12 QUESTIONS WITH VALENTINO’S PREMIUM BITTERS’ VALENTINE BARBOZA
Bar consultant Valentine Barboza creates and sells his own brand of bitters – Valentino’s Premium Bitters – with exotic and native flavours such as pecan coffee, rhubarb, pink grapefruit, sour apple, Meyer lemon, and Egyptian orange. Valentine sources most of the organic ingredients from the US, South America, Cyprus and Greece – the oranges are from right here in Vashi. You can use the bitters to make your own cocktails or even as an ingredient while cooking at home.
Get in touch with Valentine Barboza at +91 95520 02530 to buy his boxed pack of four bitters (40 ml each).
It’s been a bitters-sweet journey for bar consultant Valentine Barboza – from Mumbai’s plushest 5-star hotels and bartending stints in Oman and Dubai to training in Canada and Cuba and finally moving back to the city by the sea. Five years ago, he plunged into the big, bad world of bitters, experimenting with exotic and native flavours to create his own brand of extraordinary elixir packaged in vintage bottles – Valentino’s Premium Bitters.
We spent an afternoon with the man responsible for the original bar at Olive Bistro and the brand new Out of the Blue. Over sparkling soda and chilled water treated with drops, dollops and dashes of his patent bitters, we sipped our way through talk of maceration, vintage bars, pesky excise laws and everything in between. Here is an extract of the conversation.
TCS: Before I tasted the Singapore Sling – regrettably rather late in life – cocktails meant mojitos and margaritas for me. When and where did you hear about bitters?
VB: I started my career with Oberoi Towers at Nariman Point in 1984. I began as a banquet casual and my wages were Rs. 15 per day. In those days, bars weren’t as elaborate as they are now. But Lancer’s Bar at Oberoi was pretty famous because that was the only colonial bar in the city at the time. I started working at the bar after completing the apprenticeship program. Our uniforms were in line with the theme. We would come an hour early to polish our buttons. That bar served all the classic cocktails because 5-star hotels had the facilities to import their liquor. So that was the first time I saw a bottle of bitters, which was Angostura.
TCS: This was way back in 1984! And you started making bitters on your own about five years ago. Is there a resurgence?
VB: So bitters were originally made as a medicinal digestive, or for stomachaches. Even Angostura, which was made by a man called Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert in Venezuela, was made to cure stomachaches and not as an ingredient for cocktails. But bartenders started experimenting with it. Bitters died down during the Prohibition era [and] have only cropped up again over the last 10 years. The reason people have started using bitters extensively now is to combat the sweetness that’s prevalent in most cocktails. Take a Cosmopolitan, or a mojito. Everything has sugar.
TCS: Angostura has kept its recipe a secret for almost two centuries. Can you share your recipe?
VB: I can’t share the recipe, but I’ll tell you the process. Let’s suppose we’re making orange bitters today. Oranges in India are apparently waxed to increase their shelf life. So are lemons and grapefruits. So I dip them in boiling water to get rid of the wax and [then] cool them down. Then I take baking soda and use it to brush the oranges and remove the polish completely. Then I peel them, remove the piths and put them out to dry in the sun for three to four days. This gets rid of the impurities and certain aromas come to the fore only when the peels are sundried.
Then I put them in amber jars, which are free of ultraviolet rays and sunlight penetration. It’s important that there be no light when you’re making bitters. Then I add bittering agents, the peels and herbs and steep it in alcohol for three weeks. After the third week, I strain the mixture and add water to the sediment to extract more flavour. Then the peels are taken out and dried for another week. Even though they’ve given out most of their natural juices, there’s still a lot left. We don’t use the last extract. That is kept aside for the next batch. It’s like making yogurt at home. Your mum will keep a little bit aside to make the next batch, so you get consistent yogurt. The entire process takes at least four weeks.
TCS: How did you learn the process?
VB: I happened to work with Brad Thomas Parsons, a great bitters maker and author from US. I got help from many bitters makers in South America. Bittering agents are very easily available everywhere in the country, but very often they are not guaranteed. I don’t get any of my botanicals from India. I procure all my gluten-free, GMO-free ingredients from organic outlets in US, South America, Cyprus and Greece. Oranges however, I buy from the APMC market in Vashi.
TCS: Do bitters ever go bad? What is their shelf life?
VB: Because bitters contain alcohol, ideally they shouldn’t go bad. Nevertheless, I would say one should use it within a year.
TCS: Bitters are so essential for bars, yet it seems like such a niche product. Who are your clients? Where and how do you sell your bitters?
VB: I don’t really sell them in India. This has never been my market. I produce them for a friend in Spain, who has got all the necessary EU clearances. I’m not interested in selling on a large scale in India. A lot of people have expressed interest in my bitters, but Indian laws are extremely stringent. The moment any product contains alcohol, it falls under the excise law, and that’s a murky area. You often have to pay bribes, taxes. The product needs to go to a bonded warehouse. You need to have a distributor in place. It’s much simpler to export to Europe. Here, I only sell to enthusiasts, people who are interested in trying bitters and using them at home.
TCS: Do you have any competition? Are you aware of anyone else in the country that makes bitters?
VB: I don’t know of any makers in India. But if there are any, I would be very happy because this city needs to wake up to drinking good stuff.
TCS: I’ve heard that some bars make their own bitters. Are you aware of that?
VB: There may be many bartenders that get recipes off the internet and try to make bitters, but that is not correct. That’s not the right way to do it because there’s a proper process involving many stages. It only comes through years of practice and errors. If it’s bitter, it’s not bitters. But that’s the common misconception of bartenders in India.
TCS: Is there a dream flavour that you want to attempt or have attempted but haven’t managed to get right?
VB: I’m partial to floral tones so I’ve been looking at edible flowers, but flowers are very delicate. Whenever I’ve tried, I’ve gone wrong with the proportions. I’m making Black Walnut bitters right now, which is very different. I’m also making tamarind bitters, which is very Indian in its flavour. It’s a mix of bitter, sour and sweet, as well as a little bit of spice.
TCS: Have you kept tab of how many flavours you’ve tried?
VB: I’ve tried quite a few flavours, maybe 40 or 50. But I’ve got nine successful ones so far. These are pecan coffee, rhubarb, pink grapefruit, Bartlett pear, sour apple, Meyer lemon, cucumber, cardamom, and Egyptian orange. The ones in the making are black walnut, root beer and there are some other aromatics that will come in the next few weeks.
TCS: Which is your favourite bar?
VB: The Dead Rabbit in New York. The owners themselves are bartenders and everything is made in-house, unlike the bars in India.
TCS: And your favourite bar in India?
VB: Out of the Blue. They serve all the traditional classics. A good cocktail is only about three or four quality ingredients. Here you will get cocktails like Satan’s Whiskers, which I hadn’t even heard of. You will find a lot of the classics from Savoy, London on this menu.
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Negroni photo copyright maxandrew – stock.adobe.com