House of Angostura Bar Takeover: Q&A with Ray Letoa

Highball is showcasing 16 distilleries and a series of Wellington bar takeovers, for festival goers to try local and international spirits, as well as enjoy festival-only cocktails.

Global bitters makers, House of Angostura, will be taking over The Embassy’s Black Sparrow Bar at Highball, bringing a Caribbean vibe with their variety of cocktails.

Angostura’s Global Ambassador (and Wellington bartender), Ray Letoa, will be at the helm. He chats to us about his background, how he came to work with Angostura, and what we can expect at Highball. (As well as sharing his favourite cocktail recipe!)

 
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You're known as one of Wellington and NZ's top bartenders. Can you tell us a bit about your background - how you became a bartender and why you love creating cocktails and working with spirits?

Wow, I had no idea I had that reputation as a bartender! But it’s humbling and a real honour. My background is very simple: a proud, local Wellington boy at heart. Born and bred on the stunning hills of Strathmore to a large, loving family who I really credit with installing all the essential qualities in me to do well in hospitality.

I got my taste of hospitality from my older brother who was a bartender. I was his glass washer to start off with, just observing and envying what he was doing. He made it look so awesome, creating cocktails for his guests, and them just enjoying the whole experience. Hence, why I chose to pursue bartending too.

Currently, I’m behind the iconic bar at Roxy Cinema in Miramar [Wellington]. I love creating cocktails as it gives me a great canvas to put out my creations. Working with spirits is so awesome with such a variety to choose from. In this day and age, the spirits market is constantly evolving with more distilleries popping up with some really delicious spirits.

I feel there’s a true art for creating spirits, and that I get the opportunity to work them and make them for our guests to enjoy is a real privilege.

How did you become Angostura's Global Ambassador, and where has the role taken you?

Becoming Angostura’s Global Brand Ambassador is a real dream come true. I got the opportunity by competing in the Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge, which takes place biennially. For the world finals you’re taken to Trinidad and Tobago to compete at the actual House of Angostura distillery. I went over representing New Zealand and won the competition. The prize was the title of ‘The House of Angostura’s Global Brand Ambassador’.

This position has literally taken me all over the world - Russia, Hong Kong, Estonia, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Berlin and, not forgetting our neighbours across the ditch, Australia.

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What’s your favourite cocktail recipe using Angostura Bitters?

I absolutely love creating the national cocktail of Trinidad, The Queen’s Park Swizzle, named for the Trinidadian hotel where it was first invented in the 1920s. It’s both simple and delicious, and anyone can make it.

You’ll need:

  • A highball glass

  • Angostura 7 Year Old Rum (60 mLs)

  • Angostura Aromatic Bitters

  • Lime juice (30 mLs)

  • Demerara syrup (30 mLs)

  • Mint

Add crushed ice and with a swizzle stick, swizzle up all the contents, agitating and mixing it all. This also introduces a touch of dilution, whilst chilling down the whole delicious beverage.

Finish it off a good 6-8 dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters (more bitters is better!) at the top of the cocktail, garnish with some mint sprigs and voila! That there is my fave Angostura cocktail recipe, which is sure to make everyone happy.


People in NZ largely use Angostura Bitters in their cocktails, but overseas, especially in the Caribbean, it is used as an ingredient in cooking. What’s its versatility as an ingredient?

A fascinating fact about Angostura Aromatic Bitters is that when it was perfected in 1824, its main use was for medicinal purposes, such as relieving stomach pain and even improving digestion. This was soon overtaken by modern medicine, however, I still have me a simple soda and water when I’m not feeling the greatest!

There’s a supposed old myth that Angostura Bitters cures hangovers. I can also testify that this is true.

Another use of Angostura Bitters, which I love, is over vanilla ice cream. It brings about a welcome savoury flavour and soothes out the sweetness. I also use a healthy dose when making a good, hearty stew, come the colder seasons. It brings about a delicious aroma and prevents me overseasoning the dish.

So, we see Angostura Aromatic Bitters used for medical purposes, then in both confectionary and cuisine. And, undoubtedly, we see it used as a quintessential ingredient and component in the cocktail industry.

What will you be doing at The House of Angostura bar at Highball? What can festival goers look forward to?

The House of Angostura bar at Highball will be transporting everyone to Trinidad where we’ll be slinging, shaking and swizzling cocktails all to SOCA music (music from Trinidad).

Festival goers can look forward to an awesome cocktail menu, showcasing our delicious House of Angostura products from our rum to bitters and also our Amaro Di Angostura [liqueur].

Cocktails include our iconic Amora Amaro made with Amaro Di Angostura, as well as a good measure of Angostura Aromatic Bitters, sugar and lime. We will also be showcasing both our Angostura 7 Year Old [rum] with our national cocktail of Trinidad, The Queen’s Park Swizzle.

These beverages will be created by a special group of bartenders brought together especially for Highball.

Don’t miss out on NZ’s first cocktail and spirits festival - grab your Highball ticket!

Andrew Stantiall