All in good taste: The rise in bitters

With Italian-style aperitifs more popular than ever, we get to grips with the different types of bitters, and how to get the most out of them, including cocktail recipes and the ones to buy...

As any bartender would be able to tell you, there’s been a revolution in the average drinker’s palate over the past few years, with a swing in popularity from sweet, saccharine drinks to a more bitter, challenging spectrum of flavours.

One of the key drivers in this development has been the huge trend towards Italian drinking, with a sophisticated cocktail scene of pre-dinner aperitivi such as the Aperol Spritz and the Negroni capturing the imagination of drinkers around the world.

Italy boasts a panoply of bitter liqueurs or spirits – otherwise known as amari – that form the basis of these aperitivo drinks, but can also be enjoyed neat as a digestif.

‘Amari are bitter, herbal liqueurs made in Italy, traditionally used to aid digestion by being consumed after a meal, straight up in a tumbler or shot glass at room temperature,’ explains Italian bartender Enrico Gonzato, bar manager at The Stratford Hotel in east London. ‘They are bitter and sweet, and have complex flavour profiles due to the macerated herbs, bark, fruits, roots and citrus peels that give each their distinctive signature. There are different products in every region in Italy.’

If enjoying an amaro such as Cynar, Campari or Amaro Montenegro as a digestif, as well as sipping them neat you can also enjoy them on the rocks.

French regionality

While it may sometimes seem like it, Italy doesn’t hold the monopoly on these bitter spirits: other countries have their own traditional products – most notably France, where this category of drinks is known as ‘amer’.

‘France is a country of wine, and until 1885 apéritifs were wine-based, starting with Dubonnet in 1846,’ says Clotilde Lataille, French apéritif brand ambassador at Pernod Ricard. ‘Bitter apéritifs came a little bit later, with Amer Picon in 1862, then the gentian-based apéritifs of Salers in 1885, and then Suze in 1889.

‘They were enjoyed neat in the local cafés. In France, we have a culture of drinking local, and all the regions have their very own apéritif, so at the beginning Amer Picon was mainly enjoyed in the north of France, and Salers and Suze in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, before becoming a national success.’

When asked why she thinks Italian amari have overshadowed bitter liqueurs from other countries, Lataille points to three factors: the tradition of using amari in cocktails has helped to spread awareness of these products; there are more Italian amari available abroad than those from France and other countries; and the language surrounding them.

‘People understand what amaro means in English but are not familiar with the fact that amer in French also translates to bitter. If you offer the choice between a bitter and an amaro, most people will go for amaro.’

There is likely a lot of truth in this last hypothesis – while bitter-flavoured drinks are growing in popularity, they can take some getting used to, and there’s an evolutionary reason behind this. Bitter flavours are more challenging for us to accept, partly because a lot of poisons taste bitter, and we’ve evolved to spot these danger flavours.

For those struggling to get their heads around this complex category of drinks, I recommend starting with Amaro Montenegro, which wears its bitterness so lightly that it acts as a gateway into the category. Using the products in aperitivi, such as the cocktails below, or simply mixing a product with soda or tonic water over ice, are also great introductions.

However you choose to drink them, if you’re struggling, it’s worth living by the old adage, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’

Five bitters cocktails to mix

Negroni Sbagliato

A lighter, sparkling twist on the Negroni, replacing gin with prosecco. Sbagliato translates as ‘mistaken’ in English – the story goes that bartender Mirko Stocchetto at Bar Basso in Milan accidentally muddled the two ingredients up, then realised that it did, in fact, make a delicious drink.

Ingredients: 60ml Prosecco, 30ml Campari, 30ml sweet vermouth
Glass: Rocks
Garnish: Orange wedge
Method: Take a mixing glass filled with ice, add ingredients, and stir until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish.

Lutyens Spritz

Bartender Julian de Féral shared this recipe with me – it was on the menu at the now defunct Lutyens restaurant on Fleet Street. It’s a juicier, more concentrated twist on the Aperol Spritz, where the soda water has been switched for pink grapefruit juice. Very moreish, and a contender for serving during brunch.

Ingredients: 50ml pink grapefruit juice, 25ml Aperol, splash of prosecco to top
Glass: Champagne flute
Garnish: None
Method: Build in glass.

Cynar Americano

I first tried this at Lina Stores, a gorgeous Italian joint in Soho. It’s a twist on the classic Americano cocktail, which switches in Cynar for the usual Campari. Where the Campari brings a light, bright bitterness in an Americano, the Cynar provides a deeper flavour, with burnt caramel characters and a moreish balance between bitter and sweet.

Ingredients: 50ml Cynar, 25ml Cocchi Americano, splash of soda water to top
Glass: Large rocks or highball
Garnish: Baby artichoke on a cocktail pick
Method: Fill glass with ice. Build ingredients in glass, gently stir and garnish.

White Negroni

A variation on the classic ruby-coloured Negroni (which consists of equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth), this white version is a French equivalent, being made with Suze and Lillet Blanc. It’s a drier alternative, with bitter quinine and gentian notes to the fore.

Ingredients: 25ml Suze, 25ml Lillet Blanc, 25ml gin
Glass: Rocks
Garnish: Grapefruit zest
Method: Take a mixing glass filled with ice, add ingredients, and stir until chilled. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish.

Picon Bière

It’s common practice in France to add a shot of Picon Amer to your beer (resulting in this drink), or even your wine. A splash in a crisp beer adds a deeper, more earthy dimension to your beverage.

Ingredients: 100ml crisp beer, 25ml Picon Amer
Glass: Highball
Garnish: Orange slice
Method: Build ingredients over ice, stir and garnish. 


Six bitters to stock in your drinks cabinet

Picon Amer 

Dating back to 1837, this traditional French amer with bitter orange, burnt caramel, coffee, quinine and grapefruit peel flavours was created by Gaetan Picon, a French soldier serving in Algeria. Fresh and dried orange peel, gentian roots and quinquina are used as the botanicals.  Alc 21%

The Whisky Exchange £18.95

Amaro Montenegro

Hailing from Bologna, Amaro Montenegro’s recipe is a blend of 40 botanicals, including coriander, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and artemisia, resulting in a delicately fragrant and bittersweet liqueur. Aromas of leather, liquorice, orange zest and raisins are followed by a delicately bitter palate of orange, cola cubes and vanilla.  Alc 23%

Master of Malt £19.95

Aperol

With its distinctive orange shade, it’s hard to miss Aperol, the aperitif at the centre of the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. Created a century ago in 1919, it wears its orange-and-rhubarb botanicals influence on its gently bittered sleeve, along with a sweet toffee note. It’s reminiscent of a boozy marmalade.  Alc 11%

Waitrose £15

Campari 

Originating in Milan, this ruby-red Italian classic liqueur is flavoured with more than 60 different botanicals, including bitter orange and gentian. It has a distinct nose of quinine, orange and grapefruit peel and thyme, while the palate has a luscious mouthfeel, with buckets of bitter quinine and blood orange counteracted by plenty of sweetness. Alc 25%

Tesco £15.50

Cynar 

The distinctive label design hints at this Italian bittersweet liqueur’s main botanical: artichoke. An infusion of 13 herbs and plants, Cynar (pronounced chee-nar) has a distinct vegetal character married with toffee and caramel sweetness, and an unashamed bitterness. Alc 16.5%

The Whisky Exchange £15.75

Suze 

A bright yellow French aperitif flavoured with gentian root and other botanicals, Suze boasts a dusty, medicinal yet floral aroma that leads on to a delicate yet distinctly bitter palate, with that gentian character accompanied by camomile, yellow grapefruit and pine. Alc 20%

The Drink Shop £18.75


See also: Wine cocktails to try and how to make them