Americans are learning to like more-bitter flavors—witness the proliferation in restaurants and at retail of dark (really dark) chocolates, strongly flavored greens such as kale and extra-hoppy beers. In fact, Technomic named “bitter is the new bold” as one of its top 10 food trends for 2015.
Appropriately enough, we’re also now seeing this appreciation for flavors with a bit of bite extend to spirits—and several Italian liquor makers are a big beneficiary of the trend.
Fernet Branca, Campari, Aperol and Sambuca all have seen their menu mentions rise significantly in the past year, Technomic’s MenuMonitor online resource finds. Though they haven’t quite reached the mainstream, these bittersweet spirits are a darling of trend-conscious mixologists at bars in cities across the country. Increasingly, too, they’re showing up in signature cocktails at contemporary and higher-end casual-dining chains such as Carmine’s (based in New York), Cuba Libre (Philadelphia) and Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille (Houston).
Made from distilled herbs and spices, several of Italy’s best-known spirits were originally developed to stimulate the appetite or to restore digestive balance. Monks and druggists were among those who tinkered with the recipes—these were alimentary drinks. Today, they remain an acquired taste for many American consumers, and while some authenticity-minded Americans enjoy these Old World spirits as they’re enjoyed in Italy (neat, before or after a meal), the drinks frequently are seen on menus in classic as well as contemporary cocktails. Here’s a look at some of the spirits at the forefront of this new Italian renaissance at the bar.
Amaro: Amaro is Italian for “bitter,” and this digestivo (an after-dinner liqueur) typically is made from macerating herbs, roots, flowers and/or orange peel in a neutral spirit or in wine. Amari are aged before bottling, often in oak barrels. Fernet—the most well-known brand of which is Fernet Branca—is a type of amaro. Rhubarb, aloe, myrrh, chamomile, saffron and cardamom are common fernet ingredients.
On the menu
- The Back Bay, Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse: Bulleit Bourbon, Fernet Branca, brown-sugar simple syrup and orange bitters
- Cocoa Branca, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar: with Fernet Branca and Zaya 12-year-old rum; flavors of bittersweet cocoa, mint and eucalyptus
- Derby Tea, The Grill on the Alley: Jim Beam Bourbon, Fernet Branca, mint, fresh-brewed iced tea and lemon juice
- River City Waltz, Lemaire (Richmond, VA): Dickel rye whiskey, green chartreuse, Amaro Averna, orange bitters
Campari: Campari is a brand of aperitivo (a before-dinner drink) first produced in Italy in 1860. Its signature red color used to be provided by crushed cochineal insects, but maker Gruppo Campari ceased that production method in 2006. Matching Campari with orange juice or another fruit juice can help take the edge off the liqueur’s bitter flavor profile. Campari is a key component of the classic Negroni cocktail, composed of one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part Campari.
On the menu
- Smoky Negroni, Hakkasan: TRU organic gin, Antica Formula vermouth, Campari, and Grand Marnier smoke infusion
- Comparito, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood: Belvedere Pink Grapefruit vodka, Campari, lemon-lime soda, fresh lemon juice and mint
- Maggiano’s Signature Aperitivo, Maggiano’s Little Italy: Hendrick’s Gin, passion-fruit liqueur, Campari, fresh sour
Aperol: Aperol is another branded aperitivo produced by Gruppo Campari. Almost 60 years younger than Campari, Aperol also has about half of Campari’s alcohol content by volume (Aperol’s is around 11%). Its milder taste relative to Campari can make it an appealing introduction to bittersweet spirits, especially when served in the form of an Aperol spritz—sparkling wine, Aperol and soda.
On the menu
- Aperol Spritz, Il Fornaio: Maschio prosecco, Aperol and soda water
- Ruby, Bar Louie: Deep Eddy Ruby Red grapefruit-flavored vodka, Aperol, La Marca prosecco, pure cane syrup, lime
- Aperol Shandy, NoRTH Italia (Scottsdale, AZ): Dimmi Liquore di Milano, Aperol, lemon, Peroni lager
Sambuca: Sambuca, an anise-flavored liquor, is most frequently seen in its colorless version, which turns cloudy when water is added to it. (Red and black sambuca are less commonly seen on shelves or behind the bar.) Though it can be drunk neat, it’s often used as an addition to coffee—offering operators of Italian-menu restaurants and bars the chance to promote a higher-priced, authentically flavored alternative to plain black coffee as an after-dinner beverage.
On the menu
- Godfather’s Corpse Reviver, Carmine’s: Plymouth Gin, Lillet, Cointreau, lemon and a dash of sambuca
- Pousse Cafe, Cuba Libre (Philadelphia): Espresso, dark rum, white crème de cocoa, Romana Sambuca, lemon twist
- Italian Coffee, Morton’s The Steakhouse: Coffee with sambuca and fresh whipped cream
Pairing Italy’s famous bittersweet liqueurs with alcohol brands that are more familiar in the U.S. and/or with complementary nonalcohol mixers can help encourage trial of cocktails and flavors that, though they may be beloved abroad, still are new to many American palates. (And offering fresh flavor profiles absolutely is worthwhile—37% of adult beverage consumers overall and 52% of Millennials say they enjoy trying adult beverages with new or unique flavors.) Approachability is key, but as “bitter” booms, we can look for Italian spirits to have a new moment in the (Tuscan) sun.