My 401(k) is sputtering. My neighborhood firehouse is threatened with cutbacks. Yet I feel flush.
That is because I am awash in Angostura bitters. I had not one, not two, but three bottles of Angostura aromatic bitters, a concoction made from a secret combination of herbs, alcohol, gentian and vegetable flavorings.
Invented as a stomach tonic by a German doctor in Angostura, Venezuela, in 1824, this brand of bitters has been touted as a remedy for everything from malaise to hiccups. But recently, the manufacturer's money troubles disrupted the supply line between the House of Angostura in Trinidad and its worldwide imbibers. Most liquor stores and bars in Baltimore, for instance, have not received a shipment since the fall.
If a report of someone having a surplus of Angostura does not make you jealous or thirsty, then you likely do not view the current shortage of Angostura bitters as the end of civilization as we know it. And, you likely aren't obsessive about the ingredients that compose your evening cocktail.
But if you can't imagine a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned without a "dash" or two of Angostura in your glass, then you might be livid.
"People have been yelling at me, demanding, 'Where are my bitters?' " said Chris Niedenthal, sales manager for Reliable Churchville, the Maryland distributor of Angostura.
The short answer is that most of the available bottles of Angostura, 4-ounce or 10-ounce, are likely gathering dust in home liquor cabinets. A fresh supply from the Trinidad factory probably won't hit Maryland until April or May, Niedenthal said.
I first read about the impending shortage in The Guardian of London. Angst was high in England that its citizens could be without their favorite additive to pink gin cocktails. An official with the U.S distributor, Angostura USA, told the newspaper that the production line had run dry in June because of financial troubles for the Caribbean conglomerate that owned the manufacturer.
In Baltimore, the mixologists I spoke with last week had varied reactions to the dearth of Angostura bitters. Some were shaken, some were not stirred.
Among the agitated was Perez Klebhan of Mr. Rain's Fun House, the restaurant and bar in the American Visionary Art Museum. He said the short supply had played havoc with the establishment's recent campaign to "reintroduce bitters to the American public," by serving versions of cocktails that were popular before Prohibition.
While there are other brands of bitters, Angostura has a distinctive flavor, Klebhan said, and offered this description of the differences.
"Angostura has a more robust flavor profile, Peychaud's is more fruit based, Fee Brothers is spicy and the orange-based bitters are more citrus," he said.
Bereft of a sure supply of Angostura bitters, Klebhan said he and his colleagues have been scouring the landscape, hunting for forgotten bottles.
"We have been checking out old grocery stores and bodegas," he said, adding that they found a stash in a town somewhere north of Baltimore.
However, at other Baltimore watering holes the global scarcity of Angostura has caused no shock waves.
"Shortage?" asked Francisco Lobo, the maitre d' at Tio Pepe. "I have a full bottle right here, and you only use a few drops in a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned."
Ryan Artes, a bartender at the Owl Bar in the Belvedere, said he was confident the bar's large bottle of Angostura would last.
At Woodberry Kitchen, beverage manager Corey Polyoka said he has a stockpile of Angostura and some 20 other brands of bitters. "I buy bitters by the case," he said. "We are good to go."
Brendan Dorr, head bartender at the B&O American Brasserie, had also stocked up on Angostura. "Each brand of bitters is unique," he said. "When you substitute bitters, it changes the cocktail."
According to Angostura disciples, its healing powers extend beyond cocktails. Artes, the barman at the Belvedere, told me he had found a soothing, day-after use for the bitters.
"A little bitters in some ginger ale is great for a hangover," he said.
And Niedenthal, the besieged distributor, said that back in his days as a barman at Weber's on Boston Street, he came upon a medicinal use of Angostura, a cure for hiccups.
"You take a wedge of lemon, sprinkle it with sugar and a couple drops of bitters, and then chew on the lemon," he said.
While gazing at my treasured bottles of Angostura, I noticed that the bottom of the label recommended several culinary uses.
I tried some. I added two to three dashes to slices of canned pineapple. I shook a couple of drops into a bowl of potato soup. I tried a "dash" on some salad.
Sprinkling bitters on my food felt daring. I wondered what exactly was that "gentian" ingredient listed on the Angostura label and what it would do to my innards. It turned out that it did not do much to my digestive system or to my palate.
I kept thinking of the plight of the Seelbach, an endangered cocktail named for a hotel in Louisville, Ky., that Klebhan at Mr. Rain's Fun House had told me about. He said that in all likelihood the worldwide paucity of bitters might force this mixture of bourbon, sparkling wine and Angostura to disappear from the drink menu.
I was overflowing with bitters, another mixologist was wanting. So I shared.
I am here to tell you that there is great joy in giving the gift of bitters. It tastes pretty good, too.