31 December 2009
ANGOSTURA EXTRA BITTER IN BANK CRASH
THE STATION HOTEL, KUALA LUMPUR, TODAY
Cocktail Shakers Tremble Horrors Securing Stocks Tiny Trinidad Saves World
by PHILIP WHITE - A version of this appeared in The Independent Weekly
A ripple of horror recently swept the cocktail bars of Earth. The sudden disappearance of all the money had one unforseen effect: the Angostura Bitters company went bust. Sharp sommeliers and betuxed shakers everywhere suddenly struggled to secure the last stocks of an ingredient which they’d always taken for granted.
Johann Siegert, Bolivar’s surgeon-general in Angostura, on the Orinoco in Venezuela, invented this efficacious and astringent tonic in 1824. All too aware of the savagery jungle diseases
SIMON BOLIVAR ADDRESSES THE CONFERENCE OF ANGOSTURA, 1819
wrought to wounded troops, he worked desperately to find a blend of local herbs and plants that would ease the pain of nearly everything. His rum-based aromatic bitters was the result. His sons eventually took the factory to Trinidad, which was more politically stable. But, like the Australian wine business, it was entrepreneurs’ greed, and not rogue dictators that eventually brought the company to its knees.
Appropriately, your correspondent first collided with Angostura in the tropics. During a stay in the Station Hotel, Kuala Lumpur, in 1970, he revered the bamboo Lounge on the first floor, where corpulent Englishmen with linen safari suits and tobacco-stained moustaches sat in the gloom, reading six week old copies of The Times, drinking Pink Gins. This is a simple concoction to build: simply swirl a short glass with a few dashes of Angostura and tip in two shots of Plymouth gin. Some add water; if one adds an ice block it becomes a Coaster Cocktail.
The Bamboo Lounge was an astonishing room from a past era: the furniture was of course bamboo; punkah wallahs stirred the air, circulating the cigar smoke; an unwatched black and white television broadcast snow and white noise through three layers of sub-titles, and if, betwixt bouts of snoring, one engaged another in conversation, it became apparent that none of the said gentlemen had ever set foot in England.
RAILWAY STATION, KL, TODAY; IN 1970 IT WAS TRAINS BELOW; BEDS AND BAMBOO LOUNGE UPSTAIRS
Weather like we’re enduring tends to sway the thirsty ginwards, and this writer finds intense pleasure playing with cocktails based on the savoury juniper-steeped spirit. There are countless gin-based cocktails in the two true mixmaster bibles: The Savoy Cocktail Book, compiled in London in 1930 by Harry Craddock, the Savoy Hotel’s cocktailor, and Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, by Harry MacElhone, in Ciro’s Club in London in 1919. Harry went on to take over Clancey’s New York Bar at 5 rou Danou in the Opera district of Paris, eventually renaming it Harry’s New York Bar.
This tiny cathedral to the maintenance and destruction of thirst is as evocative and atmospheric as the long-gone Bamboo Bar. A battered red pair of what purport to Hemingway’s boxing gloves hang above France’s first hot dog machine; downstairs resides the battered piano at which Gershwin wrote American in Paris; the air is steep and dark with the ghosts of regulars like the Duke of Windsor, Jack Dempsey, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott and Zelda, Dietrich, Coward, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Prevert, and other great brains like Janet Flanner, who famously wrote of Hotboy Hemingway “what stands out in my memory is the fact that his heroes, like Ernest himself, were of outsized masculinity even in small matters”.
ERNIE ENGAGES IN THE SMALL MATTER OF BOXING HIMSELF
The Bloody Mary, the Sidecar, the Blue Lagoon and the White Lady were all invented in Harry’s Bar. And one pertinent to our vicious summer: the Champagne Cocktail. This is a wine glass into which is put a sugar cube saturated in Angostura Bitters. Add five dashes of Cognac and an ice block, fill it with champagne, and squeeze some lemon zest over the top.
The forerunner to this fizzy wickedness was Harry Craddock’s Champagne Cup. In a big jug, mix a tablespoon of confectioner’s sugar, one glass of Cognac, two liqueur glasses of Curacao, one liqueur glass of maraschino, one liqueur glass of Grand Marnier with a quart of champagne. Add big ice, slices of orange and pineapple, a slice or two of cucumber peel and three or four sprigs of mint: glug glug.
Craddock’s Essence of Claret Punch is a long recipe which commences with “5 gallons of Claret; 2 ½ gallons Spirits ... ”, and goes on into a hole which best explored in the chill of winter. But, having been highly impressed by the new Lobo Adelaide Hills Apple Cider, I have discovered it perfectly suits Craddock’s Cider Cup No. 1. Into a jug, pour one liqueur glass of maraschino; one of curacao; one of cognac; three stubbies of Lobo cider; one of soda water; big ice and slices of apple, pear and orange; stir gently and serve.
Sangria is also good in summer: a bottle of red, maybe half a bottle of sauvignon blanc, a cup of brandy, a bottle of soda, half a cup of confectioner’s sugar, slices of orange, cucumber, apple, maybe fresh ginger, and big ice.
If any of these induce hiccups, MacElhone’s cure never fails: souse a slice of lime in Angostura and suck.
As if to show Barak Obama some financial perspective, the Trinidad government bailed out the bitters company. Whew.
MODERN VERSION OF THE OLD-FASHIONED COCKTAIL - HARRY MacELHONE ORIGINALLY SATURATED A LUMP OF SUGAR WITH BITTERS, CRUSHED THAT IN A SPOONFUL OF WATER, ADDED BIG ICE AND A DOUBLE SHOT OF BOURBON, GARNISHED WITH LEMON PEEL