While most of the earth’s animals walk in fear of the bitter (in nature it is synonymous with poison), we humans fear not. Having evolved from the days of foraging berries and twigs in the woods, we are fully upright beings who now mix twigs and berries into bitter liqueurs or “medicinal” tonics. We then make cocktails out of them and call it progress. And really, who would argue with that?
Over the last half-decade, Italian amari of all shades, varying formulas and levels of sweetness have proliferated to meet our bitter demand. Fernet—which finds a home in NYC bartender Brad Farran’s Davy Jones’s Locker—has for years been a darling of the bartending community, particularly in San Francisco, where it has been consumed avidly since the days of Prohibition, when it remained legal for medicinal use. Along with the German digestif, Underberg, Fernet marks the tongue-splitting end of the bitter spectrum—its popularity at least partially rooted in its macho associations.
On the mellower side is Averna, which Atlanta bartender Greg Best adds to bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters and Herbsaint for his Rhythm and Soul. Braulio, an elegant alpine amaro that ranks among Italy’s finest and most sought after, was traditionally brought to the U.S. by way of the good ol’ suitcase smuggle. As of last year it’s now legally imported and has quickly found its way into drinks like Chicago bartender Matty Eggleston’s Nico, a riff on the Negroni using Sipsmith Gin and Cocchi Americano.
The artichoke amaro Cynar has also become a back-bar staple and a fixture in many bitter drinks, from Robert Hess’s early-aughts classic, the Trident, to Chris Hannah’s bitter riff on the Creole Cocktail, the Boo Radley, to Jamie Boudreau’s Italian Buck—an Italian take on the Dark and Stormy that calls for equal parts Cynar and the more delicate Amaro Montenegro, ginger beer and lime juice.
All five of these drinks offer a modern snapshot of the embarrassment of bitters that now characterize the American bar scene. Now go forth and, as our friend Brad Thomas Parsons would say, “stay bitter.”