Call me bitter, but I prefer tongue-twisting drinks with a sour, bitter element to those of the sweet, flat and fruity variety. Perhaps it just suits my mood these days. Aren't we all feeling a little bitter about many things? The worldwide devastation from COVID-19, the lack of job security, the uncertainty of sending our kids back to school, I could go on.
Why not give that bitterness a taste of its own medicine? With a cocktail using one of the most unusual kinds of ingredients out there — bitters.
"Bitter-tasting foods are dangerous," says author Mark Bitterman in "Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters & Amari." "Bitterness in plants indicates the presence of toxins, but it also indicates the presence of vital nutrients."
I have loved Italian bitters for years — my liquor cabinet always has a bottle of each of the bright ruby-tinged Campari and Aperol. But lately, I have been experimenting with other types of bitters (rhubarb) and amaros (Cynar and Fernet-Branca).
Bitters and amari (amaro is Italian for "bitter") make up the sole category of food or drink constructed entirely around the flavor of bitterness. In a nutshell, bitters are concentrated flavor extracts for seasoning, while amari are concentrated flavor extracts for drinking. Both are incredibly bitter but loved for that very reason.
But bitters, however, can be slightly confusing — used for everything from curing stomachaches to making cocktails, all bitters are not necessarily bitter.
"Bitters had their heyday in the 1800s before petering out at the turn of the 20th century due to government regulation," Bitterman says. "Prohibition was the final straw for all but Angostura, one of the oldest bitters companies (not surprisingly, it remains the most well-known bitters producer around today)."
Bitters are made by infusing a neutral spirit with any number of aromatics, such as spices, seeds, tree bark, roots and/or fruits. Bitters were initially developed and marketed for medicinal purposes, with ingredients generally thought to impart good health preserved in a neutral liquor. Health claims began to be a bit outlandish — restoring youthful vigor, curing malaria — and bitters eventually found their way from the medicine cabinet to the liquor cabinet.
Before Prohibition, bitters were prevalent in all kinds of cocktails, but most brands disappeared when the United States cracked down on the production of alcohol. Thanks to a renewed interest in craft cocktails and ambitious bartenders looking for new ways to mix the classics, bitters have been making a big-time comeback.
There are all different kinds of bitters, but they generally fall into one of two categories. Cocktail bitters, the kind that comes in tiny bottles, occasionally with a dropper attached to the cap, are used in small quantities (a drop or two) to add an intense punch of flavor. Digestif or potable bitters, bitter liqueurs or Amari are not quite as potently flavored as cocktail bitters, meaning they are typically consumed on their own, in ounces rather than drops.
Below is a small sampling of the best bitters and what to do with them.
Angostura is one of the most popular varieties of aromatic bitters, dating back to the 19th century. Named after the town of Angostura in Venezuela (not after the angostura tree, which has medicinal bark), the iconic bitters were invented by J.G.B. Siegert in 1824 as a remedy for the stomach problems of Simón Bolivar's soldiers. So Angostura bitters were intended initially to aid digestive issues and battle Venezuelan parasites but are now a key ingredient in iconic drinks like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan.
Peychaud's are, by popularity, in the same league as Angostura, but their trademark anise-forward flavor limits their versatility. Peychaud's holds the title as THE key ingredient in New Orleans' staple Sazerac cocktail.
In 1860, bartender-turned-proprietor Gaspare Campari invented the vibrantly red aperitif in the cellar of his establishment in Milan: The secret recipe still keeps the name of its original creator. The blend of alcohol, sugar syrup, distilled water, and an infusion of orange, rhubarb, ginseng and herbs is actually brownish after distillation. Campari gets its scarlet hue from a dye. Campari is the heart of the Negroni (the official cocktail of summer), the Boulevardier (my official drink of winter), the Americano (James Bond is a fan) and the Milano-Torino (Mi-To for short). You'll need a bottle to pair with soda as well.
Our new family friend Stefano, who hails from the Piedmont region of Italy, recently introduced me to Cynar (pronounced chee-NAR). It is a classic Italian liqueur made from a blend of artichoke leaves and a number of botanicals (13 to be exact). There's nothing artichoke-y about the flavor, although its woodsy, earthy characteristics might remind you of one. Like all amari (Italian herbal liqueurs), Cynar is a balance of sweet and bitter, although this guy is further toward the bitter end than most.
If you are a fan of the Aperol Spritz, and could sip Negronis all day, try replacing the Campari with this pungent sipper, or enjoy it over ice with a hearty splash of San Pellegrino grapefruit soda (Stefano suggests 1:5 ratio Cynar to soda).
Fernet-Branca is the brainchild of Milan native Bernandino Branca, who created the secret blend of fernet (a style of amaro) in 1845. According to the brand's website, the closely guarded recipe is made from 27 herbs, flowers, roots and plants sourced from different continents: aloe from South Africa, Chinese rhubarb, galingale from Southeast Asia, gentian root from France, chamomile from Argentina and so on). Fernet-Branca ages in oak barrels for at least one year, a process that deepens its aroma and imparts its distinctive reddish-brown hue.
Fernet con cola (with Coca-Cola) is so popular in Argentina that the country now consumes more than 75% of all Fernet produced globally. Sometimes referred to as a Fernando or a Fernandito, Fernet con Coca is made by mixing the amaro Fernet-Branca with Coca-Cola, serving it in a highball over ice.
Aperol is a classic Italian bitter aperitif made of gentian, rhubarb and cinchona, among other ingredients. It has a vibrant orange hue and a flavor reticent of rhubarb, bitter herbs and burnt orange, thanks to the infusion of bitter and sweet oranges. Its name comes from the French slang word for aperitif, which is apero. Aperol is slightly lower on the bitter scale than Campari, and its high sugar content makes it more approachable than other bitters. The unofficial cocktail of summer, the Aperol spritz, has taken America by storm, but the cocktail has been around since the 1950s.
Makes one cocktail
The Sazerac is one of America's oldest cocktails, if not the first. According to the Sazerac Rye company, the famed Sazerac Coffee House was founded in New Orleans in 1850 and soon became known as the home of "America's First Cocktail," the Sazerac. Using rye whiskey (in place of French brandy), a dash of Peychaud's bitters and Herbsaint or absinthe (a formerly illegal licorice-flavored liquor), the Sazerac eventually became the official cocktail of New Orleans.
1 sugar cube
2½ ounces rye whiskey
2 dashes Peychaud's bitters
1 dash Angostura bitters
Absinthe, Herbsaint or Pernod
Twist of lemon peel
1. Add a sugar cube to an Old-Fashioned glass and muddle it with a few drops of water.
2. Add several ice cubes, then rye whiskey, Peychaud's bitters and Angostura bitters. Stir well.
3. Swirl a few drops of absinthe around a second, chilled, Old-Fashioned glass until the inside is thoroughly coated. Pour off the excess. Strain the contents of the first glass into the second. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
Add 1 ounce London dry gin, 1 ounce Campari and 1 ounce sweet vermouth to a cocktail shaker. Add some ice and shake well. Strain into a cocktail glass over ice and garnish with a twist of orange peel.
The Boulevardier has been called "a Negroni in a sweater," for it is a sipper perfect for fall and winter. To make, replace the gin in the Negroni with 2 ounces of bourbon, add 1 ounce Campari and 1 ounce sweet vermouth. Shake with ice, strain into a coupe or cocktail glass and garnish with a twist of lemon peel.
Fernet con Cola
Fill a highball glass with ice and top with 2 ounces of Fernet-Branca. Top off with 6 ounces Coca-Cola and stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon twist if desired.
Makes one cocktail
Fill a wine glass with ice. Add Prosecco and Aperol in equal parts. Add a splash of club soda and garnish with an orange slice.
What the Ale: Broken Arrow has another brewery opening soon. The Nook Brewing Co.
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