Cantinero Coffee Bitters are the second bitters to come from the folks behind Santa Teresa 1796, Venezuela’s excellent solera-aged rum. The bitters were made in collaboration with Bittercube and Miami bartender Julio Cabrera, who was named Tales of the Cocktail Bartender of the Year in 2019.
So, why “cantinero?” Cantinero is the Spanish word for bartender, but more specifically it refers to the rich cocktail culture of pre-communist Cuba; Carbrera himself is a member of El Club de Cantineros de Cuba, the world’s oldest bartending guild.
But back to the bitters: They’re pitch black and made with molasses, sarsaparilla root, vanilla bean, and other spices. Unsurprisingly, the bitters are highly aromatic with significant notes of cardamom at the top, soon joined by cloves, sarsaparilla, dark chocolate and nutty coffee. Their smell evokes a pan full of dark chocolate brownie batter with walnuts and baking spices in the oven.
When tasted alone, the bitters prove sweeter than expected. There’s still a great deal of bitterness from the spice and sarsaparilla, but that dark and fudgy note of chocolate gets central billing, even above the secondary notes of coffee that finish the experience. All in all, it had me thinking of a rich, ultra-dark cup of Mexican Hot Chocolate.
I’m a big fan of Santa Teresa 1796 rum on its own, so it was with some hesitation that I used it to make an Old-Fashioned with four dashes of the Cantinero Coffee Bitters. However, my reluctance was unearned. The bitters turned a simple Rum Old-Fashioned into a much richer and layered experience. It began with a spicy pulse of cloves and cardamom up front before delivering dark chocolate and coffee flavors that meshed beautiful with the pruny, raisiny character and dry finish that define Santa Teresa 1796.
But the bitters are intended for use beyond Santa Teresa’s flagship product, and the rum category itself. To further test its utility I used four dashes of it to make a Rye Manhattan with Milam & Greene rye and Cocchi sweet vermouth. It proved bitter and spice-forward enough to play the role traditionally held by Angostura bitters, but its double-barreled flavors of coffee and chocolate again made it a richer, more interesting, and all around more rewarding experience. In particular, the chocolate notes meshed wonderfully with the dark sweetness of the Cocchi vermouth, while the snap of cardamom and clove further accented the rye spice.
In short, Santa Teresa 1796 Cantinero Coffee Bitters are absolutely fantastic. So it pains me to say that they are only available on-trade in the United States, meaning that they are sold exclusively to bars and restaurants (if you happen to work in either and wish to snag a bottle for your establishment, Santa Teresa recommends sending them a DM via their Instagram account). But speaking as a private citizen, I hope that Santa Teresa and Bittercube may one day make these bitters available to the consumer, because this stuff is bottled magic.