Think of them as the latest wave of Italian immigrants: The bitter liqueurs that have been flowing from Tuscany and Padua into the best bars in Europe for centuries are finally getting stocked behind American bars. Herbal has gone viral and bartenders, like Erick Castro of San Diego’s (excellent) Polite Provisions, have a theory about why. “They want their coffee served black, their beer brewed local and their whiskey robust,” says Castro of Americans latest crop of legal drinkers. “This generation does not want TV dinners or artificial ingredients.”
Say what you will about yoloing, rolling, and vaping, but young Americans aren’t soft when it comes to drinks. The fact that Italy specializes in the bitter and strong is viewed as a challenge by the sort of barfly that still keeps his I.D. handy and knows his way to the nearest Blue Bottle.
“Anyone who likes coffee likes bitter liqueurs,” says Castro. “It is only a matter of time before they find themselves enamored with the wide array of possibilities in the realm of bitter.”
Castro says that it is important that drinkers ease their way into more strident tastes. “Take your time and do not feel like you have to jump right into it with a Negroni.” He says, suggesting that beginner try an Aperol Sour or a bitter tiki drink like the Jungle Bird. The point, after all, isn’t to weather the flavor, but to savor it. Even if they’re bitter, these Italians are still looking for a good time.
That bottle of red stuff in your grandfather’s liquor cabinet that you learned the hard way wasn’t grenadine, Campari has long been the most popular type of Italian bitters in America. There’s a reason – two actually. The first reason is that the herbal mixture, which is earthy but infused with freshness thanks to the Cascarilla tree, balances out citrus in the way that Grandpa likes. The second is that it is a very pleasant shade. Looks matter. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.
Produced by the aompari company (you’ll notice a theme) in Padua, Aperol brings a bit more sweetness than its more famous cousin by integrating orange a rhubarb. Some people actually drink the stuff straight, but we’d recommend pouring it into some wine for a spritz or dropping it into whiskey if you want to get wild.
Used in Negroni cocktails where bartenders are serious, Cynar is an artichoke liquor with a slightly higher proof than its immediate family and an aftertaste that will linger until your dying day unless you hit the orange juice – and hard. It is – and this should not come as a shock – made by Campari.
A slightly rarer Amaro, Averna hails from Sicily, where men are men and women are ridiculously attractive. The liquid is basically a tangle of roots, but the long and short of it is that Averna is strong as hell and considerably sweeter than those mainland sippers. It’s best served on the rocks and better still served on the rocks above the Tyrrhenian Sea.
This is what you order when you want to get serious. The most expensive bottle on this list, Braulio is distilled (or concocted really) in the shadow of the Swiss Alps in the town of Valtellina. All that fresh air seems to seep into the liquor, which has the pine freshness of a Car-Freshener and considerably more kick.
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