Embracing bitter spirits and ingredients helps provide a balance and breadth in drinks that not only harken back to classic cocktails but also give mixologists an opportunity to experiment with a richer array of components. “This is part of a reclamation of American taste buds across all gastronomy,” says Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education at New York distributor Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “The overtly sweet cocktail has recessed to some sort of balance.”
Consumers increasingly appreciate the stylized bitter drinks bartenders are making, notes Ross Simon, an owner of Phoenix’s Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour and Little Rituals. But it takes time. “You never wake up loving a negroni. It’s a gradual change,” he says. Our instinct is to stay away from bitter foods as a way to avoid poisonous plants and ingredients. As a result, it takes some time to train our brains to accept these components. Take those negronis—gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari, garnished with an orange peel—for instance.
“The first time you try a negroni, you really don’t understand what it’s all about,” says Bruno Molfetta, partner and head bartender at Bar 314 and beverage manager at Babbalucci in New York City. “The second and third time you like it more, and, by the fourth time, it’s the best thing in the world.”
There are all types of ingredients infused in alcohol that provide bitter notes, ranging from liqueur aperitifs, sweet vermouth, and Campari to digestifs such as amaro—which means “bitter” in Italian. Spirits such as rye whiskey and mezcal, botanical bitters, and some garnishes can also add that bitter note.
“[Bitters] are a great way to introduce flavors to cocktails and punches,” says Ryan Russell, a bartender at Chicago’s Free Rein. Not all are bitter, but instead are a great way to even things out in a drink, he says. “We’re seeing many bartenders and companies creating more complex bitters.”
El Guapo, a Louisiana-based company, has created a line of bitters, syrups, and mixers to give bartenders an array of options. “There are different roots, herbs, and spices, that have a bitter component that we use,” says Christa Cotton, founder and chief executive. “It’s all about playing up that flavor profile.”
At the same time that craft bitters like El Guapo’s are trending, so are traditional bitters, including Angostura and Peychaud’s, notably in old-school drinks that include martinis, Old-Fashioneds, and Manhattans. “There’s a reason Angostura has lived the test of time,” Simon of Bitter & Twisted and Little Rituals says. “They do it right.”
For a multi-café and market enterprise like Washington D.C.’s Officina, the growing interest in the aperitivo and bitter drinks have combined to find more people paying attention to Campari—various negronis are the most popular cocktails there—and its lighter, less-bitter sidekick Aperol.
Aperol was the heart of last summer’s nationwide hit, the Aperol spritz (Aperol, soda, prosecco), and is not likely to lose any steam this year. “We’ve tried to make cocktails more approachable, and Aperol gets them in that direction,” says Officina beverage director John Filkins.
Katz of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits calls Aperol a “gateway flavor” for bitter cocktails.
Diners are also more open to trying various types of amaro in cocktails. Officina has dozens of amaro varieties, and Filkins notes a lot of guests are willing to give up control and allow bartenders to not just employ an amaro in a new cocktail but as an ingredient in a traditional drink.
Bitter & Twisted has created a Long Island Iced Tea—the L.I.T. Up—that has amaro, lemon bitters, port, and more, carbonated, and served in a Coca-Cola can.
Mixologists are also creating all types of new negronis. Simon is using a sous vide process for his negronis with coffee-, jasmine-, strawberry- and other infused spirits. Molfetta says Babbalucci has more than a half-dozen different negronis using spirits like sake and mezcal, plus a Smoked Negroni with amaro, soju, Americano Rosa, Antica Formula, smoked bitters, and Maplewood.
One type of negroni that Molfetta believes could give the Aperol spritz a run for its money this year is the sbagliato, which is Italian for mistaken. The drink’s creator a century ago erroneously used sparkling wine—prosecco—rather than gin.
Free Rein uses another bitter aperitif, Cappelletti, as well as soda and prosecco, in its Blackberry Spritz, a brunch favorite that Russell believes will grab a big audience this summer.
The most popular drinks at the restaurant, located in the St. Jane Hotel, include bitter ingredients. Rosemary and elderflower are in the What Would Jane Do? Volume 2, along with citrus vodka, mulled cider, orange and sparkling wine, while the Love Letter to Mexico has mezcal, lime bitters, and marigold plus charanda and blackberry.