Gentian. Angelica. Centaurea minor. What place do these obscure plants and herbs have at the bar? Juniper. Coriander. Some of them sound familiar if you’ve ever looked at the back label of a gin bottle, but their real home is in bitters. In the Middle Ages, monks began uncovering the techniques of distillation from Arabic science. Given the primitive technology, these distillates were probably pretty rough, and the monasteries – except in Germany, for some reason - didn’t consider the resulting concoction a beverage but more of a medicine. They began to infuse the aqua vitae with various herbs – also thought to possess healing properties - to create a medical potion, and the combinations eventually grew in diversity and complexity. St. John’s Wort. Each monastery developed a jealously guarded secret recipe for their cure-all, and as the art of distillation became a more secular affair after the Renaissance these recipes began to pass from their hands to the pharmacists. The pharmacists’ recipes from the 19th century are today’s bitters.
Prior to the 1800’s if you needed a healthful tonic you went to your local pharmacist and bought his private blend, but by the end of the century many enterprising apothecaries began bottling their production for sale elsewhere. Quinine. At the same time, their supposed medical virtues were beginning to fade from public belief; nonetheless, even today many Italians still swear by the drink’s power to settle the stomach and aid digestion. In other European countries single, national brands have tended to monopolize the market – think of Germany’s Jagermeister, or Unicum in Hungary – but Italian production remains diverse. Most Italian bars sport several varieties of bitters – amari, in Italian - and just over twenty different brands are currently available in the U.S.
What’s in the bottle
Interest here is growing, but many people would like to know exactly what’s in the unfamiliar bottle in front of them – especially since some producers have created some unusual labels and intriguingly-shaped bottles to show of their product on the shelf. It starts with a distillate, usually a grain-based alcohol, but sometimes brandy, grappa, or, in the case of the Fernet products, fermented and distilled beet molasses. A secret mix of herbs, roots, and flowers is then infused into the distillate - sometimes as many as forty ingredients. Each producer has its own recipe, protected as carefully as the formula for classic Coca-Cola. Bitter orange peel. Prime components almost always include something vegetal for bitterness plus botanicals to provide aromatics. Lavender. After this the drink is aged to allow the flavors to blend and soften. Some producers even age in oak casks to introduce wood and oxidizing elements. The amaro is then ready for bottling.
What are bitters not? Vermouth? No. Vermouth is a close cousin, infused with many of the same herbs and roots, but is an undistilled wine. As an aside, this means vermouth can turn; if you’ve ever had a manhattan made with vinegared sweet vermouth, you know what I’m talking about. Rue. Being stronger in alcohol, bitters generally last a lot longer on the shelf. Bitters are also not gin; gin avoids the bitter components, favoring botanicals, and is re-distilled after they are added, so the flavoring and color is much lighter.
What to do with it
If I’ve gotten you past the name – which puts a lot of people off – then how should you drink your bitter? The classic Italian way is straight up at the end of a meal, either with or after coffee. Some even add it to their espresso to make a “café corretto.” To broaden their market some bitter producers have been encouraging drinkers to try this classic digestivo as an aperitif by serving it on the rocks with seltzer, and with some bitters this is pretty successful. A few restaurants have even developed cocktails that highlight their bitters selection – Mario Batali’s “Lupa,” for one. Mario’s partner, Joe Bastianich, developed Lupa’s collection of bitters, originally to give the bar a distinctive look with the less-familiar labels. Lupa spurred New Yorkers’ interest in bitters, and Bastianich himself recently bought two secret recipes with the aim of eventually producing them himself. Sage. Elder. Patrick Bickford, the Beverage Director for the restaurant group “Off the Menu,” made an exciting bitters selection part of their new restaurant, “Cesca,” and is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable promoter of bitters with his guests.
What it tastes like
Bitters were originally produced more in the north of Italy, but are now made throughout the country. Because the original creators had to use herbs and botanicals that were available locally, there are some faint regional characteristics, but there are almost as many exceptions as there are examples. Northern producers tend toward alpine and menthol notes, the Santa Maria al Monte being perhaps the most extreme example; it’s from the Valle d’Aosta, a valley nestled in among the Alps near the French border. Cora is made nearby in Piedmont and is less extreme; floral aromas come together with some cinammon – rather like red hot candies – finished with a note of orange peel.
Lombardy, to the East, is home to two of the amari best known to Americans: Ramazotti and Fernet Branca. The former shows notes of cola, vanilla, and a light pepperiness. Fernet Branca is more intense, with strong herbal qualities over a licorice note buttressed by a warming alcoholic burn. The same company makes Branca Menta by adding mint to the recipe; toned down and more caramelly than its brother, this was once so popular in the U.S. that they even produced it here for a while. There is another Fernet, Fernet Luxardo, from the Veneto, which gets downright aggressive with its herbal qualities and finishes with cleansing menthol and eucalyptus notes. “Fernet” in the name indicates that the liquor was distilled from beet molasses.
There is a “Luxardo” in the Veneto as well, the Luxardo Abano. Medium-bodied and rounder in the mouth, its herbal qualities are toned down and complemented by an aroma of white pepper. Nearby, Nardini, a grappa producer, also makes an unusual bitter that will appeal to tawny port drinkers; the herbs come primarily on the finish, while the mouth and nose encounter mocha, toffee, and baking spices. In Friuli another grappa producer, Nonino, uses a brandy as their base and ages their bitter in barrel for five years, yielding a smooth, elegant amaro.
Moving south to Bologna, Montenegro is a light-bodied amaro characterized by orange peel, and makes a good start for people new to bitters. Another that Americans might find familiar-tasting is Cio Ciaro, from Lazio, the area around Rome; it calls up root beer and sassparilla and has a touch of sweetness to it. Meletti, made in the Marche on the far coast, offers an array of baking spices as well as saffron and caramel, with a white pepper note that builds through the finish. Meanwhile further south in Basilicata – the arch of the boot – the Lucano adds nutty aromas to herbal notes, to create a complex, totally dry beverage that is one of the most popular in Italy. Using a recipe which the firm’s founder bought from monks in Friuli in the north, Sicily’s Averna makes a rich, full drink with cola, licorice, vanilla, and cinnamon, the bitterness balanced by stewy fruit flavors.
What are the exceptions?
Americans might find two noticeable absences above: Campari and Cynar. These are often omitted from the list of amari because of their original intent: they were conceived of as aperitifs, to stimulate the appetite, rather than to aid digestion. Nevertheless, they are produced in very much the same way as the digestivos. Campari has found a place in a number of cocktails, including the classic Negroni, and Cynar enjoys a certain notoriety because the idea of an artichoke-based liqueur seems to get people’s attention. A lot of thought actually went into using that ingredient - experiments had shown that artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin that makes anything eaten immediately after the artichoke taste sweeter, a trait which Cynar’s creator thought would be commendable in an aperitif (as a side note, cynarin generally wreaks havoc with wine, giving it a tinny, metallic taste).
Cascia bark. Radicchio. Agarico Bianco. You won’t see these names at the bar. Nux Vomica. Coriander. But they’re there, in digestivi with history, complexity, and class. Don’t be bitter that you didn’t hear about them earlier.
My thanks to Patrick Bickford and Joe Bastianich for the time and knowledge they contributed to my bitter education.