The Bitter The Better

Reverb’s Mata Hari Cocktail features genever, lime juice, Riesling, juniper-hop bitters, and lime zest.
Reverb’s Mata Hari Cocktail features genever, lime juice, Riesling, juniper-hop bitters, and lime zest. Carmen Troesser

Bitter is toppling sweet flavors on the cocktail menu, and the trend is still on the rise.

Is bitter the new black? The Institute of Food Technologists has listed bitter flavors as one of its top five trends to watch in 2015. Just like the fashionable color showing up on the runway, bitter can be found on menus across the country with growing regularity. On the plate it shows up in the form of bitter greens like brussels sprouts and kale. In the beer and non-alcoholic beverage segment, India pale ales and dark roasted coffees have grown in popularity, in part because of their bitter profiles. The latest incarnation of the trend can be found in a cocktail glass. Bitters, both homemade and purchased, along with Italian digestifs, aperitifs, and amaros, have grown in popularity on cocktail lists nationwide, helping introduce classic, bitter-forward cocktails like the Negroni, Sazerac, and Old Fashioned to a new audience.

“I think it’s a natural progression,” says Suzanne Miller of Novela in San Francisco. As bar director and general manager, she uses bitter flavors in cocktails and to flavor many of the seasonal punches that are regularly featured on Novela’s cocktail menu. Recently, the punch menu included a Negroni-inspired option made with Campari, an Italian aperitif made with herbs and berries, that is “not light on bitter flavor.” The Negroni, and plays on this classic cocktail, have been one of the top sellers in the bitter cocktail category of late.

Miller believes that when it comes to what is in vogue in the glass, diners’ tastes have followed bartenders’. “Guests absorb information that bartenders are going out and getting,” she says. As the craft cocktail movement has grown, so has diner interest in ingredients and techniques, and bar-goers often look to bartenders and mixologists for advice on what to drink next. Presently, this means an exploration of different aspects of bitter flavors and how to craft cocktails using this palate.

“There’s just an elevated understanding of cocktails among guests now,” says Madison Fraser, general manager of Reverb in San Francisco, a craft cocktail bar that focuses on using local and seasonal ingredients. She often finds that guests come to Reverb not only to enjoy bitter flavors in cocktails, but also to learn something new or to have a cocktail that they haven’t tried before. “I think fernets and bitters just lend themselves really well to cocktail culture. Bitter flavors and ingredients are another way to surprise guests and give them an experience that they maybe haven’t had before.”

The experience factor of Italian spirits and liqueurs that feature bitter flavors is undoubtedly one of the reasons that consumers are enjoying more bitter cocktails. In Italian culture, aperitifs are meant to be enjoyed before a meal while digestifs (which includes the increasingly popular amaro segment) are enjoyed after a meal, giving these beverages a sense of cultural authenticity that’s appealing to the modern diner.


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