In most of the Caribbean, visiting a rum distillery is easy. Islands like Barbados, Jamaica, and Martinique have many rum companies that offer in-depth tours, and in some cases even arrange to pick up tourists seeking to see how rum is made. Distilleries also offer multiple daily tours, and signing up for one is simple.
In Trinidad the situation is different; the island relies very little on tourism and receives few visitors compared to other places in the region. As such, there are not many activities targeted exclusively towards tourists. Visiting the island’s only rum distillery involves some pre-planning. It requires contacting the distillery and making arrangements for a personal tour, or finding a group that has already organized a tour and asking to join. It is certainly worth the extra effort however, because this distillery is the House of Angostura, known for their range of rums but far more famous for their eponymous brand of cocktail bitters.
Developed by Johann Siegert in 1824, Angostura Aromatic Bitters is a staple in the world of mixology and the de facto brand of bitters for the majority of cocktail bars across the world. Novice bartenders use it while mastering the classics like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan cocktail, while the creators of craft cocktails incorporate it into award winning libations at competitions like The Global Cocktail Challenge.
Approaching from a distance, the distillery can be identified by the towering distillation columns against the backdrop of the Northern Range, the tallest mountains on the island. Even closer to the Angostura compound are rum shops bedecked in the branding for popular local white rums like White Oak and Forres Park.
On the short walk from the car park to the entrance of the Angostura office building, the air is rich with the unmistakable aroma of Angostura Bitters. Inside this building is the Angostura Museum, which houses exhibits related to both the story of the company, and the history of rum in Trinidad. In the first room, there are several artefacts from the Venezuelan War for Independence. Siegert served as the Surgeon General in the army of Simón Bolívar during this war, and was stationed in the town of Angostura on the delta of the Orinoco River. While there, he perfected his medicinal tonic and after the war he began selling it as Angostura Amargo Aromatico. Exhibits from this era include a model of an early sailing vessel used to ship bitters, nineteenth century surgical tools, and a fully restored cannon from the war.
Older Angostura products are also on display. These include bottles of discontinued rum, as well as gin, liqueurs, and even sauces. Among the bottles, are several bearing the name Fernandes on the label instead of Angostura. The Fernandes Rum Company was founded by a Portuguese rum blender who left Madeira for Trinidad along with several of his countrymen in the late eighteen hundreds. Successive generations of his family grew the enterprise from a collection of rum shops to one of the largest distilleries in the southern Caribbean. The company would eventually be acquired by Angostura, and some of their products are still produced and are among the most popular local rums in Trinidad and Tobago.
There is also a plaque acknowledging Angostura Bitters as the recipient of a Royal Warrant of Appointment. This is a mark of recognition for institutions that supply goods or services to the British Royal Household. A Royal Warrant of Appointment has been issued to Angostura since 1912.
Everyone is then taken to the room where the Angostura Bitters is prepared. Photography is not allowed, but the process is described in detail. In an area over this room, the handful of people who know the secret formula crush the ingredients and then send them down a chute to blending vats below. They are then steeped in alcohol according to the recipe set by Siegert two hundred years ago, blended, and sent to the bottling line.
After the tour, guests are taken to another room for a rum tasting conducted by Angostura’s Master Distiller John Georges. Georges has been involved in aspects of rum distillation and blending for almost forty years, and is one of the figures responsible for Angostura’s shift towards more premium rum releases. He begins with two samples of fresh distillate straight from the still. The light rum has notes of lime zest and olive brine with a crisp character that’s close to vodka. The heavy rum is far more flavorful and it feels less thin. It has hints of marshmallow and icing sugar, and is reminiscent of the white rum from Saint Nicholas Abbey in Barbados.
Following this primer, some Angostura Seven Year Old Rum is poured. This rum is essentially the previously tasted liquid after it has been blended, aged and then proofed down before bottling. The time spent in oak casks gives the rum the color and aroma of brown sugar. Notes of lime zest and icing sugar that was present in the unaged distillate has now matured into marmalade and molasses. As these three spirits are sampled, the Master Distiller describes aspects of Angostura’s distillation, ageing, and blending processes, and their general approach to rum making.
The tasting then continues to Angostura 1919. This rum is a tribute to an old Fernandes product of the same name. In 1932, the company purchased several barrels from the Port of Spain rum bond following a fire that destroyed the building. Casks of rum all from the year 1919 were blended, bottled and sold under the name of the year that the rum was put into barrels. Angostura’s version of 1919 rum is made following the same principles that Fernandes followed when blending rum. The rum is light and floral with notes of mango blossoms and toasted coconut.
The next rum is also named for a date that honors a significant event in the local rum industry. Angostura 1787 commemorates the establishment of the island’s first sugarmill. The sugar and rum industry was non-existent in Trinidad and other Spanish colonies until the end of the eighteenth century. This was a relatively late start compared to other islands like Barbados that had rum making traditions that could be traced to the sixteen hundreds. The Spanish Caribbean did not have the long legacies of rum making that other islands had, and opted to embrace modern fermentation and distillation techniques while focusing heavy on oak ageing. Angostura 1787 is a premium rum in this tradition. The rich profile does not come from a pot still, but rather from column still rum aged for a long time; in this case fifteen years in the Caribbean island closest to the equator. There are well integrated notes of fresh sawdust, wood varnish, and smoke that all present themselves over a long finish.
At the conclusion of the tasting, participants head to the bar area for a cocktail display conducted by Raymond Edwards, Angostura’s Chief Mixologist. Edwards has done similar presentations at international mixology conferences like Bar Convent Brooklyn and Tales of the Cocktail.
Today’s discussion is on a cocktail called the Queen’s Park Swizzle. Swizzles are a category of cocktail named for the type of stick, and the method of spinning that stick to mix the ingredients. In an era often referred to as the Golden Age of the Caribbean cocktail, hotel bars all across the region served citrus based swizzles, and the Queen’s Park Swizzle was the most lauded of them all. In the 1930s, royalty and rich jet setters first enjoyed this refreshing beverage from the verandah of the Queen’s Park Hotel in Port of Spain while watching Polo matches and horse races.
Edwards describes the intricacies of making this drink by putting together Angostura Bitters and rum with fresh mint leaves and lime juice. The entire experience is immersive, with guests getting to slap the mint leaves to release the aromatics and swizzle their own cocktail.
Edwards also discusses other cocktails developed in hotel lounges like the Piña Colada and Singapore Sling, as well as other popular beverages that use Angostura Bitters like the Trinidad Sour and the Pink Gin. By the end, everyone is sipping on their own Queen’s Park Swizzle with a newfound appreciation for the importance of Angostura to cocktail history.
This Angostura Distillery Visit was organized through Taste Trinbago.