In Italy, bitterness—whether in the glass or on the table—is as essential to Italian identity as pasta. As it applies to alcohol consumption, bitterness generally comes in two forms: aperitivi and digestivi. While the latter is comprised mostly of dark, brooding, herbal amari—which have already become a sensation stateside—the former is a more opaque category, albeit one that is at the beginning stages of its own boom of new products, thanks in large part to the success of the two titans of the category, Campari and Aperol, and their associated cocktails.
In simple terms, the aperitivo liqueurs can be divided into two broad styles: “aperitivo” and “bitter,” both roughly defined as red-hued, wine- or spirit-based products infused with citrus, herbs, spices and roots, then mixed with sweeteners to offset their intensity. In general, the former is lower in alcohol and lighter in color—think Aperol—while those that comprise the bitter genre—i.e. Campari—contain about double the alcohol and are often more, well, bitter.
Red bitter aperitivo liqueurs emerged in the 19th century, mainly in the Italian north. Originally praised for their medicinal effects, red bitters were eventually adopted as a cocktail ingredient and, by the 1920s, consuming such Italian liqueurs was practically an act of patriotism. In the decades that followed, Italy’s distinctive cocktails—the Spritz, the Negroni, the Americano and the Negroni Sbagliato—would transport the country’s red bitters across the globe. Meanwhile, at home, these bitter liqueurs continued to maintain a deeply regional character, meaning that the bitter aperitivo liqueur you favored most often depended on the city you hailed from (and still does in many cities in the north).
But by the 1980s, production of many historic brands began to decline, while others, like Martini Bitter and Gancia Aperitivo, disappeared altogether. The causes were numerous, ranging from Italy’s declining per-capita alcohol consumption to changing palates in foreign markets. While shifting consumption patterns in Italy and abroad may be partially to blame for the decline, Eric Seed, founder of Minnesota-based importer of obscure European liqueurs, Haus Alpenz, links it to changing business structures. “Much of this has to do with the consolidation of production in Italy, which shifted from a dominance of local and regional producers to that of national producers,” he says. “In a prior age, most every major town would have a handful of spirits producers, making a full range of products, including red bitters, amari, grappa, fernet, mandarino and many more.”
While historic brands were disappearing in Italy, the U.S. market for red bitters dried up as tastes drifted towards sweeter liqueurs. Steve Lewis, the Boulder-based importer behind Giuliana Imports—which recently started bringing in Contratto’s line of aperitivo liqueurs—says the popularity of sweeter and higher-alcohol drinks contributed to the U.S. market abandoning all but a few brands. “When I was a bartender in the ‘80s we had a few Italian liqueurs on the back bar collecting dust,” he says. “Those ingredients and those flavors just weren’t touched. It was all about shots and Sex on the Beach; there was very little interest in anything savory, anything bitter.”
That, of course, has changed. As the market opened up for products that were either intensely bitter or savory (or both), the absence of competition paved the way for the dominance of Campari and, later, Aperol. Over the past decade, both brands have solidified their positions as the world’s premier bitter aperitif liqueurs, albeit with deliberately different roles. In 2004, the year after Gruppo Campari acquired Aperol, the company embarked on an aggressive and ongoing marketing campaign positioning it as the quintessential ingredient for the Spritz, a light aperitif made from bitter liqueur, sparkling wine and water. Meanwhile, Campari emphasized its ownership over Italy’s most well-known classic cocktails.
It might seem that other red bitter liqueurs wouldn’t stand a chance of challenging the market titans. Yet in recent years, historic, family-owned brands like Cappelletti and Casoni have expanded their distribution of their aperitivo liqueurs to the U.S., while new products like Ascoli Piceno’s Meletti 1870 Bitter and Contratto’s Aperitif and Bitter, inspired by treasured family recipes, have recently entered the market.
“Without question, Campari laid the foundation in the United States, well established over the decades as an essential elixir behind every bar,” says Alyson Careaga, Director of Marketing and Italian Portfolio at North Berkeley Wine. Joe Campanale, owner of New York’s Anfora, L’Apicio and dell’anima, acknowledges Campari’s contribution and elaborates, “Gruppo Campari did a fantastic job of selling their version of Italian lifestyle and paved the way for the arrival of liqueurs that are more particular.”
In the case of tiny, hyper-regional producers like Cappelletti, it’s an importer’s passion that paved the way for its arrival, and subsequent success, in the U.S. market. Even in Italy, Cappelletti enjoys extremely limited distribution, which is focused mainly in its native Trentino and the adjacent regions Alto Adige, the Veneto and Lombardy, especially Brescia and Lake Garda, where it is mixed with still wine and soda. Eric Seed sees Cappelletti and others as offering Americans an alternative way to drink that more closely resembles Italian moderation.
Meanwhile, the incredible success of cocktails like the Negroni and the Spritz have imprinted the flavor profile of classic aperitivo liqueurs on the American consumer, and opened the market up for new brands to market to bartenders who are looking for not only variation in flavor—much like you might find in the diverse amari category—but different applications for these liqueurs beyond the classic Italian aperitivo canon.
One enthusiastic barman, Naren Young of New York’s Dante, which is modeled off of a classic European café, sees the industry leaders as an important starting point for introducing red bitters to his bar customers. “A lot of these complex flavors are quite new to a lot of people,” says Young. “Aperol, Campari—these things are a bit polarizing, but that’s where it starts, and I think it just permeates its way outward from there.”