No matter where in the world you are, Angostura is the bitters on everyone’s bar and in everyone’s drink.
Starting in 1824, the company originally produced their aromatic bitters to alleviate stomach ailments, but soon established their brand as an integral ingredient in the cocktail world.
Based on their island home of Trinidad, the brand is not only known for its ability to move with the times, but also for their authenticity and craftsmanship.
We talked to Mr Terrence Bharath, chairman of Angostura about sourcing local, the future of bitters, and of course, how their new cocoa bitters can be used in cocktails.
No matter where in the world you are, Angostura are the bitters on everyone's bar and in everyone's drink. Starting in 1824, the company originally produced their aromatic bitters to alleviate stomach ailments, but soon established their brand as an integral ingredient in the cocktail world. Based in their island home of Trinidad, the brand is not only known for its ability to move with the times, but also for their authenticity and craftsmanship. We talked to Mr. Terrence Bharath, chairman of Angostura about sourcing local, the future of bitters, and of course, how their new cocoa bitters can be used in cocktails.
Thank you for joining us, Terrence.
Thank you very much. Nice to be hearing from you out on that end of the pool.
Now, with aromatic and orange bitters already in the range, what made you decide to bring out the cocoa?
Well, that's an interesting question. It's always difficult to decide whether or not to go and make another incarnation of something that's worked so great for us for so long, but we are always cognisant of the taste and the requests, which are made worldwide for us to have different incarnations of a bitters. What we perceived was that we should incorporate something that was indigenous or local, I should say, to Trinidad and Tobago and its people, and something which in the past historically, brought great notoriety to Trinidad. So we sought to fuse the age of the bitters itself as an iconic brand, and then to marry that with a piece of produce in Trinidad that has been in existence for in excess of a hundred years.
Having done so, we decided that the best candidate would really be cocoa. And so, we decided that we should, about three years ago, begin testing a different incarnation of bitters, and that was the cocoa bitters, which culminated of course, in our launch in Trinidad and Tobago and worldwide just a few weeks ago.
What is so special about Trinidadian cocoa?
Yeah. Okay. That's a good question. Trinidad and Tobago, as the listening audience may or may not know, was part of a British colony, and at a particular point in its history, became the property of different European countries. In order to survive in the olden days, in the 1700s and the 1800s, we could only depend upon a crop that would produce something that the world would have used in one way or another. One of these crops, in those days, when Trinidad was more geared towards agriculture, was cocoa.
We had a difficulty in the 1800s, because the cocoa is not a plant that can handle various insects, and blights and weathering quite well. So although cocoa was used as a mainstay for Trinidad for its economy, we ended up in a position where it was nearly annihilated. And so, a British scientist that visited Trinidad and sought to graft or marry two different variants of the cocoa tree and created a tree called Trinitario.
Trinitario is quite special, in that it's a blend that creates longevity. It creates the ability to handle harshness, and it has one of the most, I guess, potent forms of the cocoa in terms of the taste and the refinement. So we were able over a period of more than a hundred years to refine that cocoa. And hence, the reason why we say that Trinidad cocoa is special.
So the cocoa itself has a much more refined and stronger taste than average cocoa?
Yes. Some of the entrepreneurs in Trinidad have embarked upon chocolate-making, and you would find a Trinitario cocoa in chocolates in Harrods. So it is coveted. It is a cocoa that is used in many exotic forms of chocolate, so it's something very special. I think there are few other incarnations of cocoa, but not many that can, I would use the word loosely, ‘saddle with us’, as we say in Trinidad
How important was using a plant that was locally sourced to Trinidad?
That's a good question again. Trinidad is an economy that's based on oil and gas, and it has been independent on oil and gas for a long time now. But as I think we've all been learning goes up the countries and islands that depend on oil and gas, Trinidad is one of the single islands in the Caribbean now that has the most independent oil and gas industry. What we've noticed with the coming of electric vehicles and the decrease in the demand for oil is even countries like Saudi Arabia, United States of America, the oil producing countries have found that the oil prices have dropped. And the government has started an initiative and its wisdom to have the agricultural sector reborn.
We had actually moved full circle from being agriculturally based. And then in the '70s, we then had a wealth of money from an oil boom, which continued for many, many years. But as we are seeing now, we need to get into other things besides oil. Not that oil is no longer one of our mainstays, it is, but obviously the necessity to move to other types of revenue is there. So what we will do at Angostura is to actually turn the cocoa industry into a money-making enterprise and foreign exchange. We trade in Trinidad and Tobago dollars here..
I imagine that to produce the bitters, your demand for cocoa would be quite high. Are you having to enlist new farmers to meet that demand?
Yes, and that's a great thing, because our cocoa industry had already dropped from its significance over a hundred years ago to as we see diminished in terms of the cocoa that the farmers depended on for living, so that this is a welcome foray into our cocoa bitters part of our industry, which would see some of the farmers being able to sell their cocoa products to Angostura. Of course, it has to go through a refinement process and so on, but certainly, it is a welcome addition to our agricultural sector.
How much cocoa is used in every bottle of the bitters?
If I tell you that, I'd be in big trouble. We actually are so careful with our bitter product that there's only one person who's allowed in a room, and that person is locked into that room to make the mixture for the bitters when we make it. That person has the key to the ingredients, and not even myself. I mean, even if you tortured me, I wouldn't even know how these things are made. It really has been kept highly secretive for a number of years. And the tradition has been passed on from key holders to the ingredients to another. So to be very honest with you, I do not as chairman even begin ask how that process occurs.
With the nutty cocoa as the top note, can you at least share with us what other botanicals people might detect in the bitters?
Well, we have a little bit of citrus, I can say that, and quite a few floral flavours in the bitters. Of course, bitters goes back to the days of Dr. Siegert when he concocted his ... Bitters was formed in the days when there was war, to ease stomach pains and so on, for the soldiers, when Dr. Siegert first started his concoction and most of those ingredients are still used today. So it really is a combination of different botanicals, floral botanicals, and some citrus notes. But the rest of it is by and large, secrets as I would say.
Now, when you were developing the bitters, did you do it in consultation with bartenders?
We did. So it was a combination. We actually had tasting sessions. Our master blender, who is highly known in the Caribbean, Carol Homer, would have looked at various blends, tried various blends, dealt with bartenders. But we would have been selective in the bartenders that we dealt with and very secretive as regards how we ended up with the end result.
It took a lot of trial and error. And of course, one of the things we were always very, very careful about is not to tamper too much with the original bitters formula, because that's the master that has gotten us to where we are today. We didn't want to go too radical away from the original bitters flavour, but yes, we did liaise with bartenders.
I realise there is a great deal of secrecy, but is there anything that you can tell us about the production method?
So what happens is we import our florals from around the world, and of course, we keep them with ... Even the importation of the florals comes with numbers. We have a special dispensation with our customs department in Trinidad not to disclose what those florals are. So when they arrive at our facility, it's marked with numbers, not with names.
And what we do essentially, is those florals are kept in highly secretive rooms. They're properly protected against any of the elements or otherwise. They're then taken into another room. And through there, a mixing process occurs. And then through a process of development, we then move from one stage to another. And we would send the liquid to another part of the factory, where it's actually bottled.
So when that liquid leaves the secret area, then it's revealed, and then it's bottled in another part. The operations are open to viewing when we have cruise ships and so on in town, but we don't let people into that bitters room. In fact, whenever we discussed as a board anything to do with bitters, we have to sign nondisclosure documents, very secret document.
Necessary though, I assume.
It is, because this is something which we hold very dearly to us and which has been kept a secret for so long. I think we don't want to get this out into the general public for anyone to have, what I would call, secret to bitters.
There are a number of other cocoa bitters on the market. What do you think makes yours different?
It's the fact that it's so old, and it has stood the test of time. We do have a warrant from the queen, which no other, bitters in the world has, the queen of England, of course. We do also have a warrant from the monarchy in Spain, I think.
And what makes us so special is that we have maintained the integrity of our product and maintained the taste and what really is the true test of whether we are the best or not is where you can find our bitters.
Recently before COVID, I was in one of the high-end hotels in Disney. And so, as I entered the bar there in one of the high-end hotels, what would greet me is a bottle of bitters. It's the universal language. If you go from Dubai to Europe, to China, to the Spanish-peaking countries in North America, to Canada, it's there.
So what makes us the is the bartenders use us, the high-end bartenders, the people use us, the consumers. So I guess it's true. It's true that the actual product speaks for itself, if you would ask me.
With the cocoa bitters specifically, what overall flavour will it add to the drink?
It depends on what you add it too. So for example, recently, we have been trying to get, which we have done successfully, a coffee chain in Trinidad. So it's been added to certain types of coffee, coffee on whole. It brings out the flavour in things like almonds, cashews, hazelnuts. You can add it to ice cream, tea, yogurts, dairy, chocolate dessert, and of course, cocktails.
So it's sort of like bitters itself. I don't know if you know that the original bitters products have been used by people with upset stomachs, with a half glass of soda water, or a warm glass of water and a few dashes of bitters. It settles an upset stomach or a hangover. It settles you when you have the flu. I don't want to see this because I'm the chairman, but I think it's a wonder product. I mean, it's so universally applied in different spheres. And the same goes for cocoa, of course. Yeah.
If someone buys a bottle, how would you recommend they use it?
Now that's interesting, because we have been experimenting with it, and of course, we have, which I've asked my team to share with you, a list of cocktails which we've created to make from bitters. But basically, the cocoa bitters, we use it whiskey, cognac, tequila. It's good to make espresso martinis. We've found that, as we say, it can be even used as a shot. Recently, I was at a venue, and somebody fill it in a shot glass and added some tequila to it and it was a brilliant shot.
It's something that you can experiment with, if I would like to say so, yeah.
Is there any particular spirit that you think works best with the cocoa bitters?
I think the espresso martini. That's the one which we've been having a lot of bites on in Trinidad. There's also another one that we've created called the Trinitario Mint Julep, and that requires 2oz seven-year-old rum, two spoons of super-fine sugar, eight fresh mint leaves, a splash of mineral water and five dashes of Angostura coca bitters. That's another favourite in Trinidad.
We have a list of cocktails, which we suggest could be used with the bitters. We have a Mamma Mia Mimosa, which you can take champagne, fresh, orange juice, and three dashes of Angostura orange bitters, some ice, and an orange wedge. So there are different incarnations where it could be used amongst different spirits.
What's your favourite drink to make with the cocoa bitters?
The espresso martini. Recently, I was at someone's house, and they had quite a few espresso martinis being made for the gathering. Of course, we're cognisant of COVID, which we have in Trinidad here as well, but it was an absolute hit. It's a light drink. It's a good talking piece. It looks pretty when you put the cocoa bean in the middle. It sits nicely, and it really is not a pungent drink. So it's almost like you get a kick at the end, but it gets you there slowly, but surely.
If people are experimenting with the cocoa bitters, what flavours do you think it works well with? I mean, you've alluded to it working well with coffee. What other flavours?
I tried it on vanilla ice cream, and it was fantastic. You may want to try it on yogurt, things that have like a nutty flavour, things that have an almond flavour. If you tried it with almond milk, for example. Even in cooking. It's been used in desserts, a number of desserts in Trinidad, people have been experimenting. So it's something that you could try in a dessert that uses cocoa or some kind of chocolate. It just gives an added flavour, a different variety of flavours, to the actual mixture.
Have bartenders been making cocktails especially for the bitters?
They have. Now, we have a problem in Trinidad right now, in that our government, in order to keep COVID down ... We were lucky in that Oxford University rated Trinidad and Tobago to be the second best in the world when COVID actually broke the first time and we got exceptionally high marks for the fact that the government closed the borders to Trinidad and Tobago very early on in pandemic.
And so, the government in that regard has been working feverishly to try and keep the COVID numbers down. And it is really down in Trinidad in terms of the mortality. But what has happened as a result of that, is they have asked for bars to be closed. So what we've been noticing is that our trade has moved from on trade to off trade.
I expect we will open, of course, as soon as a vaccine comes out and things ease a bit but for the time being, the concept of bar trade is ... it's a dream. So we really have not had bartenders making many incarnations of the cocktail.
What we've done is we've hosted a number of social media, I would like to say, cocktail conferences, where we give some tutorials on how to make the various incarnations of the cocoa bitters in drinks. And we did circulate in Trinidad, a number of gift boxes to influencers, with a booklet, with the method to make the drinks. So that way, we've taken the place of bartenders, by getting it to the public and telling the public, "DIY, do it yourself." Until we could get it out there. Yeah.
It must be an interesting time to launch a product right now.
That was a tossup for us. But you see, I think what we decided is why not now? Because people are home, and what we've noticed around the world, as you know, in over 140 countries, we have noticed that our demand has shifted from on trade to off trade. And people are buying bitters in a certain quantity.
We decided to launch it, because we thought, "Well, what else can you do now at home?" You can't go to the movies in Trinidad. In some parts of the world, bars are still close, and people are still very apprehensive about getting into the public domain again. So why not do it for persons at home?
And it has been a success. We've had great success. We've gotten into 1,200 Walmarts in the US.
... with a potential of 4,000 Walmarts next year. So we are getting onto the shelves. You know?
Is the release of the cocoa a sign that you will be releasing more bitters variants in the future?
We want to. We want to go with another variant, but one is always conscious that you can't rush it. It's like Coca-Cola. It's like Pepsi. Too many variants at times can spoil a good thing. So whilst we do have in the pipeline, another flavour, we don't want to get there to quickly. We want to see how cocoa bitters bites, and it's biting quite well and we think once we are satisfied with the way cocoa bitters bites, and we see how the demand goes, and whether there is room for more, we'll go again. Perhaps not as fast as the other competitors who are much, and I say so most respectfully, in the league of Angostura. So we're going to take it easy, but we'll get there.
Now, normally at this stage we would where the product is available. But I suppose with Angostura, it's more, where is it not available? Globally, you're in almost every country.
That's true. And in fact, recently, we will now moving to China. We're in the Middle East. We're in most countries. It's a widely recognised product, and we have tried as much as possible to get as much product out there. COVID being around, then it does present some obstacles with supply chain. But we have been conquering those obstacles, and getting our products out.
Terrance, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. And if people want more information, they can, of course, go to your website, which is angosturabitters.com. Thank you very much.
It was lovely speaking to you and have a pleasant morning. In Trinidad here now, it's 5:37, and it's still sunshine here. So thank you very much.