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THE TIPSY TAILENDER

Bring on the bitters

SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY

Bitters are fast making a comeback to cocktails



MIX AND MATCH Jovial King, the founder of Urban Moonshine, and Angostura bitters

Did you as a child had no great liking for bitter gourd? Well, we are in the same boat then. In fact, my childhood story had one more bitter-ing agent to make living a torture — neem leaves. Every Saturday morning, my mother would make rice balls mixed with fried-and-crushed neem leaves and if I was plain lucky, only one would come my way. I was told the weekend exercise was to help digestion of food. Well, why the digestion machine in the tummy needed external support, that too bitters, to function fine was baffling to the child in me then, though in adulthood I could see the efficacy of that homemade remedy.

Based on the same idea, that bitter is a master digestive, was born the famed Angostura bitters in the early 19th Century in Venezuela. A German physician thought it up as a panacea for stomach ailments and seasickness in sailors and named it after the Venezuelan town, Angostura. The concoction, made of herbs the driving agent being gentian roots, was a hit, leading the doctor to open the company, The House of Angostura, and it began to be exported to other parts of Europe, mainly as a medicine for sicken sailors.

No one quite knows how and when exactly Angostura found its way into one's drink but when it did, it fast became a norm as a digestive agent in a mixed drink. And the House of Angostura, which still keeps its formula a secret, made a killing and continues to do so worldwide. The company's accomplished past included the fact that the product was allowed by the then King of Prussia and Spain and King George V of England to publicise that the company has got the royal warrant of appointment, meaning it has been chosen as the supplier to the royalty.

As time wore on, more and more bitters came to the market and began to be used in cocktails as apertifs and digestifs. So cocktails like Pink Gin, Manhattan, Sazerac, Americano and whiskey cocktails were invented and their fame travelled far and wide. Even in far away Raj-ruled India, gin and tonic — a kind of bitters, became an all-time favourite afternoon drink.

However, with the arrival of newer mixing and flavouring agents tailor-made for cocktails, particularly the sweetened ones, along came a time when bitters gradually were cleared off the bar counters. And now, after generations, bartenders across the world are beginning to rave yet again about what a dash of bitters can do to a drink. Stocking a wide variety of bitters to jazz up cocktails has now clearly blown into an international trend. According to the 2011 cocktail trends in well-known food sites like www.culinarytravel.about.com, bartenders would not only promote the traditional bitters but would concoct their own bitters. To have an idea about how much the bitters market has developed in the West, you can look at niche products like organic bitters brands Urban Moonshine which has varieties like maple, citrus and immunity enhancing bitters.

Seas away in India, such a thing to happen would certainly take time but bartenders here are definitely clued in to the international trend. Maxime Grivele, one of the very few foreign bartenders in the country, is trying to promote the idea here. “Worldwide, bitters are in, so I am trying to include some in my cocktails here, such as the American bitters Fee Brothers,” he says. Maxime is in the process of overhauling the menu at the Ricks bar in The Taj Mahal Hotel here and bitters would definitely play a big role.


Nikesh Lamba, bar manager at WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi, too is all for meeting the global trend and going beyond Angostura, still the usual suspect when it comes to flavouring cocktails in Indian bars. “However, only four or five bitters are available in India presently, I wish we can bring more and more variety here to concoct newer cocktails,” he says. At WelcomHotel Sheraton New Delhi, he usually stocks Bittermens & The Bitter Truth Bitters, Regans' Orange Bitters No.6, Peychaud's Bitters and Fee Brothers.

There, however, are some players waiting and watching how the trend pans out here. A spokesperson for Hilton, Janakpuri, New Delhi, says it stocks only the popular bitters like Angostura, Campari, etc. With the world progressively getting smaller in terms of spread of news and newer ideas, it is a matter of time when bitters like Amargo Chunhco, The Bitter End and Hermes would sniff their way into our bars and become popular.

Meanwhile, those who suffered bitter gourds and neem leaves in childhood, let's wallow in the times that were.

(sangeetab@thehindu.co.in)

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