Liquor companies’ number one job is to produce liquor. Their number two job is to then sell it. They accomplish this in myriad, predictable ways: advertising, hand-selling at liquor stores and bars, trade show appearances, promotional swag.
One of the quainter ways booze-makers peddle their fare is through instructional material, primarily recipes. Sometimes these take the form of handy-dandy little recipe booklets tied to the neck of the bottle, but more often they appear as back-label formulas. Turn over a bottle of Aperol and you have their famous 3-2-1 spritz recipe. Do the same to a bottle of Cynar and you learn about the Cynar & Cola and the Cynar Manhattan.
Perhaps no cocktail product in the world offers more aggressive recipe assault on the consumer than Angostura bitters, the venerable—and indispensable—aromatic bitters brand produced in Trinidad and Tobago. Part of the reason for this is Angostura’s iconic oversized label. You can fit a lot of tiny type on that large cylinder of white paper, and Angostura does, including recipes for both food and drink. (Many stories have been trotted out to explain the jumbo label. The most common is a left-hand-doesn’t-know-what-right-hand-is-doing tale that has one son of founder Dr. Johann Siegert designing the bottle, while another son designed the label.)
I got to thinking about those recipes one recent evening when, while waiting for a bartender to prepare my order, my line of sight was blocked by one of the enormous bottles of Angostura you sometimes see in busier bars. Like a bored breakfaster who starts reading the fine print on the back of the Frosted Flakes box, I began to peruse the label. All these years as a faithful Angostura customer, and I had never truly absorbed the whack-job, world-unto-itself word mosaic that is the brand’s packaging. The mini-history, the British Royal Warrant, the reproduction of old Doc Siegert’s signature, the kosher certification and, of course, the recipes.
According to the company, the bitters are well-suited to cooked fruit; canned fruit; pies, including pumpkin, mince and apple; salads of all kinds; and various “canned or frozen” fish chowders, bisques and chicken soup. It all smacks of the convenience-obsessed, Betty Crocker cooking of midcentury America. Canned fruit? I couldn’t remember the last time I had bought canned fruit, or if I had ever bought it.
Where did these recipes come from? Most old and iconic liquor brands know little about their own histories and don’t seem interested in finding out. But Angostura has a reputation for being even more opaque than most outfits. Sure enough, the brand manager I finally reached (who asked not be quoted by name) did not know who created the recipes, or when.
Research, however, revealed that Angostura had been banging the kitchen drum for decades. The company published The Secret of Good Taste: The Angostura Cookbook in 1958. By the early 1960s, recipes popped up on the label, and news articles followed. The Tucson Citizen’s Woman’s Editor (that was indeed a title then) in 1961 asked, “Have you put a bottle of Angostura bitters on your spice shelf?” and recommended dashing it into everything from rice to something called Trinidad Frankfurter Skillet; a 1972 piece in the Appleton Post-Crescent suggested it as a way to liven up vegetables; and a 1982 article in New Jersey’s Courier-News touted the “horrible-tasting brown fluid” as an all-out substitute for salt. (One suspects some of these articles were written in exchange for Angostura advertising.)
“I came across a number of little pamphlets and advertisements from the mid-twentieth century filled with food recipes—stews, aspics, soups, gravies, ice cream toppings—using Angostura, squarely aimed at housewives,” said Brad Thomas Parsons, author of the book Bitters. “There are Angostura-branded food recipe books [and] pamphlets that date back to the 1920s and 1930s as well.”
Being fatally curious, I tested all the food recipes. I can only unreservedly recommend adding a few dashes to your salad dressing, where the bitters do, indeed, contribute a certain zip. (I discovered only one compatriot in curiosity: Joaquín Simó, owner of the cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons, regularly adds a few drops to his fruit pies.)
Based on old labels I’ve seen from the 1960s, the food recipes have changed little over the years. The drink recipes are a different story. But Angostura likewise offered no help pinpointing when cocktail recipes first appeared on the label, or who devised them. That unnamable brand manager could only say that the brand had worked with numerous bartenders and chefs over the years.
Based on images of old bottles, the straight-ahead Manhattan seems to have always been there. But in the ‘60s, a Whisky On-The-Rocks With Angostura was touted. (“It’s really a streamlined Old Fashioned,” the copy crowed.) The Gin & Tonic was previously in the mix back then, too. And in the ‘70s, the Old-Fashioned appeared, although, for reasons unknown, it calls for a miserly one-and-a-half ounces of whiskey. Also from that era were “Thirst Quenchers,” which were nothing more than orange or grapefruit juice with Angostura accents, although you were advised to add rum or vodka “if desired.” (That’s a yes.)
Today, the label features more recipes than ever. In addition to the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan, there are three others. The non-alcoholic Southampton is merely a glass of tonic water served over ice, with a lime wedge and a couple dashes of bitters in it. I’ve enjoyed this often, without ever giving it a name.
Less familiar to me was the Trinidad & Tobago Rum Punch, a simple tiki creation that called for one-and-a-half ounces “Trinidad rum,” one-and-a-half ounces lemon juice, a half-ounce grenadine and two dashes bitters, served over crushed ice. Tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry had never heard of it, but noted that, in the 1920s and ‘30s, Angostura marketed Carypton, essentially a bottled rum punch. With only a half-ounce of grenadine to sweeten it, the punch was too tart. After I added a half-ounce of simple syrup, it returned to palatability, but it was still a pitiably simple punch.
The biggest curiosity, among many curiosities, was actually the Angostura recipe for the Daiquiri. After the two ounces Angostura 1919 rum, it called for one ounce “fresh sweet & sour.” (Back in the day, this sort of thing wasn’t uncommon in bars, but it was weird that, in 2017, Angostura is still calling for it.) I found a recipe on Epicurious: one part sugar, one part water, one part lemon, half part lime. Tasted fine. But the Angostura recipe kept going, calling for an additional two ounces simple syrup. Let me repeat that: two ounces simple syrup. Surely that must be a typo.
I went back to the brand manager. They noted the current Daiquiri recipe on the Angostura website called for only one-and-a-half ounces simple syrup. Only. The cocktail was the cavity-rattling sugar bomb I expected, and the taste of the bitters was lost in all that sugar.
So that’s, what, about a .500 batting average on the recipes? That’s a bit of a slipshod performance for such an iconic product. Aside from the secret recipe for the bitters itself, nothing about Angostura is more iconic than that label. What’s on it should matter. But I suppose with a company that’s nearly 200 years old, some things are bound to get lost in the mist.