dry mixture is dropped through a chute onto stainless steel trays over which the alcohol is percolated by pumps for about 12 hours before being filtered, reduced and colored prior to bottling.
Originally formulated in 1824 as a tonic for troops fighting under Simón Bolivar in Venezuela by DrJ. G. B. Siegert, the bitters took its name from Angostura, a town on the banks of the Oronoco River where Dr. Siegert served as the Surgeon-General of Bolivar’s military hospital. After fighting in South America foreign soldiers returned to their homeland and took bottles of Angostura bitters with them, spreading the Angostura name around the world. In the last century Angostura Limited, as the company became known, began making its own alcohol to make the iconic bitters. Though a series of acquisitions and mergers, today the alcohol is produced by Trinidad Distillers Limited, which is wholly owned by Angostura Limited. Since 2000, TDL has been the only company producing molasses based alcohol in Trinidad. With the rise in popularity of bitters in the growing cocktail culture, Angostura has maintained its place as the most recognizable bottle behind the bar. Angostura Orange Bitters was the first new product to be released by the company in nearly two centuries. Though both of these products share the bitters name only the original Angostura Aromatic Bitters is considered an aromatic product, one where the aroma of the bitters is as important as the flavor of the liquid itself.
I’ve used bitters in cocktails, with varying degrees of success and I’ve added a few dashes of bitters when I’ve cooked stew, but was always afraid of using too much. When I was invited to an afternoon feast, to call it anything less would be an understatement, titled “Flavors of the World; Fusion Cuisine” ~ Featuring Angostura Bitters my appetite was tempered by apprehension. I’ve encountered more than a few things that had to be tasted to be believed and I became a believer that afternoon. Now, I’m not going to say that you are going to experience the same culinary wonders on your first try at home (this feast was created by Chef Israel Calderon, CEC, CCA). I certainly would encourage you to try a bit of bitters in your cooking the next time you’re ready for a bit of adventure on your plate.
Take a look at some of these recipes and if your mouth doesn’t water, you have just finished a great meal or you need to have your glands checked.
After a great meal and another cocktail it’s time to relax and listen to the sound of the islands. Antigua and Trinidad claim to be the original home of the steel pan. Sometime after WWII, discarded oil drums were beaten into shapes that would yield a number of delightful notes, depending on how well the pan was tuned. The process of making a steel pan takes many careful hours by trained pan makers. In most pan yards there are a couple of apprentices that do the initial shaping before the masters take over to tune the pan. Then the pan head is heated to relieve some of the stressed formed in making the instrument. At this point it is no longer a discarded oil drum. The pan is ready to be painted, chromed or powder-coated to keep it from rusting away over time. Orchestras of more than 30 pan players are common with that number going over 50 in the larger pan orchestras. Close your eyes and you can hear all kinds of instruments from brass to wind to all kinds of percussion. In Trinidad young people learn to play pan music in school and for a few it becomes a lifelong passion that takes them around the world.
A few days before Carnival, Panorama is a nationwide competition of pan bands from around the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Don’t even think of going to Trinidad without going to see and hear at least part of Panorama. Like a lot of the activity in Trinidad during the Carnival season, Panorama is broadcast live on local tv, but there is nothing like seeing this in person.
The 2012 Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge was held Feb 19th at Trotter’s Restaurant & Bar. Although the competition itself is not a public event, a number of distributors, press and enthusiasts managed to get in to see a great exhibition of talent. And lucky for us, we got to sample most of the cocktails as the contestants made extra a few extras for the crowd to taste with straws.
Each bartender made two cocktails and before long it was evident that even simple drinks that we all have been enjoying can, with judicial use of bitters, be enhanced. The complex mixture of alcohol, roots, herbs, spices and other secrets quickly mixes in any alcoholic drink. Everything from a gin and tonic to a Manhattan can benefit from a bit of bitters. The addition of bitters adds another layer of flavor to cocktails just as it does in cooking. It soothes the acidity in citrus-based cocktails as well as non-alcoholic based drinks. Angostura Aromatic Bitters is 44.7% alcohol but since only a few dashes of this ingredient are used the additional alcohol added is negligible. Creamy drinks are enhanced in color and arom, while the nutty, citrus notes of the bitters tends to add a coherence to almost every cocktail in the competition. There is simply no other cocktail ingredient that adds so much flavor and character to a cocktail.
At the end of a grueling day (sampling cocktails all afternoon is hard work, if you can get it) the judges – mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, Eric Forget – Hine Cognac Cellar Master, Jacob Briars – Leblon Brand Ambassador, Vidia Doodnath – Angostura Executive Director and Andy Griffiths – the 2011 Global Cocktail Challenge Winner had to make some tough decisions. In the end, Rikki Carter of New Zealand won Best Rum Cocktail. David Delany Jr. from Massachusetts won the Best Freestyle Cocktail and Global Challenge Winner. David who had just quit his job a few days before flying to Trinidad took home a check for $10,000 and a position as the Global Ambassador for Angostura Aromatic Bitters for the coming year.
Want to try your bartending skills? Take a look at these recipes that were served in the 2012 AGCC.
Unlike many other competitions, everyone who participated in Trinidad had already won $5,000 in their regional competitions, not to mention a trip of a lifetime to the home Angostura Aromatic Bitters, which just happened to be the day before Carnival. Timing is everything.