From the apothecary to the bar: discovering the world of bitter aperitifs
World Best Bar
Sep 09, 2020
10 January 2019
In other words, it’s a grown-up sort of flavor. You know what else is for grown-ups? Cocktails. And bitters provide a welcome alternative to the sugar/spirits/citrus combinations that we love in the summertime. They have become a fundamental ingredient in a huge number of both classic and modern concoctions.
Bitterness is introduced into cocktails by drops (aromatic bitters, a sort of concentrate of spices and roots) or whole ounces. Vermouth is a perfect example of this, but far from the only one. We could mention, for example, quinine wines, a venerable group of which Lillet is the finest representative. But here we want to introduce you to the world of bitter aperitifs – more commonly known as “amari” in Italy.
The main difference with vermouth is that bitters don’t have wine as a base. They’re made using a neutral spirit and therefore have a higher alcohol content. But unlike aromatic bitters, which are so strong they’re undrinkable on their own, aperitif bitters can be consumed alone, even if they’re often diluted with soda. Just like with vermouth, producers infuse a selection of herbs, roots, spices, and citrus zest in alcohol in order to obtain an intensely aromatic extract. This is blended with the base spirit and sugar. It may seem counterintuitive, but despite the bitterness of their flavor, products such as Amer Picon, Campari, or Ramazzotti contain lots of sugar. There’s a reason for this: the sugar acts as a flavor amplifier, balancing the taste and guaranteeing a full-blown tasting experience. If you want to know what a bitter would taste like without sugar, that’s easy: try a Fernet Branca.
Like aromatic or flavored wines, bitters were created in the 19th century. They emerged from the world of medicine. At the time, they were advertised as “health” drinks which could whet your appetite and ease digestion thanks to their herbal content. In fact, brands such as Campari or Branca were not outlawed in the United States during Prohibition, because the authorities considered these products to be part of the pharmaceutical industry. The medical field has thankfully evolved since, and the “health” benefits of these drinks are no longer considered significant. The bitter flavor is instead now understood to make us salivate and prepare our palate before a meal.
Surprisingly, European bitters didn’t manage to win over early American bartenders, so we find almost no use of themin classic cocktail recipes. In fact, we had to wait for the 1920s (the Golden Age of Cocktails in Europe) to see bitters finally appear in shakers and mixing glasses. This explains how the Negroni was only invented around 1919.
Now over a century later, bartenders around the world can’t get enough of these flavors. But if there’s one cocktail that truly marked their consecration, it’s the Spritz. Even though this recipe is closely associated with one specific brand, Spritzes are a real stand-alone mixed drink category which changes and evolves over time. It always starts with a bitter, to which sparkling water and/or wine (which can be sparkling or not) is added. Every city in northern Italy has its own version of the Spritz, crafted using their own local traditional bitter. The best way to discover these aperitifs might very well be to mix your own: choose your brand and its accompaniment, and off you go. Whatever the proportions (just be careful not to drown out the bitters), it’s bound to taste good.
What comes next, you might ask? The Spritz is what we could call a transitional bitter cocktail – a lot of people often don’t even realize that its base is a bitter. Once you’ve mastered it, it’s time to move on to stronger recipes, whether it be the Negroni or the Boulevardier. And with a bit of experimenting, there is still lots to be discovered! Have you ever thought of making a Mai Tai with Campari replacing the rum? You’ll be surprised, but it actually works! With endless combinations possible, bitter aperitifs are truly versatile ingredients for those who know and appreciate them.