The Italians do it Bitter. Better, I Meant Better – Classic Italian Cocktails

When summer arrives, as a bartender we always see a run on Aperol spritz’s, but the times have changed, as the spritz has a home at any time drink, and its popularity has exploded. And this, in turn, has aided the popularity of all the Italian Aperitivo liqueurs.

Italy produces numerous other bitter aperitivo liqueurs and wines. And have done for hundreds of years, the length and breadth of the beautiful country.

They fall under the category broadly called aperitivo liqueurs.  The term aperitivo refers to the Italian tradition of having a drink and a bite before dinner.

These liqueurs strike a balance between bitter and sweet, flavoured with spices, herbs, and roots and their obvious appeal of stimulating the appetite has aided them going from strength to strength.

The two most readily available on the Irish market are Aperol and Campari, but if you can source them here are a few recommendations.


Amongst the bitter Aperitivo liqueurs its bitter elements are more restrained, with pleasant orange flavour and due to its low alcohol (11%), it’s a great gateway aperitivo. Just bitter enough to introduce you to the genre.


The best known bitter red aperitivo of them all, there’s no mistaking its pleasingly sharp edges and herbal-bitter bite. For the uninitiated, it can come across too bitter, but well worth acquiring a taste for. Amazing in cocktails, neat or with a splash of OJ.

Luxardo Aperitivo

Best known for its maraschino liqueur, the Luxardo company dates back to 19th-century Croatia and is now located in Padua, across the northern Adriatic. Their Aperitivo, which, like Aperol, clocks in at 11% ABV, is pleasantly light and soft, with its notes of orange and rhubarb.

Aperitivo Select

When in Italy drink like the Italians, Aperitivo Select is popular amongst the locals. Similar to Aperol in alcohol at 14%, the difference is the more complex additional flavours of vanilla and ginger just a touch less sweet but still bright and orange of nature.

Meletti 1870

Meletti at 25% has a fascinating array of flavours warmth of spice, cinnamon on the lead which makes it ideal in cocktails that can play off that complexity. Definitely one to try if you find yourself a fan of Campari’s punch.

The Bitter Truth

While food contains nutrients and calories, all the good stuff that animals and humans need to survive, it may also contain harmful bits and pieces. To aid food selection, the senses of taste and smell have evolved to alert us to the bitter taste of poisons and the sour taste and nasty smell of rotten foods.

These senses allow us to eat defensively and safely for the most part, and they allow us to put on the brakes, to avoid ingesting harmful foods and drinks. And this can be the reason bitter drinks by nature aren’t some peoples bag.

But along with social learning, curiosity and maturing pallets, people all over the planet are consuming bitter aperitivo wines and liqueurs. So with all the alarm bells ringing here’s a quick guide to drinking bitter and better.

Bitter and Twisted

In the world of bitters there can be some confusion as the word bitter is used with different categories, these being aperitivo and digestif bitters and cocktail bitters. The first two are categories covering bitter aperitif liqueurs and bitter digestif liqueurs and wines we all consume on their own or in mixes, these include Campari, amaro and jagermeister or added to cocktails.

And then we have cocktail bitters Angostura bitters and peychauds just to name two out of the hundreds on the market. Unlike their counterparts, these aren’t usually intended to be consumed on their own and are typically used a flavour enhancer/ Bittering agent for cocktails, produced in highly potent flavour concentrations, to be used sparingly in mixed drinks.

And yes there all bitters, typically consisting of the same DNA, same botanicals, just the concentrations are different and ABV’s. The botanical ingredients used in preparing bitters have historically consisted of aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and/or fruit for their flavour and medicinal properties. Some of the more common ingredients are cascarilla, cassia, gentian, orange peel and cinchon bark.

True Colours

In the past, many bitter aperitives were dyed with a pigment extracted from the cochineal beetle. Today, most brands have moved away from the crushed insects, switching to artificial or vegetable-based colourings. But as per tradition, the iconic red hue continues. If the music of the Beetles is the only Beetles you want in your life check the bottle’s ingredients.

We have the technology, we can make you faster, stronger, bitter.
So I always recommend trying the liquids straight or on the rocks, but if your feeling adventurous here’s some iconic cocktails utilising bitter aperitivo’s.

Aperol Spritz
This wine based, refreshing lightly bittered drink is a gateway to the bitter things in life.

– 25 ml Soda
– 50 ml Aperol
– 75 ml Prosecco
– Garnish with orange slices

In a large wine glass over ice add the ingredients, building and stirring and garnish with fresh orange slices.

The Negroni
The Negroni is a three-part wonder, an easily replicated marvel with equal ratios of gin to Campari to sweet vermouth. Classic, and delicious. An Italian wonder created in and around the 1860’s and made with a simple orange garnish, stirred down with ice. No fuss no muss! A bitter inviting complex drink. Simply delicious.

– 30 ml Glendalough Wild Botanical Gin
– 30 ml Campari
– 30 ml sweet vermouth

Stirred with ice, to achieve correct chill and dilution. Simple!

The Boulevardier
The Boulevardier is a sophisticated tipple that is sometimes referred to as a whiskey Negroni. However, the Boulevardier cocktail may have predated the Negroni, as is common in the cocktail world. Exact dates of creation for both drinks are a little muddled.

It was first published in the 1920’s bar book, ABC of Mixing Cocktails by the renowned bartender Harry MacElhone. Its Inclusion paved the way for Campari in America.

– 45ml Bulleit Rye
– 30ml Campari
– 30ml Sweet Vermouth
– Orange twist

Add all ingredients to mixing glass over ice and stir with cautious vigour for thirty seconds to achieve correct chill and dilution. Strain into chilled coupe and zest orange twist over top.


darren geraghtyDarren Geraghty, is the Bar Manager and cocktail specialist for Candlelight Bar @ Siam Thai Dundrum and Malahide and well-respected consultant, started his career in 2000 and has represented Ireland on the world cocktail stage and won numerous Irish titles.

At Candlelight Bar, he has built the brand and bar team, focusing on of high quality but reasonably priced drinks, excellent customer service and a distinctive splash of speakeasy styled flair and theatre.

The award-winning Candlelight Bar has secured two for the Irish Craft Cocktail Bar Awards Best in Leinster 2016 and 2017, RAI Best Cocktail Experience and Sky Bar Awards Best Restaurant Bar 2017.

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