All in good taste: The rise in bitters

Bitters cocktails

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…

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