Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: The Bitter End

Over at The Pour this week, New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov enjoys a heavy meal and follows it with an Old World flourish: a drink of bitter digestif. Asimov's choice is Underberg, the venerable German bitter sold in paper-wrapped, single-portion bottles, widely acclaimed to be the most fitting cap to a meal, especially one that's particularly heavy or rich.

Bitters aren't particularly big in America--and here we're talking potable bitters, as opposed to aromatic bitters such as Angostura which are used in drops and dashes--with a few notable exceptions. Campari has a firm grip on the bitters market here, but that mainly crops up as an aperitif as opposed to a stomach-settling finish to a meal; and another once-esteemed German herbal liqueur, J├Ągermeister , has seen its image sullied as its profits have soared, thanks to its widespread embrace by the spring break, drop-a-J├Ąger-in-your-Red-Bull crowd.

Pockets of bitters lovers exist, though, and for those with amore for amaro, there are plenty of good options out there. The once hard-to-find Hungarian bitter, Unicum, is now popping up with increasing frequency; Cynar, the Italian artichoke-based spirit, is earning new fans in New York and Seattle; and Fernet Branca--a legendary digestivo from Milan that seems to have a special place in the heart of every bartender in San Francisco--is not too hard to find. In fact, if you open up the Italian bitter bag, out comes a flood of different spirits made to settle a full stomach, from Amaro Ramazotti to Amero Lucano to Averna .

While the use of digestive bitters is on the wane in Europe, there are still many passionate holdouts as well as new believers. Where do you fit in? Does a little Underberg help soothe you after a big meal, or are your post-prandial needs satisfied simply by a walk and a nap?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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