Correction to This Article
The Spirits column in the Jan. 20 Food section mistakenly attributed a statement to "The Bitter Truth's Jerry Thomas." In fact, the late Jerry Thomas was a 19th-century bartender for whom the company named one of its bitters. The statement, that these bitters would be a good substitute for Angostura, should have been attributed to the column's author, Jason Wilson. The error has been corrected below.

Spirits: The Angostura Bitters Shortage calls for creativity

Rum Manhattan
Rum Manhattan (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)
By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

At first I thought it was a joke: Angostura Bitters Shortage Shakes up Cocktail World. However, I kept seeing headlines from around the globe.

The Guardian of London: "Bitter pill to take!"

The Chinese news agency Xinhua: "Bitters shortage causes panic in New York bars."

The New York Post: "Manhattan cocktail faces bitter end."

By then it had sunk in. The cocktail world was facing a crisis of immense proportions, with tales of bars hoarding bitters, of distributors rationing three bottles per bar, of an emerging black market in Angostura.

Apparently, the shortage stems from a dispute between the House of Angostura in Trinidad and the company that supplies its bottles. Production was halted in November. A limited amount has resumed, but operation at full capacity isn't expected until next month. In an average year, sales of Angostura in the United States total about 750,000 four-ounce bottles, so the shortage has a wide-ranging effect.

Todd Thrasher of the Majestic, Restaurant Eve and PX in Alexandria confirmed last week that the Angostura shortage had been a topic of alarmed conversation among local bartenders. Thrasher couldn't find the bitters at any of his normal outlets. But Gina Chersevani at PS 7's saved the day, he said, tipping him off to a local kitchen wholesaler that still had a supply.

Now, maybe it's easy to have a chuckle over the Great Angostura Shortage of 2010, and maybe it sounds like something out of the Onion. But let's get serious for a moment: What will happen to our Manhattans if this crisis continues? I know my own bottle of bitters at home is getting pretty low.

Well, here are a few tips. First, do not forgo the bitters. Substitute, if you must, with something like Fee Brothers aromatic bitters or, better yet, its slightly pricier whiskey-barrel-aged bitters. Also, I'm told that, at long last, the Bitter Truth brand bitters from Germany will be available in Washington. The Bitter Truth's Jerry Thomas bitters would be a good substitute for Angostura in most drinks.

The other option, of course, is to switch to an alternative cocktail. Plenty of Manhattan variations are made with other bitters. For instance, there's the Red Hook, which calls for rye whiskey, Punt e Mes and a dash of maraschino liqueur. The Manhattan Bianco contains equal parts bourbon and bianco vermouth (which is different from dry vermouth).

You also can switch out the whiskey entirely and turn to a Rum Manhattan, which may be the Cocktail of the Moment. Now, I'm not totally sure I buy into all the overheated chatter that some of my fellow drinks journalists and bloggers are heaping on rum. If you've missed it: Everybody in the know is drinking rum.

Of course, four months ago everybody was drinking mezcal, and nine months ago everybody was drinking rye whiskey. So you're forgiven if, like me, you have trouble keeping up. Anyway, I e-mailed Wayne Curtis, rum expert and author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails," to get his thoughts.

"I think the hype is both push and pull," he wrote back. "The trend monster needs to be fed, and it has finally turned its gaze to rum, because most other liquors have already been sucked down and burped up. Anything with the word 'rum' in it will command attention for the moment."

Still, as Curtis points out, "a lot of great rums are coming on the market, and it's hard not to notice." True enough. There probably has never been a better time in America for rum enthusiasts than right now. In just the past few months, I've seen, among others, the launches of: a high-proof Jamaican rum called Smith & Cross; the affordable Chairman's Reserve from St. Lucia; and the Plantation Rum Collection, a series of "vintage rums" from Barbados, Guyana, Nicaragua and elsewhere that are barrel-aged at Cognac Ferrand in France.

As for the Rum Manhattan's variations, some call for a molasses-based aged rum such as Mount Gay Extra Old or Pampero Aniversario, while others call for rhum agricole. They take either Angostura bitters or orange bitters.

Because I would like to meet the Angostura crisis head-on, I offer a recipe from Derek Brown, bartender at the Passenger. Just trying to do my part to alleviate the angst.

Remember, there are much bigger problems in the world.


Derek Brown's Rum Manhattan

Wilson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at

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