Serious Eats: Drinks

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Bitter Drinks

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Following up on last week's discussion of the Negroni, I thought I'd take a bit of time and explore the world of bitter liqueurs. As I said then, "You hate Campari until that one moment when you love it, and then when you love it you never want your bottle to run dry." But how does one go about learning to love Campari and, for that matter, other bitter liqueurs?

Build Slowly

Some people have a taste for bitter things, and others simply don't. I myself was put off by Campari and other bitter liqueurs the first few times I tried them, but once the flavors clicked for me, it happened pretty quickly. Other people need to build up to bitter drinks gradually over time, and still others never get there at all. All of this is fine. Personal preference, after all, is personal. Not everyone likes anchovies on pizza, just as not everyone likes super-smoky Scotch. You like what you like. You can change your preferences to an extent if you're interested, but some people will never like bitter beverages, and that's okay.

But if you are interested in building a taste for the bitter drinks that are showing up in bars these days, my advice is to start slowly.

Start With Vermouth

20140302vermut.jpgA great place to begin is by sipping vermouths and other aromatized wines. Vermouth is made by infusing wormwood and other herbs into wine. (The word vermouth is in fact derived from the German word for wormwood, vermut.) Vermouths have a hint of bitterness to them, but they're also sweetened and still taste mostly like wine. Your basic fresh bottle of Martini & Rossi or Cinzano will do, but if you're serious about this, go up a level and get Dolin or Punt e Mes. (Want to read more about vermouth? Good thing we have a guide!)

On a similar note, you can try other aromatized wines, such as Lillet Blanc. There's a touch more bitterness in Lillet than you'll find in most vermouths, but it's still subtle and balanced by sweetness.

Put your vermouth or aromatized wine of choice in a glass with a few ice cubes. You can add a twist of orange if you want. Not bad, right?

From there, it's a short hop on the bitterness train to aperitif liqueurs such as Suze or Byrrh, if you can track those down (try your best local wine or liquor shop).

Once you've mastered these, you're ready to get serious.

Aperol: The Gateway Drug

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[Image: Aperol]

Many bartenders use Aperol as the liqueur to turn patrons on to bitter flavors. Among its ingredients are orange and rhubarb, and those fruity notes balance the liqueur's bitterness very well. Aperol has a similar flavor profile to Campari, but it's much less bitter, and it's also lower in alcohol. However, if you're still getting used to the flavors, you should try it in a cocktail first. Luckily, a couple of Aperol drinks stand out.

The first is the Aperol Spritz. It's really not much more than a gussied-up highball, topped off with fizzy Prosecco. I think you'll find it to be a crisp and refreshing drink, especially delicious on humid summer days. Even a dry Prosecco has a hint of lingering sweetness to it, and that sweetness balances the mild bitterness of the Aperol. Drink these for a week or two and see if you start to crave them.

After you've found yourself addicted to the Aperol Spritz, then try the Intro to Aperol cocktail, devised by Pegu Club's owner, Audrey Saunders, for the exact purpose of appealing to bitters-beginners. Saunders starts with Aperol, adds gin and lemon juice, and finishes with simple syrup and a dash of bitters. The drink is mildly herbal and citrusy, with a subtle undercurrent of bitterness. You're starting to like it, right?

Next Steps: Averna, Ramazzotti, and Meletti

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Should you choose to continue your adventures, your next move should be to try a few liqueurs that are moderately more bracing than Aperol, but still not bang-bang-bitter. Pull up a barstool at a well-stocked cocktail bar (or Italian restaurant) and order up a few tastes of these, to start.

Amaro Averna is mild and sweet, with a subtle almond and cocoa taste, juicy citrus flavors, and a hint of licorice. Though I personally find it a bit too sweet to sip just on ice, I know others who love it that way.

Ramazzotti is a trifle less sweet than Averna, though with a bit less citrus. Ramazzotti tastes a bit like a bittersweet, uncarbonated cola, and in fact, if you hit it with some soda water, you may find it tastes like a fancy Coca-Cola.

Amaro Meletti is the most bitter of the three, though it shouldn't curl your toes too much. It tastes of saffron, violet, and anise. It's my favorite of the three to drink solo, though I still usually splash in some soda.

Try a sip, and try them in a cocktail, too. If you're a fan, there's good news: a whole world of bitter drinks to explore.

Life Is a Bitter Mystery

Tell me, how did you discover the joys of bitter liqueurs? Conversely, if you can't stand the things, feel free to tell me that, too.

About the author: Michael Dietsch lives with his wife and kids in Brooklyn. His first book, Shrubs, is due in October 2014. You can reach him on twitter at @dietsch.

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