Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: The Bitter End

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

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?

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