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The Beauty of Bitter

For a lot of people, summer’s most notable flavor is that of sweetness — sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, slurpy peaches, plump raspberries, etc. — as many vegetables and fruits hit their apex of sugary ripeness under the bright sun. But when it comes to summertime drinking, I like to go the opposite direction: bitter and tart. There’s just something about a bracing, sharp and slightly bitter drink that plays perfectly against the richness and heat of summer.

Of course, a taste for bitter is not generally associated with the American palate, which is often noted for its sweet tooth, given our love of soda, milkshakes, mocha lattes and such. Unsurprisingly, then, the tradition of bitter alcoholic beverages comes from Europe, where most of the aperitifs and liqueurs I’m going to talk about evolved out of the 600-year-old tradition of medicinal alcoholic infusions. The component flavors that we know as bitter come from nature. Roots, barks, peels, leaves and flowers were the medieval world’s salves and cure-alls (also the foundation of the trope of medicine tasting bad, something kids today wouldn’t necessarily understand, but which is memorialized in pop culture by a tune like Mary Poppins’ “A Spoonful of Sugar”). Eventually these medicines evolved into health tonics, as their bitter elements were known to have positive effects on indigestion, headaches, and other annoyances. In Italy and Eastern Europe, the category of the amaro developed, where thick, dark spirits like Unicum, Jagermeister and Fernet Branca were taken as a digestive dose of bitter to help a big meal settle.

But these flavors also migrated to before-dinner drinks — aperitifs — which are what I revel in during the summer months. For although I’ve used to word “bitter” a number of times, these spirits are more than bitter. In fact, they’re complex amalgams of flavors, in which the bitter is balanced by hints of sweetness, fruitiness and spice. Bitter might be the top note, but when really savored, the delicious complexity and even sweetness of these spirits readily becomes apparent. Below are some of my favorite bitters, along with a few notes of how to drink them.

Campari: The crimson king of bitters, this Italian staple is surprisingly unknown to most Americans, whose encounters with it mainly may be spying a dust-covered bottle on the back of a dive bar’s shelf. The signature red color of Campari, which makes it really fun to drink, used to come from of a dye called carmine cochineal, which was extracted from a Central and South American cochineal beetle. Today, however, a modern red food dye is employed. But the flavor is the same — an herbal bitter which sits atop notes of oranges and spices that give it its trademark bittersweet taste. Most people’s palates are shocked at the first taste of Campari, but as the tongue settles in and gets used to the flavor, it finds the inherent sweetness and learns to love it. Campari is famous as one of the trio of ingredients in the Negroni (one-third each red vermouth, Campari and gin). But it’s also excellent in a simpler cocktail, the Americano (Campari, soda, sweet vermouth). And the classic Italian application of the simple Campari and soda over ice is irresistible on a summer afternoon. Garnish with a squeezed wedge of lemon, lime or orange. At only 24 percent alcohol by volume, Campari is stronger than a beer or wine, but just over half the strength of a vodka or tequila.

Aperol: The orange companion to Campari’s red, Aperol is a more gentle application of the flavor of bitter. Its taste backs up its orange color, fronting tangerines and orange which are bittered with notes of gentian root, chinchona bark (the source of quinine) and rhubarb, as well as a multitude of secret herbs, roots and spices. Aperol is simply delicious and can be taken, like Campari, simply with soda. But in northern Italian cities such as Trieste, where it is immensely popular, Aperol is mixed evenly with Prosecco and a slice of orange to make the Aperol Spritz, a quintessential summer refresher.

Cocchi Americano: I was pleased to see this on the shelf of a wine shop I was perusing the other day, as it has not been imported to this country for a very long time. Produced in the northern Italian town of Asti since the late 19th century from a base wine of Moscato, this spirit is not unlike a vermouth. That is, it’s wine-based, fortified with alcohol and infused with roots, herbs and spices. One thing that’s notable about it is that it strongly features the flavor of quinine, something that had been missing from most liqueurs and vermouths prevalent on the American market. As my friend Toby Cecchini noted in this short New York Times essay on the Cocchi Americano, this flavor fills a hole in American cocktail-making left when Kina Lillet’s formula was re-jiggered to tone down the quinine. Suddenly, classic cocktails like the Vesper and the Corpse Reviver #2 that featured the quinine flavor of Lillet could not be made in the same way. Cocchi Americano, however, makes a worthy substitute in those drinks, returning them to their authentic forms. Of course, it’s also great to drink over ice with soda and a squeeze of lemon. Try that while chopping vegetables for a weeknight dinner, and you’ll see the beauty of the aperitif.

Gran Classico: This awesome aperitif is fairly new to the market, but will create a splash. Now manufactured in Switzerland (thanks to California-based importer Tempus Fugit Spirits, Gran Classico is based on a famous bitters recipe dating from Turin in the 1860s. While made with the usual assortment of peels, roots and herbs, the flavor here is quite bitter but also incredibly bright, complex and satisfying. With hints of rhubarb, vanilla and orange, the major note here is gentian. Take it with soda, vermouth or even as an addition to a light lager or ale or substitute it for any of the other bitters in such cocktails as the Negroni or Americano for a great drink.

Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo: Campari. Credit: Rakoskerti