Don’t be bitter, just drink bitter
The word "bitter" doesn’t always have the most positive connotation.
Often when we think of bitter, we think of an unpleasant flavor paired with a sour face. For many things, bitter is not the best descriptor word. However, when it comes to spirits, bitter is anything but a bad thing.
Enjoying cocktails is very similar to enjoying wine, in the sense that from the start we go with flavors that are more comfortable, and namely, sweet ones. As a novice cocktail drinker, I would automatically gravitate toward sweeter drinks, light on the base spirit and heavy on the liqueurs and juices that gave it that more than necessary sugary sip.
As I have begun to become more seasoned in drinking, I have learned to appreciate different flavors. While I still enjoy the occasional sweet drink here and there, it is a bitter drink that really turns on my taste buds.
Not too familiar with classic bitter spirits? Chances are you know exactly what they are and what drinks they’re in, even if you didn't realize that they are bitter spirits! These spirits can be enjoyed in a variety of cocktails, from the classics to many lesser-known concoctions. They are also great with a simple splash of soda and an orange wedge. In this cocktail revolution that we are all lucky enough to currently be a part of, bitter flavors are being accepted with open arms once again. I think I speak for everyone when I say, thank goodness!
Click here for recipes for the Negroni and more.
— Sara Kay, The Spir.it
A nip of Dubonnet, a sip of Campari, a little Lillet--to understand the importance of the aperitif, an American writer looks to Europe.
Dinner in a Frenchman&aposs house can be an unnerving experience for an American. For one thing, no one ever seems to be in a hurry to eat. Although you may be greeted with fabulous kisses and a warm double welcome--Bienvenue! Bienvenue!--you&aposre likely to be seated in the parlor, without any food in sight. Your host will kindly ask after your health, nodding Bien! Bien! to whatever you answer. (A true Frenchman repeats everything.) Then you will be poured an aperitif. Your first thought--and perhaps your second and your third--will be: When are we sitting down to eat? Shouldn&apost this dinner get going?
But then you take a sip of your aperitif. It is light and refraissant, as the French would say, distinct from anything you have been served back home. And you&aposll wonder, Why don&apost they pour drinks like this in America? (The answer is that they do, but not often enough.) Suddenly, you will be in the very palm of the Frenchman&aposs hand. You will happily eat when he tells you to, drink what he tells you to, and it will all take place at exactly the right time.
I am a recent convert to aperitifs and what I call the aperitif way of life--which is another way of saying I am no longer in any hurry to eat. In fact, if there were one habit I could import from Europe to America, it would be the custom of the aperitif.
For those who have never indulged in this sort of drink, here are a few basics: An aperitif (the word comes from the Latin aperire, "to open") is a light, most often dry, most often modestly alcoholic beverage meant to spark the appetite without overwhelming the senses. And while an aperitif may be as simple as a glass of dry white wine or Champagne, a true aperitif, the kind that I love, has a little more flair, more flavor, more color and--yes--a bit more sophistication. These are the aperitifs like Campari and Lillet, drinks that go (mostly) by one name and almost always are concocted from secret herbal recipes.
CAMPARI Perhaps the most famous one-name aperitif of them all is Campari, the ruby red Italian drink whose recipe is guarded more carefully than the Vatican transcripts. In fact, its recipe has been a secret since 1860, when its creator, Gaspare Campari, first began bottling his product. But Campari didn&apost really take off until Gaspare&aposs son Davide hired famous artists of the 1920s and &apos30s to make the now-legendary Campari ad posters.
As for Campari itself, the drink is believed to contain rhubarb and ginseng, but I don&apost know for sure. What I do know is that Campari is very bitter, so bitter it&aposs truly an acquired taste. But adding soda helps a great deal in the acquiring in fact, a fair amount of chilled soda can open up Campari nicely, turning it into a more nuanced drink. (Ice is not necessary.)
DUBONNET Although Dubonnet originated almost 150 years ago as a French aperitif, for the last half century, both the red and white versions we get in this country have been American-made--from California wine fortified with a touch of brandy. White Dubonnet is a dry white wine infused with herbs, while the red is sweet, flavored with spices and quinine. Although I&aposm generally a big fan of wine-based aperitifs, I have a little trouble with Dubonnet--it&aposs a bit too syrupy to fit my ideal.
LILLET And then there&aposs Lillet. Another wine-based aperitif that also comes in red and white, Lillet is probably my favorite aperitif of all. (It was also a favorite of James Bond, who used to mix Lillet in his martini.) Made in a small town south of Bordeaux, Lillet tastes as swanky as it sounds. Perhaps it&aposs the delicate combination of herbs, roots and fruits. but since the recipe is a secret, I&aposm not really sure. I prefer the rich, full-bodied white version, with its notes of candied orange and mint. (Classically, it is served with a twist of orange.)
VERMOUTH Vermouth comes in both white (dry) and red (sweet) versions, and the best-known vermouth producers are Italian (Martini & Rossi, Cinzano) and French (Noilly Prat). Both dry and sweet are wine-based, herb-infused drinks. Of the two, sweet vermouth is the more novel aperitif, at least in the States, where we tend to think of it strictly as a component in a Manhattan. But Europeans drink it before a meal, chilled or on the rocks. Perhaps one of the most unusual vermouths is the Punt e Mes, an Italian delicacy, whose name means "point and a half," in reference to the old Italian custom of adding bitters, measured in "points" to vermouth.
AND THE REST There are many other aperitifs, of course. There is, for example, a whole world of anise-based drinks like Pernod and Ricard. But while I know plenty of people who swear by them, I find these aperitifs a little too potent and forward for a predinner refreshment. I tend to like more delicate drinks like sherry (particularly the lighter finos) and Pineau des Charentes (a fortified wine from the Cognac region of France).
All I know for certain is that the moment I taste the perfect aperitif--something light and refreshing--I just want to sit down for dinner with a Frenchman and follow his lead. I know we&aposll get to the meal eventually. But first, we&aposll work on our appetites.
This offering that sits between Aperol and Campari “has a flavor profile that is citrusy, a little bit sweet and mainly bitter,” says Marco Montefiori, the U.S. and Latin America market manager for Gruppo Montenegro. It’s produced in Venice, where in the 1920s the product was first splashed into the OVS (Original Venetian Spritz). Make your own OVS with the aperitivo, prosecco and soda. (If the Spritz isn’t garnished with olives, it’s not the authentic recipe, Montefiori says.)
Unlike the Italian wine industry, which strictly enforces production techniques and nomenclature, other categories of alcohol are decidedly less regulated, a reality that breeds creativity and confusion in equal measure. Take the word aperitivo, for example. Today, depending on its context, it can refer to any pre-dinner beverage: vermouth, wine, a cocktail, beer, even Campari’s own non-alcoholic, orange-toned Crodino. While fare un’aperitivo is the ritual of consuming said drink, often for a flat fee with a side of complimentary snacks.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, aperitivo culture, which was based primarily in northern Italy, consisted of appetite-stimulating aromatized wines and bitter liqueurs. The latter category, which is experiencing a very recent boom in distribution throughout the U.S., can be divided into two broad styles: “aperitivo” and “bitter,” both roughly defined as red-hued, wine- or spirit-based products infused with citrus, herbs, spices and roots, then mixed with sweeteners to offset their intensity. In general, the former is lower in alcohol—think Aperol, Select Aperitivo or Casoni 1814 Aperitivo—while the b itter genre—Luxardo Bitter, Campari or Meletti 1870 Bitter—contain about double the alcohol and are often more, well, bitter. Here’s a survey of what has made it to the U.S. from Italy.
As Americans become increasingly thirsty for all things bitter and low-alcohol, a new crop of Italian aperitivo liqueurs has hit the U.S. market. Katie Parla on the history of these jewel-toned bitters and their boom status.
Universally recognized as the industry leader, this deep crimson liqueur was first created by Gaspare Campari in 1860. Over the past century and a half, Campari has grown from a tiny basement business into a dominant global brand that features prominently in Italian classic cocktails, including the Negroni, the Negroni Sbagliato and the Garibaldi. Campari has expertly leveraged marketing and education to carve out and expand its worldwide reach, and it exports its bitter liqueur—along with notions of Italian style and elegance—to virtually every country on the planet. Although the company states their recipe—which is composed of chinotto, cascarilla and a proprietary mixture of herbs, fruits and spices—has never changed, Campari did discontinue use of its natural cochineal-derived coloring agent in 2006. Its distinct herbaceous bitterness is laced with notes of quinine, orange zest and herbs and clocks in at 24 percent ABV. ($24)
Unlike many of northern Italy’s aperitivo liqueurs, Aperol isn’t exactly red, but rather reddish orange. It was conceived by Fratelli Barbieri in Padova in 1919 and consists of an infusion of bitter and sweet oranges, rhubarb and a secret mixture of herbs and roots. In 2004, the year after Gruppo Campari bought Aperol, the parent company embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign positioning the new acquisition as the quintessential ingredient for the Venetian Spritz. Their official Spritz recipe—three parts Aperol, two parts Cinzano Prosecco (another Campari-owned brand) and soda—landed on bars and beaches all over the world, and, in the course of a few years, Aperol and Spritz were securely fused in consumers’ minds, propelling the pair from a northern Italian regional obscurity to global sensations. Unlike its sibling Campari, Aperol is fairly low in alcohol—just 11 percent ABV—and is quite sweet. ($20)
The Luxardo company, which was founded in Zadar, Croatia, in 1821, is best known for its Maraschino liqueurs and cherries in syrup. But in 1895, they registered the name for “Amer D’Or Bitter,” a popular aperitif consumed along the Dalmatian coast, which was produced until WWII. Unfortunately, documents detailing its precise ingredients and history were lost when the distillery was leveled during the war. The sixth-generation family business is now headquartered near Padova—the original home of Aperol—where cherry red Luxardo Bitter is made with sweet and bitter oranges and herbs including rhubarb, mint, thyme and marjoram. Weighing in at 25 percent ABV, it is a great deal more potent than Luxardo Aperitivo, an orange-hued aperitif with a strong orange-driven flavor profile and an ABV of 11 percent. ($25)
This ruby-red aperitif is made by the family-owned Antica Erboristeria Dott. Cappelletti in Trento, at the edge of the Dolomites. Their Aperitivo Americano (called “Americano” in reference to both its wine base and the use of gentian root as a bittering agent), known locally as “il Specialino,” is naturally colored with carmine obtained from cochineal beetles, setting it apart from many in the genre, which rely on artificial pigments. The 17 percent ABV “Il Specialino” consists of a Trebbiano wine base infused with a proprietary mix of alpine herbs and spices. ($20)
Meletti was founded in 1870 in Ascoli Piceno and, although it is mainly known for anise-flavored liqueurs, the company recently launched a historically inspired bitter liqueur. To create Meletti 1870 Bitter, the family dug deep into their archives and recovered a forgotten recipe, which they adapted and released in the U.S. in early 2015. The liqueur combines three separate distillates—sweet orange, bitter orange and a spice and herb infusion—which are blended with pure spirit to create a 25 percent ABV mildly bitter aperitif with notes of citrus, gentian, coriander, cinnamon and clove. ($22)
Founded in Finale Emilia in 1814 by Giuseppe Casoni, this historic distillery is known mainly for its anise-based liqueurs and has adapted an antique recipe combining orange, quinine, local herbs, fruits and seeds for a bittersweet liqueur that clocks in at just 11 percent ABV. Casoni Bitter, which is richer in flavor, color and alcohol, reaches 22 percent ABV. ($20)
In the current ad campaign for Select Aperitivo, a bottle of bright red liqueur hovers over the Grand Canal. The words “Nato a Venezia 1920” (“Born in Venice in 1920”) appear on the label above two stylized gondola prows. Meanwhile, in the background, a gondolier navigates turquoise waters. The words “Very Veneziano” mingle with the clouds above. Make no mistake: Select Aperitivo was founded in Venice and it is still at home there, holding its own against Aperol as a base for the classic Venetian Spritz (some claim that it was, in fact, the first bitter to make its way into the formula). The deep red liqueur balances bitter and sweet notes, which mingle with vanilla, cardamom and ginger root in a 14 percent ABV package. The amaro company Montenegro, which acquired Select in 1988, is poised to launch the aperitif in the U.S. in 2016. ($20)
With a base of grape brandy derived from Italian barbera grapes, Piedmont-based Contratto’s red bitter liqueur has its origins in a recipe from 1933. It’s similar to Campari in that it’s best used in drinks like the Americano and Negroni, but is less aggressively bitter and sweet with a more subtle, herbal backbone owing to a cold maceration of 24 different spices and herbs including aloe, hibiscus, wormwood and juniper. It’s colored naturally with beets and has an ABV of 22 percent. ($30, 1L)
Colored with natural carrot and beet extracts, Contratto Aperitif is made from a recipe that dates back to 1935. At 13.5 percent ABV, this orange bitter (similar in style to Aperol) is brandy-based, infused with everything from wormwood to angelica to orange to juniper, and pleasantly bittersweet and herbaceous. ($30, 1L)
The bottle lineup at Amor y Amargo scans like a trip around the globe. There, bottles not well known in the United States from the Netherlands and Latvia sit right alongside popular liqueurs like Germany’s Jägermeister. No country is represented as well as Italy, however.
“The birthplace of modern coffee is Venice,” Warrilow says. “People were saying it was the devil’s bitter beverage, and [Italians were] like, ‘Let’s taste it first.’”
In Italy, bitter flavors have long been part of the culture. Just look at the Italian proverbs related to bitterness: Cose amare, tienile care, which loosely translates to, “bitter things, hold them dear,” and il dolce si conosce per l’amaro, or “we know sweetness because of bitter things.”
Italy’s position during the age of exploration bolstered its appreciation for bitter flavors. Visiting merchants brought plants and herbs from around the world to Italy’s doorstep, and producers in each region of the country developed their own signature (and often secret) blends. Take Fernet-Branca, for example, which was created in Milan in 1845 with 27 herbs and spices from four continents: aloe from South Africa, rhubarb from China, gentian from France, chamomile from Italy and Argentina, and galingale from India or Sri Lanka.
“What made Italy so special during that time was that it was the crossroads of the spice trade, so Fernet-Branca could have not been made anywhere else,” says Edoardo Branca, a descendant of Fernet-Branca creator Bernardino Branca and managing director of Branca USA. “It was the pioneer of its time and took advantage of what Italy had to offer.”
Today, Italian spirits are exported around the world and inspire wary drinkers to give bitter a chance. There are negronis made with Campari and spritzes made with the lightly bitter Aperol. There’s Branca y cola in Argentina, which is the ever-popular mix of Fernet-Branca and Coca-cola and an unofficial national drink.
Looking in the Italian section of a liquor store is a surefire way to find a bitter spirit, though it’s not the only one.
A Sazerac really isn’t a Sazerac if you are not using these classic bitters. Peychaud’s has a long history in New Orleans, as does the aforementioned cocktail, and the bitters are now produced there at The Sazerac House, an interactive cocktail museum. The flavors of licorice, orange and cherry complement nicely with the main ingredients of the cocktail: rye whiskey, sugar and absinthe.
Where it’s from: Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange, gentian, peppermint
ABV: 31 percent
Like the Noninos, the Nardinis are famous for their grappa their distillery, founded by Bartolo Nardini in 1779, remains one of the oldest in Italy. The grain-based blend is made with just three key botanicals—bitter orange, gentian and peppermint—that reveal a complex harmony of flavors, which Joe Keeper, of Bar Keeper in LA, describes as “reeking of the bitterness found in dark chocolate with notes of licorice.” I often overlooked Nardini when I first got into amaro, but I’ve since corrected my ways. According to Greg Cochran, bar manager of the New York aperitivo bar Vini e Fritti, others are catching up, too. “It’s getting called for more and more, and it’s perfect for a bartender’s handshake,” he says, referring to the tradition of bartenders greeting fellow industry colleagues with a goodbye (or often hello and goodbye) shot.
Should you desire an Aviation, a Blue Moon cocktail, or a classically layered Pousse-Cafe, you’ll need one rarity in your bar: violet liqueur, a liqueur which is a lovely shade of purple and which is made, yes, from flower petals.
A staple spirit of, oh, the late 1800s, violet liqueur had long been off the market as these exotic cocktails fell out of favor — but the mixology surge of the last decade and change has brought violet liqueur back with a vengeance. Today you’ll find at least three brands vying for your attention, along with various forms of Parfait Amour, which are purple-blue in color but which mostly don’t contain violets. I have Marie Brizard’s on hand to compare to this field, though perhaps a full Parfait Amour roundup is in order down the road.
Creme Yvette – Off the market for 40 years, this re-released expression of one of the most classic violet liqueurs is now made in France and imported by Cooper Spirits, which also owns St. Germain. It’s a blend of violets with blackberry, cassis, strawberry, and raspberry — and the only spirit in this group that does not contain artificial coloring. Port wine red in color. All that fruit does however give Yvette a heavy cough syrup character on the nose, although the body is less overpowering than the aroma would indicate. Strawberry and cassis are the dominant flavor notes, with the violets playing a secondary role. It’s a fun little collection of flavors, but if using this in a cocktail, keep in mind the extra fruit character you’ll be adding and dial down any other fruit liqueurs in the mix. 55.5 proof. B+ / $30 [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]
Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette – This is probably the most commonly encountered violet liqueur you’ll find, not just because the bottle is classy but because it is made only from violet petals and sugar, so you won’t find any fruit overtones here as you do with Creme Yvette. Brilliant purple in color. Intensely floral on the nose, with overtones of pine needles and funky dried potpourri. Gently sweet on the body, with some hospital overtones, driven perhaps by the underlying spirit, but overall it’s quite gentle but again, more focused on dried florals than fresh ones. 40 proof. B / $23 [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]
The Bitter Truth Violet Liqueur – Like Rothman’s this is a straight violet blossom liqueur, plus sugar. Similar in color to Rothman, but a bit closer to blue. Fresher, cleaner floral notes here, more distinctly violet than Rothman’s. The body again shows off that medicinal character, along with some earthiness, but the fresh violet notes manage to hang in until the end. Overall, roughly the same level of sweetness as Rothman & Winter’s, but a fresher, cleaner overall flavor. See full review here. 44 proof. A- / $30 [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]
Marie Brizard Parfait Amour – While blue-purple in color, Parfait Amour is often lumped into the violet liqueur category, but most expressions don’t contain violets at all. Rather, Parfait Amour is built on an orange-heavy base of curacao — Brizard’s is flavored with orange blossoms and vanilla. Again, a similar color to the two previous spirits, but another shade closer to blue. Aromas of fresh orange peel almost immediately take a different direction once you take a sip — toward overwhelming vanilla and almond notes, with triple sec-like orange character layering on after those more dessert-like characteristics fade. The finish finds floral elements finally emerging, and lingering on the palate for quite awhile, adding ample complexity. For a more nuanced drink, use this in lieu of blue curacao in just about anything that calls for it. 50 proof. A- / $20 [BUY IT NOW FROM DRIZLY]
Countries throughout the world have made unique contributions to the bitter, botanical liqueur landscape. And some recipes go back hundreds of years. There&rsquos Becherovka in Russia, Suze in Switzerland, Salers in France, Amaro and Vermouth in Italy, and Unicum in Hungary.
But it&rsquos only recently that producers in the States have hopped on board. The past few years have seen a mini-boom of American-made bitter liqueurs, including Leopold Bros. Aperitivo (Colorado), St. George Spirits Bruto Americano (California), Don Ciccio e Figli Cinque Aperitivo (Washington D.C.), St. Agrestis (New York) and Letherbee Fernet (Illinois).
And Milwaukee may soon make a contribution to the pot.
Rehorst, who recently invested in the technology that measures the quantity of alcohol in liqueurs (a necessity to meet requirements for labeling), says he&rsquos been toying with the idea of creating a bitter liqueur for a number of years.
"We&rsquore stepping into the realm of liqueurs with our recently released orange liqueur," he says. "I love Campari, and I&rsquod love to do a variation on it. And maybe something a bit more approachable for people who are put off by the bitterness."
Historically, most bitter, botanical liqueurs originated as medicine, which was created by herbalists, pharmacists and monks. Spirits, which were an excellent preservative, were used as a base for medicine as well as a disinfectant and solvent. Vermouth has been used for centuries to help cure stomach ailments, and before the time of Hippocrates, Greeks were mixing herbs with wine. In fact, liqueurs were state of the art in terms of curative medicine.
The recipes for these bitter elixirs (eventually called liqueurs) are traditionally closely guarded. Even today, the recipes behind many brands still remain secret, creating a shroud of mystery and cabal.
"There&rsquos a major smokescreen surrounding each brand and the production of these products," notes Jordan Burich, the beverage mastermind behind Sprezzatura, the Italian pop-up concept which is just beginning to make a splash in Milwaukee. "And you really end up with all these myths about origin. There&rsquos so much mystery surrounding various brands. And that mythology just contributes to the romanticism surrounding these liqueurs."
That abstruseness is likely part of the reason bitter libations are trending. But it&rsquos also because a new generation of bartenders has taken an interest.
"I think it&rsquos like everything," says Rehorst. "When it comes to spirits, the bartender sets the trend. With bitter, we&rsquore still in the stage where bartenders are very much hand-selling it. With the exception of people drinking Campari &ndash either as a spritzer or negroni &ndash there aren&rsquot a lot of people just spying a bottle of something and asking to try it. But, at places like Buckley&rsquos, The Palm Tavern and Goodkind, if you engage the bartender, you will inevitably end up trying something you&rsquove never had before."
"There&rsquos a long history of people using bitter Italian spirits in cocktails and there&rsquos a connection between Italian spirits and American drinking that got lost a bit after Prohibition. I think we&rsquore starting to see a renaissance in that area. And Milwaukee is moving in that direction. You can see it best inside the industry, where bottles of Amaro are moving in and out of bars in a way they haven&rsquot in past years."
But will bitter drinks be the next big thing to hit Milwaukee? Maybe, maybe not.
"I think the consumer is just starting to gain an appreciation for it," Rehorst says. "And I think we&rsquove probably got a long way to go before it&rsquos fully embraced. But there are a lot of great products out there, and some interesting new things coming out."
Stay tuned for more in this series on bitter libations &ndash including installments on apertifs, digestifs and vermouth &ndash throughout the remainder of bar month.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She&rsquos had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book &ldquoMilwaukee Food.&rdquo Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she&rsquos not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you&rsquoll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.
Alternatively to DIYing your alcohol infusions, there are infusion kits that help the infusion decision making process easier. The Teroforma 1pt Infusion Blend for Alcohol & Spirits Variety Pack easily infuses spirits with its sampler set of infusion blends.
The Teroforma infusion process is simple - just combine the materials in one packet with the appropriate amount of alcohol and let everything steep for 2 to 6 hours, depending on the blend. More time will result in a richer infusion less time will produce more delicate results.