The word ‘bitter’ doesn’t always have the most positive connotation.
Often when we think of bitter, we think of an unpleasant flavor paired with a sour face. For many things, bitter is not the best descriptor word. However, when it comes to spirits, bitter is anything but a bad thing.
Enjoying cocktails is very similar to enjoying wine in the sense that from the start we go with flavors that are more comfortable, and namely, sweet ones. As a novice cocktail drinker, I would automatically gravitate towards sweeter drinks, light on the base spirit and heavy on the liqueurs and juices that gave it that more than necessary sugary sip.
As I have begun to become more seasoned in drinking, I have learned to appreciate different flavors. While I still enjoy the occasional sweet drink here and there, it is a bitter drink that really turns on my taste buds.
Not too familiar with classic bitter spirits? Chances are you know exactly what they are and what drinks they’re in, even if you didn't realize that they are bitter spirits! These spirits can be enjoyed in a variety of cocktails, from the classics to many lesser-known concoctions. They are also great with a simple splash of soda and an orange wedge. In this cocktail revolution that we are all lucky enough to currently be a part of, bitter flavors are being accepted with open arms once again. I think I speak for everyone when I say, thank goodness!
Below is a list of some of my favorite bitter spirits, each paired with a cocktail that I think showcases it at its best. Try one or try them all, but let us know what you think in the comments section. Cheers!
Campari is one of my favorite bitter spirits on the market today. It is mostly bitter, but has some really fantastic sweet and tangy notes in addition to the flavors of oranges and cherries. This is a perfect spirit for mixing with cocktails, but it is also great as an after dinner digestif.
Campari Cocktail: The Negroni
1 ½ oz London Dry Gin
¾ oz Campari
¾ oz Italian Vermouth
Shake well with cracked ice in a cocktail shaker. Strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel.
Cynar, like Campari, is an excellent after dinner digestif, but is quite different in terms of flavor. This bitter spirit is made from a variety of botanicals, most notably the artichoke, which gives it a distinct taste and a very defined and slightly aggressive bitterness.
Cynar Cocktail: The Art of Choke
1 ¼ oz Cynar
1 oz White Rum
¼ oz Green Chartreuse
⅛ oz Rich demerara sugar
⅛ oz Lime juice
1 dash Angostura bitters
In a cocktail shaker, stir all ingredients with ice until cold. Strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Garnish with a sprig of mint.
Another amari that can be enjoyed as an aperitif or a digestif, Averna has a pleasant bitterness with a nice, long finish. It is made from a variety of herbs, flowers, spices and dried fruits, giving it a complex taste that can be enjoyed in many different ways.
Averna Cocktail: La Dura Vita
1-1/2 oz Gin
1 oz Campari
½ oz Averna amari
Lemon twist, for garnish
Combine all ingredients over ice in an old fashioned glass. Stir and garnish with a lemon twist.
Punt y Mes
Punt y Mes is an Italian vermouth that is made from dry fortified white wine that is sweetened with sugar and blended with aromatic herbs to give it a one-of-a-kind complexity and bitterness that is hard to find in other bitter spirits. Punt y Mes is best enjoyed as an aperitif, but is becoming a popular cocktail ingredient as well.
Punt y Mes Cocktail: Red Hook
2 oz rye whiskey
½ oz Punt y Mes
¼- ½ oz maraschino, to taste
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
In every sense of the phrase, Fernet Branca is to an acquired taste. Made from over 40 different herbs and spices, Fernet Branca is an Italian digestif that is known for its intense bitter and slightly medicinal flavors. While many people enjoy Fernet Branca as a chilled shot, it makes for a great kick in several different cocktails.
Fernet Branca Cocktail: Toronto
2 oz Rye
½ oz Fernet Branca
½ oz Simple syrup
1 dash Angostura Bitters
1 Lemon peel
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Stir and strain into a double-old fashioned glass. Squeeze the lemon peel over the glass to release the oils and wipe along the rim before you drop it into the glass.