Six months ago, Angostura’s marketing department approached its blending team to ask for something of a Christmas miracle – a flavoured rum.
“They said they wanted a seasonal product. So we played around with a lot of different flavours and settled on sorrel because in Trinidad, sorrel is Christmas,” said senior blender Ann Marie O’Brien.
O’Brien, the manager for blending and quality, and senior lab quality analyst in charge of new product development Ariana Maharaj, sat with Business Day last week to give some insight into the year’s coolest cocktail creation, White Oak Sorrel.
At first glance, it looks like regular White Oak. Until you notice the sorrel berries on the label.
“Everyone knows sorrel is red, but we wanted to make sure it’s colourless, because that’s what brings uniqueness to the product,” O’Brien said.
The base, of course, is White Oak. That was key to the quick turnaround from conception to execution to getting it out into the market, because a specialty rum blend didn’t have to be created.
Next, the secret ingredient: sorrel concentrate. It’s like the essence of the fruit, the essential oils and flavour compounds that give sorrel its fruity, festive aroma.
It’s also colourless, Maharaj notes, and is very potent, but mixes well with water and alcohol.
Angostura doesn’t actually make the sorrel extract, which is provided by one of their flavour houses. The exact proportions are a trade secret, and, like the recipe for the company’s legendary Angostura Bitters, I’m told (jokingly?) that if they tell me, they’ll have to kill me.
“I think people are generally trying to reconcile the process of sorrel-making and then how we get this sorrel-flavoured rum, but that’s the mystery,” O’Brien said.
What’s also remarkable about the blend is that there’s a hint of sweetness that lends itself to the smoothness.
White Oak Sorrel is 35 per cent alcohol by volume, whereas regular White Oak is 40 per cent. The secret to the sweetness is good old sugar.
“With flavoured rums you can add sugar to the final blend. We dissolve the sugar into the mixture, so that brings out the sweetness and roundness of the sorrel,” O’Brien says.
Maharaj is responsible for the prototype, but she says it’s a collaborative effort among Angostura’s renowned team of four female blenders.
Maharaj creates the prototype, experimenting with different percentages, with the rest of the team giving feedback until the desired concoction is achieved. Then there’s internal testing, in which an in-house Angostura team taste tests for constructive feedback. Then it goes to an external focus group.
The focus group actually didn’t go too well, O’Brien notes, although the results since the launch have been favourable.
“They weren’t identifying the flavour because they were presented with something colourless and it was hard to reconcile the taste profile, so it wasn’t connecting well,” Maharaj adds.
But since the colourlessness of the product is part of its uniqueness, the team decided to keep the blend as is.
After the blend is approved, the prototype has to be scaled up to industrial proportions. That’s where the other blender comes in.
“Sometimes what happens is when you do it at a smaller level and have to take it up to a bigger level, it doesn’t always compare. The industrial scale is a bigger volume, so you might find you have to add a little more of one ingredient and a little less than another. It goes through rigorous appraisal from staff,” O’Brien said.
Then it’s getting it on the shelves. In this case, Maharaj notes, the White Oak brand is already strong. The six months it took to create Sorrel White Oak is actually pretty short because the main process was spicing up the original produce with sorrel.
Each batch is enough for 5,000 cases, and so far 11,500 cases have been produced, starting in November. For now, it’s just marketed in Trinidad.
“The feedback from the public is positive. There’s excitement and hype.
“Trinis like to have a lime for everything, and this is the perfect complement,” O’Brien added.
The initial thought, O’Brien said, is for the rum to be seasonal, but because of its reception, it may be extended for one or two months into the new year – and will definitely be back for Christmas 2020.
So what’s the best way to drink White Oak Sorrel?
“Straight or on the rocks, with maybe a dash of Angostura Bitters,” says Maharaj. Angostura’s Global Cocktail Challenge winner for Trinidad, bartender Shana Rajahram concurs, suggesting that if it must be mixed, the best complement would be Angostura LLB (lemon, lime and bitters). It also works well in a festive mojito. For those tempted to add it to sorrel, though, O’Brien cautions. “You have to be careful how much you add, because it could become bitter. You have to find that sweet point for perfect balance.”