The Not-So Bitter Fate of Bitters
I was Christmas shopping in Portland in December, when a clerk in a liquor store, responding to my innocent query, said some of the most frightening words I’ve ever heard.
“We don’t have any Angostura bitters,” he told me. “We can’t get them.”
My wife and I use a lot of Angostura.
Comparatively speaking. One of those little four-ounce bottles lasts us six months, sometimes less.
We like Manhattans, and it’s impossible to make a good one without a healthy dash of Angostura. (My recipe: three ounces of Maker’s Mark bourbon, one ounce of sweet vermouth – don’t use the cheap stuff – and a dash of Angostura combined over ice in a shaker, strained into a martini glass and garnished with a fresh cherry.) I was facing the possibility that sometime in the depths of winter 2010, my supply would be exhausted.
Angostura is manufactured in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, where, the clerk told us after consulting his computer, the company has been beset by financial problems that had all but halted production.
We postponed further Christmas shopping, instead racing around town in a desperate quest for the stuff. We were fortunate to locate a store with two industrial-size eighteen-ounce bottles. We bought them both. By my calculations, they’ll last us about four and a half years, after which looms a bleak and bitter-less future much like that depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.”
Only without the cannibalism.
I suppose you (and my editor) are wondering what this impending cocktail tragedy has to do with Maine, since neither Angostura nor Cormac McCarthy are based here. I’m pleased to report there is a connection, one that bodes well for a future in which I will not be forced to wander the land, heavily armed, in search of civilization’s remaining supply of that singular herbal additive so necessary to a proper Manhattan.
I admit the connection of these events to Maine is as tenuous as a child’s life in the forlorn wasteland of “The Road.” But tenuous is an improvement over fictional, which is the usual way I work unrelated stuff into this weekly posting.
It turns out that Angostura International Ltd. owns a company called World Harbors, which is based in Auburn, which is definitely in Maine. World Harbors makes sauces, although none you’d want to put in a Manhattan or any other drink. They’re more for barbeques and marinades and such. But that’s besides the point, which is:
Mizkan plans to expand production and distribution of World Harbors products, which I’m sure is wonderful news to people who like sauces, but what’s far more significant is that the sale brings financial stability to the bitters end of the business. By the time 2014 rolls around, and my cache of Angostura (stored in an underground bunker protected by satellite surveillance, lasers and Doberman pinschers) has dwindled to a few drops, new rations should be readily available.
That certainly reduces my stress level, which is a good thing, because according to the Associated Press’ monthly survey of economic stress in every county in the United States, Maine’s rate is going up.
In November, this state scored an economic-stress factor of 8.79, a small increase over October’s 8.48. That jump can probably be attributed to a growing awareness among the populace of the shortage of Angostura bitters. Also, to rising unemployment. And the release of the movie version of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
To put these figures in perspective, the average score for all U.S. counties was 10.2, which means that either we in Maine are not as bad off as we thought we were or that somebody scared people in other places with the bitters shortage before we found out.
On a positive note, the AP says economic stress isn’t serious until the rating reaches eleven or more, a figure currently being achieved by thirty-nine percent of people who have seen “The Road.”
Even if all that stress gets to you, that might not be that bad. Well, it’d probably be bad for you, stress being a major factor in all sorts of health-related problems such as chronic bitterness (we could have gone to see “Avatar,” but no, you just had to drag us to “The Road,” so now we’re all depressed). Nevertheless, your stress could have benefits for the rest of us who’ve had the good sense to ease up and pour ourselves a nice Manhattan. Here’s why.
Maine Rural Partners – an organization apparently composed of human beings, farm animals and wild beasts – has released a report that shows how heavily stressed individuals can help their communities.
This results in two positive outcomes. First, it rids towns of grumpy people. And second, it can produce a financial windfall for the municipality.
All your town has to do is convince all your stressed, cantankerous citizens to include a bequest in their wills to an endowment set up to fund important local projects that will enhance economic development (such as a factory that makes Angostura bitters). Pilot projects are already underway in Rockport, Unity, and Strong, three towns that were chosen apparently because they have a higher-than-average population of cranky senior citizens. A similar program in Montana generated more than $100 million, and everybody says that state’s attitude has improved immeasurably. Possibly because they spent most of it on bourbon.
Speaking of which, it seems to me that it would be a public service to provide an alternative cocktail recipe for Manhattan drinkers who may have to endure a hiatus while bitters production gears back up. Here’s a concoction of my own devising called the Hard Bop and Honkytonk.
To a shaker with ice, add 2 ounces of bourbon (Old Granddad works well), 2 ounces of applejack (Laird’s 80 proof, although otherwise undrinkable, is fine for this, but if you happen on Laird’s bonded 100 proof, don’t waste it on a mixed drink, serve it neat), half an ounce of sweet vermouth and two large dashes of orange bitters (you may have trouble finding Angostura’s version, but there are plenty of other brands – I use Stirrings blood orange, which has the advantage of being much cheaper, and the word “blood” in the name creeps people out). Shake and strain into two martini glasses. Garnish with twists of orange peel.
On an extra cold night, this drink works nicely if you skip the ice, and sip it at room temperature in front of the fire.
Or you could watch a DVD. I don’t think “The Road” will be out for a while, but there’s always “Bitter Victory,” “Bitter Moon” or the documentary “The Story of Bitterroot.”
Al Diamon is still bitter and depressed about the way the New England Patriots’ season ended, but will occasionally rouse himself from his torpor to read e-mails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.