Bittersweet Symphony – Herbal and Bitter Liqueurs for the Absinthe Minded
Aperol Spritzers were just the beginning, the Prosecco sugar-coated getaway drink that introduced uninitiated palates into the realm of bitter spirits and herbal liqueurs; one where potion-like bottles with exotic names contain elixirs that give depth to cocktails and that lure you into the last frontier of flavour, bitterness.
Bitter tasting foods and drinks are acquired tastes that most of us instinctively reject upon first encounter, a reaction inherited from our ancestors.
But think about it: tea, coffee and dark chocolate are widely favoured and the more sophisticated examples tend to be those that reveal their bitter selves, stripped out of the cream and the sweetness, they challenge your taste buds the right way.
Another indicator of palates losing fear of the bitterness is the current popularity of IPA beers, which constantly push the boundaries of what’s considered “easy to drink.” Perhaps, it’s time to embrace it, after all, a touch of bitterness can do wonders for the balance of a drink and make all the other flavours seem even more beautiful.
Italians do it Bitter
While adding bitters to cocktails is not new, a revived cocktail scene with an emphasis in craft and high-end ingredients has expanded the possibilities and interest in mixers and products such as artisan bitters and other additions of intense, unusual flavours.
The timing has also been right for a rediscovery of bitter liqueurs and herbal spirits. The aforementioned Aperol is just one in a rich tradition of Italian Amari, and also, one of the mildest ones, with a tame 11% ABV. Another name that rings a bell from this family is Campari, more intensely bitter and with 28% ABV, it’s a crucial ingredient in the Negroni cocktail.
Amari, plural for Amaro (Italian for bitter), are traditionally thought to have a positive effect on digestion, hence they’re often drunk as digestivo or aperitivo.
Other examples of the very diverse style include artichoke liqueur Cynar, which combines a wealth of botanicals into an earthy, bittersweet drop at a moderate 16.5% ABV which offers an approachable drink, surprisingly easy to enjoy with ice, soda water and a lemon wedge.
Not for the faint of heart, Fernet-Branca is on the other end of the spectrum. With a hefty 39% ABV it’s practically as strong as whiskey and it is known for its powerful herbal taste with barky and even medicinal undertones. Curiously, Argentinians have taken it off its pedestal and the drink is extremely popular there mixed with Coca-Cola, further north, it is mostly used in cocktails.
Wanna learn to like it? Try it in a Toronto cocktail. Mix one part of Fernet-Branca, eight parts of whiskey, one part of syrup and two dashes of Angostura bitters. Stir and sere into a lowball glass with ice and garnish with orange peel.
Herbal Liqueurs for Cocktail Alchemy
While Italian is probably the official language of the bitter liqueurs kingdom, many other European countries have a solid tradition of producing their own unique mixes, often with secret recipes jealously guarded for generations.
One of Germany’s most famous Kräuterlikör (herbal spiced liquor), Jägermeister, combines 56 herbs and spices and while it’s often drunk in shots, if you want to drink it like a real adult, try it on a lowball glass with ginger beer to taste and some lime juice. Want to keep it simple? Mix a Jäger Tonic or see what happens when you switch the Campari in a Negroni for a twist on a classic.
Known as the national drink of Hungary, Unicum is another multi-herbal digestif. So bitter it is that the version that gets imported into the US had to be made more palatable (much to the disappointment of the 314 fans of the real stuff, who belong to a Facebook group called Bring Back Unicum to America!).
Its combination of over 40 herbs and spices is aged in oak for 6 months and let us just tell you, after being introduced to it by a friend that brought a bottle (the legit one) back from Budapest and noticing how the room was divided into “this is amazing” and “this is borderline poison”, it really is a love it or hate it drink.
On the milder end, French bittersweet liqueur Chartreuse might be more suitable to novice tasters. It has a history that traces back to 1737, when the Carthusian Monks developed it with an even older recipe. It combines 130 herbs and comes in a distinctive namesake colour (there’s yellow Chartreuse and a stronger, more bitter green Chartreuse).
Vermouth and Aromatised Wines
An aromatised wine is one that has been fortified (achieving a stronger alcoholic content compared to still wine) and flavoured with different natural ingredients, frequently herbs or spices.
Often, they become bitter or bittersweet concoctions of which vermouth is the most famous. There are many styles of vermouth, it can be made in different countries and sometimes it is sweetened (this type is very pleasant in spritzers of tonic water and orange peel). What to do with the dry type? Mar-ti-ni.
Other wines which undergo this bitter makeover include Lillet, which starts its life as Bordeaux wine and is blended with a combination of macerated liqueurs, and Chinato, a robust Italian red aromatised wine flavoured with herbs and spices including the name giver, quinine bark (if the name rings a bell, it’s also a major ingredient in tonic water).
A Drink for the Absinthe Minded
Pastis, a very popular apéritif in France, is another path to the enjoyment of bitterness. The spirit is flavoured with aniseed and other herbs. Pernod, a famous brand and a sort of variation on pastis, is flavoured with licorice, and it has an ABV of 45% (Pastis de Marseille). It is traditionally drunk with water (five parts water, one part Pastis) and lots of ice.
And once you’ve mastered la joie de Pastis, perhaps it’s time to invoke la fée verte. Absinthe‘s nickname translates as the green fairy and it refers to a famous brand. The spirit is Pastis’ predecessor and in fact, it was due to it being outlawed that the second thrived.
Absinthe fell from grace in the early 19th century, as it was thought to cause hallucinations thanks to the presence of a chemical called thujone, found in wormwood, the spirit’s key ingredient. In fairness, wormwood is also major in vermouth, but the latter has a fraction of Absinthe’s alcoholic content. Nowadays, these effects are considered more an urban legend than anything and most likely, it was good old fashioned drunkenness what got Absinthe drinkers so unruly to begin with.
Due to its high level of alcohol (it can range from 45% to 74%, with some even going above 80%ABV) it’s meant to be diluted. Some pretty eye-catching Absinthe drinking sets allow you to channel your inner Toulouse-Lautrec: pour one ounce of Absinthe into the special glass, lay an Absinthe spoon across the rim of the glass and place a sugar cube on the perforated area. Then drip ice cold water on the ice cube, three or four ounces per ounce of Absinthe.
While it’s not the most bitter drink we have talked about, Absinthe is probably the one that has the coolest drinking ritual and if you want to experience it properly, you can find a drinking kit for two on Amazon at around €30. Regarding the bottle, Celtic Whiskey Shop stocks nearly a dozen different bottles. If in Dublin, you can visit the Vintage Cocktail Club and rent one of their Absinthe fountains which will allow you to enjoy a variety of brands. The bar also has a few cocktails with Absinthe for those with a more contemporary style.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.