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A New Bitter Stands Apart

August 20, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

The latest release from the 18th century Italian brand, Carpano Botanic Bitter has quickly become a back bar staple.

As we continue to embrace Italy’s aperitivo lifestyle and traditions, seeking out something low-ABV and bittersweet to drink is easier than ever, especially with the increasing availability of a diverse range of red bitters on the market. From classic Italian names to newly imported expressions to domestic takes from homegrown producers, bars and bottle shops now feature multiple brands and styles of the classic red bitter. It’s traditionally served with soda water or sparkling wine—or in the case of a spritz, a combination of both—and also used to impart a blend of bitterness, herbaceousness, citrus and aromatic botanicals to cocktails.

“When reaching for a new bottle, I ask myself the following questions. Does it stand on its own? Am I using this because it’s new, or because it brings something new to the table?” says Hayley Wilson, a bartender at a Scandinavian-inspired bar in Portland, Maine. “In this case, Carpano Botanic Bitter does bring something new.”

That would be the contemporary release from Carpano, the historic Italian brand that dates to 1786, whose new contribution to the red bitters boom is becoming a much-reached-for bottle among bartenders for its equal parts storied history and modern complexity.

“With so many red bitters [available], we take into consideration all aspects of the spirit. Taste and how it plays with others is a fun way to decide on our menu and backbar,” says Marguerite Regan, bar manager of a cocktail lounge in San Francisco’s Mission District. “I feel there is a place for more than one bitter on the shelf, but Carpano’s unique attributes lend to balance and flavor in different ways.”

One of those characteristics is Botanic Bitter’s bright scarlet color. The 10 ingredients in the bottle—a nuanced combination of citrus, herbs, barks and botanicals that include saffron, sandalwood, rhubarb root, zedoaria and myrrh, along with dried orange peels (bitter and sweet) and a blend of gentian, cinchona and wormwood—result in a slightly medicinal profile that pops with notes of aromatic citrus and lands with a lingering bitterness.

Perhaps what most differentiates it, though, is that Botanic Bitter contains only about half the sugar of most other red bitters, giving it a much drier profile that partners well with a range of cocktail styles. “Carpano Botanic Bitter is on the drier end of the spectrum in the bitter category, so the botanicals really pop when mixed with other spirits, elevating any cocktail and allowing you to play with other spirits and create new recipes,” Regan says.

“As someone who can be a bit of a control freak when it comes to drinks, I like being able to control the sugar content and body of my drinks,” Wilson adds. She’s drawn to Carpano Botanic Bitter for that low sweetness level, which, she says, makes it flexible and versatile, as well as for its clean mouthfeel and leaner profile. “The Botanic Bitter also gives me woody, rhubarb notes that you don’t typically find in red bitters.”

Meanwhile, Danniel Linn, the general manager of a British pub in Chicago, finds Carpano Botanic Bitter a welcome addition to his backbar for its ability to “balance, balance, balance”—referring to the way the liqueur can flex in a variety of different drinks without necessarily dominating the end result. He also appreciates its unique “strong gentian taste on the back of my tongue and that nice, oily orange peel up front, with the notes of saffron and rhubarb.”

And there’s no denying the beacon-like lure of Carpano Botanic Bitter’s distinctive hue, which Wilson describes “like Christmas in a glass when mixed with darker spirits.”

For those mixing with it at home, Carpano Botanic Bitter can be swapped in to many easy-to-make aperitivo classics—long drinks like the Americano, the bubbly and bittersweet spritz and sbagliato, the iconic equal-parts Negroni or a “fluffy” Garibaldi made with fresh-squeezed orange juice. For a sophisticated and sessionable highball, don’t sleep on the simple serve of Carpano Botanic Bitter over ice, topped with soda water.

“Carpano Botanic Bitter makes a fantastic cocktail, as well as drinks beautifully on its own. For me, that’s an important part in deciding on a product. I want something that can play nice with others as well as shine on its own,” says Wilson.

Further, she adds that “the woodiness found in the Botanic Bitter makes it distinguishable. It lends itself well to barrel-aged spirits in a way I don’t think other red aperitivos typically do.” That sylvan streak in the Carpano Botanic Bitter, coupled with its low-sugar sensibility, makes it work in darker, more spirited drinks, like the Boulevardier. Consider swapping Botanic Bitter into other bourbon-based classics and new-look favorites where it can stand in for any red bitter, such as the Paper Plane or, per Wilson’s suggestion, the Old Pal (rye, red bitter, dry vermouth) for a cocktail that is “classically bright with a light body and tons of flavor.”

Regan, too, encourages consumers at home to “play” with their Carpano Botanic Bitter, pairing it with different varieties of citrus, spices (coriander, for one) and sugar syrups, from simple to orgeat to fruit gums. “Check out other recipes and replace the bitter element with Carpano Bitter,” she says. “It will be delicious and noteworthy.”

“There’s always room to personalize your cocktail,” says Wilson. “I like to encourage folks to remember that classic cocktail specs are a guideline, not a manuscript.”

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