In Wes Anderson’s 2004 film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the eponymous oceanographer’s drink of choice aboard his research ship The Belafonte was Campari on the rocks, kept flowing in a steady red stream by a squad of unpaid interns. Despite Zissou’s eccentric style, traditionally Italian and Italian-inspired red aperitivo bitters—lighter, brighter and more citrus-forward than their after-dinner counterparts—are typically not consumed on their own. They’re instead served with a splash of soda or as a key component in variations of the ever popular spritz, Negroni and Americano.
We’ve been on the bitter beat with Katie Parla’s expert guide to essential Italian aperitivo liqueurs, and a took a deep dive into the growing crop of domestic-made amari and aperitivi. In addition, we’ve called out some of our favorites, including St. George Spirits Bruto Americano, Leopold Bros. Aperitvo and Don Ciccio e Figli Cinque Aperitivo. That’s all to say that while Campari and Aperol will always have a place in our bittersweet hearts, the flood of new bitter aperitivi shows no signs of slowing, giving bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike reason to celebrate.
Here, seven new bitter liqueurs to seek out, including Italian-born expressions and made-in-America takes.
Forthave Spirits Red Aperitivo
Where it’s made: Brooklyn, New York
What’s in it: 13 botanicals, including chamomile, citrus peels, rose buds, rose hips and rhubarb root
ABV: 24 percent
The story: Forthave Spirits launched on the border of Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, in January 2017 with a gin called Blue, an amaro named Marseille and a red bitter dubbed, appropriately, Red. “From the jump, we’ve been fascinated by and loved many botanical spirits, amari in particular,” says owner Daniel de la Nuez. “When we set our minds to making them, we stuck to an all-natural approach: using nothing artificial, working only with glass or stainless steel, and using ingredients that are cultivated without chemicals.” Hailed as “the best non-Italian red bitter on the market,” by PUNCH Editor in Chief Talia Baiocchi, Red truly stands out among the pack of new-look aperitivo bitters, and is much more than just a junior-varsity alternative to Campari.
How it tastes: The earthy garnet color is achieved naturally using botanical extracts including hibiscus and black carrots. In the glass, it’s aromatic and slightly dry with a perfectly balanced level of bitterness. Excellent on the rocks with soda and a lemon twist (as they serve it at Roman’s in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill). De la Nuez suggests agave-based spirits for cocktails, like a Mezcal Negroni, or his favorite application, a Pét-Nat Spritz.
Where it’s made: Turin, Italy
What’s in it: Over 50 ingredients, including anise, bergamot, cardamom, chinotto, grapefruit, juniper, lavender, rhubarb root and sage
ABV: 24 percent
The story: Galliano L’Aperitivo is the ruby-red sister spirit to the golden-yellow Galliano L’Autentico, known primarily as a key ingredient in a Harvey Wallbanger. It shares the same distinctive bottle design, but likely offers more applications in cocktails. Produced at the Maraschi e Quirici distillery outside of Turin, Italy, where Galliano has been made since 1896, the distillery sources the majority of its ingredients from the Alpine region of northwest Italy. L’Aperitivo was launched in the United States in May, 2017, and Galliano brand manager Tanya Cohn believes it deserves space on the backbar for its “balance between the sweetness of some amari and the less palatable bitterness of others,” adding, “to Galliano’s advantage, we also have 120 years of history that help set the brand apart.”
How it tastes: Think of it as a cross between Campari and Aperol in terms of bitter profile—only drier. Just add soda or sparkling wine for a refreshing aperitivo or try it in a Negroni Sbagliato. The Tuscan Hills cocktail at Porto in Boston mixes L’Apertivio with gin, grapefruit, honey syrup, lavender bitters and prosecco.
Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto
Where it’s made: Turin, Italy
What’s in it: Calabrian bergamot, chamomile, citron, gentian root, lavender, lemon balm and yellow roses
ABV: 20 percent
The story: Former Martini & Rossi global brand ambassador and noted bartender Giuseppe Gallo has long been a champion for vermouth, amaro and Italian drinking culture. With the debut of his Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, he brings new life to a long-overlooked category of Italian spirits, rosolio, a sweetened, low-proof Italian liqueur often made with rose petal, citrus, cardamom and other aromatic herbs and botanicals. Rosolio (derived from the Latin ros solis, which means “dew of the sun”) dates back to the 15th century and distinctive regional styles were consumed throughout Italy, traditionally at celebratory occasions.
Launched in September, 2016, Italicus’ star ingredient is the dried peels of the fragrant Calabrian bergamot, often used as an ingredient by perfume makers. Gallo was inspired by a recipe for Rosolio di Torino from Luigi Sala’s late-1890s book, Il Liquorista Pratico. “This original recipe lies at the heart of Italicus,” says Gallo. “The northern region of Piedmont surrounded by the mountains has a tradition of using many flowers and plants from the Alps, and it is also the central area for growing aromatic herbs. The old recipe combines these familiar local ingredients in a gentle maceration that forms the first of the elixr, or extracts we use for Italicus.”
How it tastes: There’s complex floral and citrusy aromatics along with a subtle bitterness that slightly undercuts the juiciness of ripe fruit. It calls for soda or something bubbly to open it up; Gallo recommends serving it 50/50 with Prosecco over ice, garnished with three green olives for a bit of briny salinity. He’s also fond of its compatibility with mezcal.
Where it’s made: Philadelphia
What’s in it: 19 different organic herbs and botanicals, including fennel, ginger, star anise and Thai bird chiles
ABV: 32 percent
The story: Dean Browne, the self-taught distiller of Philadelphia’s Rowhouse Spirits has been partnering with local restaurants on a series of amaro releases. There’s the Standard Amaro, a collaboration with William Reed of Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda’s that’s made with made with charred Pennsylvania peaches; High Street Amaro, a fernet-style liqueur inspired by High Street on Market; and Demon Weed Herbal Liqueur, made from a base of Bar Hygge/Brewery Techne’s Demon Weed Gruit Ale.
But Browne’s first foray into all things bitter was with his Bear Trap liqueur, which was released as a tribute to the herbal spirits he enjoyed traveling across Europe in the 1980s and ‘90s. Browne appears on the label, captured by illustrator Rog Petersen, as a shirtless, burly ginger-bearded vintage strongman. This was created in tribute to the local bear community as a bespoke product intended to replace their beloved shots of Jägermeister. And what about the unique name and label design? “The name and the fact that there’s a picture of me on the label alludes to the fact that I’m a straight guy that gets hit on by a lot of bears,” says Browne. “I’m just having some fun at my own expense with my bear buddies.”
How it tastes: While this is a bit more aggressive in profile, Browne presents Bear Trap as an aperitivo bitter. The anise is the dominant note in aroma and flavor with a strong herbal notes and a lingering bitterness. The natural red coloring is achieved by adding hibiscus flowers and rose hips post distillation. Because he uses natural herbs without chemical stabilizers, the color of the spirit morphs in bottle from red to copper. As Browne likes to point out, “Bear Trap is, ironically, enjoyed straight.”
Luxardo Bitter Bianco
Where it’s made: Padua, Italy
What’s in it: 11 botanicals, including bitter orange, cardamom, cinchona bark, rhubarb root, thyme and wormwood
ABV: 30 percent
The story: Long known for their namesake maraschino liqueur and cherries, the Luxardo family also produces a host of other products, including amaro and aperitivo bitters. Released in early 2017, Luxardo Bitter Bianco serves as a distinctive alternative to traditional red bitters, created to deliver an herbal, bitter bite to cocktails without the traditional red hue. Luxardo export director Matteo Luxardo, representing the sixth generation of the family business, points out that Luxardo produced a Bitter Bianco in the 1930s.
The new Bitter Bianco was inspired by a trip to the United States where he encountered countless takes on the White Negroni. “That night I returned to Italy, I had a dream that I was serving a Negroni Bianco. The next day I went to our chemist and explained to him what I wanted. Within one week, I had the recipe for the final product.” Luxardo then traveled across America with sample bottles in his suitcase pouring the product for influential bartenders to gather feedback to make adjustments. “I was excited to have the opportunity to use an old recipe and give it a twist.”
How it tastes: The color of clear cream soda, Bitter Bianco is a well-rounded blend of herbal and floral notes with a mild, but lingering bitterness. The same 11 herbs and roots as the Luxardo Red Bitter are used for the Bianco, but each one is infused individually, blended, then distilled and and finished with water, sugar and a wormwood infusion for a final bitter kick. It’s a shoe-in for use in the White Negroni and a Spritz Bianco. But Luxardo advises, “The key is having a grapefruit peel as garnish.”
Don Ciccio e Figli C3 Carciofo
Where it’s made: Washington, D.C.
What’s in it: Three varieties of California artichokes, cardoon and grapefruit
ABV: 23 percent
The story: “From the beginning, I wanted to create a portfolio that included amari, cordials and aperitivi,” says Francesco Amodeo, the Italian-born president and founder of Washington D.C.’s Don Ciccio e Figli. Since launching in October 2012, he has grown a portfolio inspired by his family’s history of distilling, dating back to 1883 in the town of Atrani on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. In 2015 he launched two signature aperitivo style bitters, Cinque and Luna Amara. And last fall, C3 Carciofo, an artichoke-based aperitivo based on a 1911 Italian recipe, joined the collection. For decades, Cynar, with an illustration of an artichoke gracing its signature label, was the only carciofo in town, but Amodeo hopes to expand the category with C3, which is lighter with a lower viscosity and strong citrus notes. “We often describe C3 as the aperitivo relative to Cynar,” he says. “Cynar has a bit more floral flavors and complexity that we chose to simplify in an attempt to embrace the true bitterness of the artichoke.”
How it tastes: It’s savory, earthy and slightly vegetal with a bright wash of citrus. “The application of fresh grapefruit peels is the most unique aspect of our aperitivo, giving it a clean, citrus accent with a hint of additional bitterness,” says Amodeo. Try it on its own over ice or in a long drink topped with soda and an orange slice. Amodeo recommends swapping it in for Averna in a Black Manhattan: “it creates a long finish and hearty composition with a balanced level of whiskey to bitter.”
Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter
Where it’s made: Turin, Italy
What’s in it: Angostura bark, Columba, Italian Artemisia and saffron
ABV: 28.5 percent
The story: The Italian company long synonymous with vermouth will enter the bitter game this fall with Martini Riserva Speciale Bitter. The third release in the Riserva Speciale lineup, following the Rubino and Ambrato vermouths, the bitter is inspired by founder Luigi Rossi’s original 1872 Martini Bitter recipe. Launched in 2015, the Riserva Speciale line is made up of full-bodied expressions designed to honor the traditional methods and ingredients used by Martini’s original master herbalists. All three are rested in Tino casks and infused with Italian Artemisia, offering a complementary profile when mixing together.
How it tastes: The red bitter has a vibrant hue of Cheerwine soda with a light, well-balanced combination of sweetness, herbaceous notes and mild bitterness. Perfect over ice with tonic and custom-made for a Negroni.