Aromatic bitters, the subject of our coverage this month at The 9-Bottle Bar, stars in so many classic cocktail recipes, we proposed that it may very well be the most useful member of this little company we've assembled. But when it comes to bitter booze, the aromatic, non-potable stuff is just one star in a brightly lit sky.
This week let's do of other notable varieties of bitters.
Italian Happy Hour: Cynar, Aperol, and Campari
One loosely associated group of bitters includes the Italian-made liqueurs Cynar, Aperol, and Campari. These are popular mixers in afternoon sippers like the bubbly Spritz and — if your evening entails little to no responsibility — the boozy, stirred Negroni.
Their bitterness is moderate in comparison to other varieties below, with orange-flavor Aperol being the most approachable. Cynar, as the bottle illustrates, counts artichoke as one of its main flavorings, while ruby-colored Campari is at once reminiscent of red fruit, blood orange, and grapefruit.
Easing the Stomach, Exciting the Palate: Fernet
If you know of Fernet, perhaps it was a bartender who acquainted you. This intensely bitter, earthy, spicy, sometimes slightly minty herbal liqueur has become quite popular as an end-of-shift drink among the shaking-and-stirring set. Italians, for their part, love to sip on Fernet after a meal to take advantage of its benefits as a digestive aid.
Fernet-Branca, an Italian brand, was for the longest time effectively the Kleenex of the Fernet landscape. But in recent years more lesser-known brands, including one from Mexico, have been cropping up in the U.S. Minty and well-balance Letherbee Fernet, out of a Chicago distillery, represents one in a new wave of promising, domestic-made Fernets.
French Herbs and Spices: Bonal
This French-made (and handsomely labeled) Bonal belongs to another loose constellation of aperitif liqueurs that skew more herbal, and whose bitterness falls short of the polarizing levels found in a product like Fernet. Bonal, for instance, is a more fully known as Bonal Gentiane-Quina, implying that both gentian root, a bittering agent, and chinchona bark, the source of medicinal quinine — the stuff that put the "tonic" in tonic water — are both key ingredients.
Gentian figures into a slew of European aperitifs, such as Suze and Salers. French-made Byrrh and Italian-made Barolo Chinato are flavored with quinine.
You Say Amer, I say Amaro: French & Italian Amari
The last in this short and admittedly incomplete list of bitter-flavored booze is one of the widest categories: what in Italy is known as amaro and, in France, amer. (Both are their respective language's word for "bitter.") Regions all across Italy are known for their local amaro, which run the gamut from mellow and syrupy sweet with just a touch of bitterness, all the way to robust and herbaceous and head-shakingly bitter. Amaro Meletti, from the March region, flavored with saffron and caramel, falls into the former camp; Amaro Sibilla, from a town called Pievebovigliana and heavy on the gentian and chinchona, definitely belongs to the latter.
Sadly little known and scarcely available in the U.S., Amer Picon is one of Italian amaro's French relatives. It's a lovely take on bitter orange, with restrained sweetness and and mellow bitterness. Amer Picon Bière, pictured, is the lighter of two varieties sold in France; the other, Picon Club, is stronger and more geared toward cocktail mixing.
An otherwise ho-hum beer dressed up with a measure of Picon Bière suddenly has the power to shine. The lesson: bitters make everything better.
Do you have a favorite from this list?