Every time I see the Trinidad Sour creep onto a cocktail menu, I think of a song about the Chelsea Hotel. A locus for countless musicians, artists and writers over the decades, the hotel is an icon of New York weird, and in Alejandro Escovedo’s “Chelsea Hotel ’78,” the chorus consists of Escovedo and his backup singers yelling back and forth, “And it makes no sense! And it makes perfect sense! And it makes no sense! And it makes perfect sense!”
That’s the Trinidad Sour, a cocktail that has as its base spirit not gin, not rye, but aromatic bitters: Angostura, specifically, with its perky yellow cap and oversize-David-Byrne-suit label.
Like other cocktail bitters, gentian-based Angostura is usually doled out in dashes and is classified as “non-potable.” Legally, that means that though Angostura is nearly 45 percent alcohol, even places that can’t sell liquor can sell it; no one in their right palate is going to drink the stuff straight.
“If I extracted whatever the active chemicals and bittering agents are out of gentian, and I concentrated them down into something super potent, and I fixed you a cocktail that was made of half that, there’s no soul on earth that would drink that,” says Paul Breslin, a geneticist and professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University and a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.
Yet that’s almost what the Trinidad Sour is: The drink measures 3¾ ounces pre-ice shake (which adds dilution), and more than a third of it is those spicy, complex bitters. It makes no sense.
And yet, put that 1½ ounces against orgeat, lemon and a nip of rye, and, in a Philip Petit-esque act of balancing, it makes perfect sense.
The drink has been weirding people out since Giuseppe Gonzalez — then head bartender at the Clover Club in Brooklyn — came up with it in 2009 for a cocktail competition. “I broke it down, I made it for the . . . judges, and I lost,” Gonzalez says, still amused. He’d won many other such contests, but the time he invented an oddball that, six years later, still turns up on cocktail menus around the world, he lost.
“I always joke around with people, like, ‘What was the winning cocktail?’ Nobody remembers.”
Now the owner of the long-anticipated Suffolk Arms, scheduled to open in the Lower East Side in late October, Gonzalez says the timing was bad for his concoction: “In 2009 we had the Angostura shortage,” so even though his boss, Julie Reiner, liked the drink, she didn’t want it on the menu. “She was like, ‘No one’s going to order it, and if they do, we make two of them and then we’re out of Angostura for the next month.’ ”
But Gonzalez started making it for bartender friends, and its reputation spread. He thinks bartenders like it because it startles even experienced cocktail drinkers: “When you pop off the cap of the Angostura and they see you pour a quarter-ounce, half-ounce, ounce and a half — no one’s ever seen an ounce and a half of bitters in a jigger. . . . Even if you’re a bartender, you’re like, ‘Are you sure we’re supposed to do this?’ ”
The Trinidad Sour lurks at the opposite end of the spectrum from bland “get drunk” drinks like the vodka-soda. With a Trinidad Sour, you will taste it and taste it, and — unless you eat a very flavorful meal — keep tasting it for some time. The Angostura sets up camp in your mouth, taking arms against whatever gustatory onslaught you send in to clear it out. The drink’s appeal is not just its dark-side-of-a-spice-cookie flavor, but also its color; the Angostura makes for a drink that’s a deep, rusty red, like the curtains of a faded bordello.
It may still be a drink with a limited audience. In part because bitterness is often associated with toxicity, Breslin says, people have to learn to appreciate it. As a culture, Americans do not generally believe that bitter is better. The Italians may lead the pack, consuming bitter greens and espresso with gusto, but, he notes, such appreciation must be taught: “The people who eat bitter things are those who are taught by the culture, by their parents, by experience, that other people eat these things and they’re okay, so I can eat these things and it’s okay.”
We may never catch up with the culture that invented fernet, but we’re making progress. Breslin notes the shift in beer. “One of the things I’ve seen happen in the last decade is that people go into this super-crazy bitter, triple-hopped, curl-your-toes-it’s-so-bitter beers,” he says. “It’s probably a niche market who go for this kind of thing. To me it seems like the same type of thing as people who try to see how many Scotch bonnets they can eat.”
To me, the Trinidad Sour, due to the way the bitters work with the other ingredients, is a more balanced drink than some recent IPAs, where the hop has gone over the top. The drink doesn’t taste that bitter, and it’s unlikely to have newbies squinting their faces in a way worthy of “First Fernet” or “Malort Face” Internet memes, though its pungency may well remind the drinker that bitters originally were used medicinally.
“I remember the first time I made the drink for Sasha, way back,” Gonzalez says, referring to Sasha Petraske, beloved founder of the New York bar Milk & Honey, whose recent death caused an outpouring of grief in the cocktail world. “It was one of the few times he ever made a joke. He was like, ‘One and a half ounces? That’ll make you sterile.’ And we started laughing. And then I started thinking to myself — wait, will it make me sterile?”
It probably won’t make you sterile.
But Breslin points out that one of the traditional uses of gentian was as a vermifuge — an intestinal-parasite killer: “Maybe it’s good for humans to de-worm themselves once in a while.”
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears regularly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this recipe gave an incorrect amount of bitters. It is 3 ounces (for 2 servings), not 1 1/2 ounces.
This oddball cocktail, conceived by Giuseppe Gonzalez while he was at the celebrated Clover Club in Brooklyn, sounds a little frightening: that much Angostura bitters? But with the balance brought by the orgeat and lemon, it’s delicious (though it might remind you of the medicinal origins of bitters).
If you wish to add a frothy, creamy note, include the egg white. If you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, use a pasteurized egg white.
Orgeat is an almond-flavored syrup. You can make it yourself (see the related recipe); seek out a craft-made orgeat, such as the one made by and available via SmallHandFoods.com; or use one of the widely available brands, such as Fee Brothers or Torani.
Adapted from Giuseppe Gonzalez, owner of the Suffolk Arms in New York.
3 ounces Angostura bitters
2 ounces orgeat (see related recipe and headnote)
11/2 ounces fresh lemon juice
1 ounce rye whiskey
1 large egg white (optional; see headnote)
If you’re not using an egg white: Fill a cocktail shaker with the ice, then add the bitters, orgeat, lemon juice and rye whiskey. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then divide evenly between two cocktail coupes.
If you’re using an egg white, combine the bitters, orgeat, lemon juice, rye whiskey and egg in a cocktail shaker; seal and perform a vigorous “dry shake” for 30 seconds, then add the ice. Shake again for 30 seconds, then divide evenly between two cocktail coupes.
Nutrition | Per serving: 240 calories, 0 g protein, 30 g carbohydrates, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 0 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 29 g sugar
Recipe tested by M. Carrie Allan; e-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org