Longer than a bottle of chocolate molé that a friend brought from Mexico, longer than the can of dried wasabi that is stored in the furthest reaches of our cupboard, longer than some esoteric Asian condiment that we bring out once a year, longer than all of these put together has my few ounces of Angostura Bitters sat upon the shelf.
Who drinks this stuff? Long ago, I bought the bottle because I was convinced that I should have it. It sounded gentlemanly. Merely having it would make me a classier person; but I dont know anyone who has actually used it.
This is heady stuff, 44% alcohol. A whiff opens the mind like smelling salts. It is made from oranges and cinnamon bark, and carob, cloves and cardamon and perhaps another dozen flavourings. Once, it contained Angostura bark but apparently that was too similar to the lethal poison strychnine and has consequently been left out.
The name comes from Angostura Venezuela where, 175 years ago, the elixir was concocted by Dr. J. Siegert. He mixed up this herbal distillation as a remedy for stomach problems, fatigue, lumbago and whatever other ills 19th century Europeans were succumbing to in the new world. In fact, his wasnt much different than Lydia Pinkham and dozens of other patent medicines of his time. These all purpose tonics were potent and popular. They were particularly attractive to women who were not supposed to drink in bars. A bottle of bitters might indeed be good for what ailed you and could be taken liberally in respectable company.
The actual formula is secret; but Angosturas flavour is there for everyone, as subtle as walking into a barn door. First there is the strong orange zest, not much different from Seville oranges. Then the tongue goes numb from the alcohol. After that, as Hemingway is reputed to have noted, it tastes like varnish.
Fernet-Branca, Peychaud and others brands are similar but Angostura remains the best known. Its medicinal edge cuts cloying cocktails like Manhattans, Rob Roys and Juleps. A few drops added to any sugary cake or custard lends a little of the brass knuckles needed to bring a too-sweet dessert down to earth.
Our small bottle is grimy and at least 10 years old. I keep it because it reminds me that I once aspired to a classier life: one where cocktails were served before dinner, preferably by a gentlemans gentleman. He would wear white gloves and know precisely how many drops of the bitters Monsieur liked in his Old Fashioned. These days I usually have a beer; but I still like to have a bottle of Angostura around. It's a cheap way to keep the dreams.