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Bittersweet Symphony

Tart tastes rock the world of cocktails—and wine, too

Red cocktail shutterstock_77188372Bitter spirits? Yes, that’s a thing. And so are bitter wines. Actually, bitter beverages have a lot going for them. They are trendy, tasty, potentially beneficial for your health, and almost always accompanied by a great story.

That means it’s always a good time to brush up on the hottest trend sweeping the beverage alcohol industry. Turn your kitchen into a test bar, and invite some friends over to help with the research.

Bitterness is the single most sensitive taste component, which means a little goes a long way. One reason for this sensitivity is that bitterness is nature’s way of warning us of potential toxicity. Ironically, many bitter foods contain nutrients that can be beneficial to our health. While certain cultures such as those of China, Greece, and Italy have long revered the benefits of bitter comestibles, Americans are just beginning to develop an appreciation for this somewhat acquired taste.

As with most things, there are degrees. Although eggplant may be a welcome sight on the dinner table, not everyone is as receptive to arugula. Other bitter foods include artichokes, Brussels sprouts, turmeric, kale, and cumin. Just when you’re thinking that you could live the rest of your days quite happily without adding anything bitter to your repertoire, remember that chocolate (the dark kind) and coffee are two of the most bitter things we consume. Yet few of us want to live out the rest of their days without their bitter bliss.

When it comes to alcohol, bitter components, used in moderation, can add another dimension to your drink, making for a more complex and sensory-stimulating experience. Many of us have been dabbling in bitters on a small scale for years.

Angostura Bitters, that darling little bottle with its oversized paper label, has found its way into most amateur mixologists’ cabinets at some point. Although we have been content to add a splash of bitters here and there while mixing up cocktails, most of us have not given much thought to exactly what is in that little bottle.

Cocktail Bitters

citrus shutterstock_75982876Cocktail bitters are concentrated extractions created from botanicals such as seeds, fruit, bark, and leaves that are naturally bitter (as well as those incorporated for aromatics and flavor). These extractions are used several drops at a time for flavoring drinks and, more and more as of late, for seasoning food. They are not meant to be potable on their own. Angostura Bitters is the most widely recognized of this type, although a virtual carousel of bitters is popping up in stores in this rapidly growing segment. If you’re looking for a stay-at-home project, grab a neutral spirit base such as vodka and a fistful of dandelion greens, and start infusing.

Bittered Spirits

Known as amari in Italy and amer in France, bittered spirits are made from one of a number of spirit bases infused with anywhere from a few to over 100 botanicals, some of which are bitter. Amari can be consumed on their own or used as mixers with other alcohols or flavorings. If highly sweetened, they may cross over into the liqueur category. Traditionally, they are enjoyed as aperitifs or digestifs and often contain carminatives to soothe after-dinner collie wobbles.

This delicious category contains something for everyone. Imported from Italy since the early 1900s, Campari is one of the most popular amari, with its intense bitter-orange flavor enjoyed on ice as an aperitif or in iconic cocktails such as the Americano and the Negroni. Germany’s Jägermeister, the world’s best-selling bittered spirit, was created in 1934 using 56 different botanicals. For those who prefer the ruckus of a bar scene to a debonair Doris Day cocktail hour, a shot of this herbal liqueur can be dropped into beer or Red Bull to create a Jägerbomb. I’m not sure the 56 botanicals contain enough of a curative effect for the Jäger hangover, though. The story behind the amer Chartreuse, which begins in 1605 in Paris with a mysterious manuscript and monks of the Carthusian Order, is as captivating as its all-natural, bright green color, from whence the color of the same name derives. It contains a secret blend of over 130 ingredients with a primary aroma described as that of alpine flowers.

Bittered Wine

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When you hit your local liquor store in search of bittered wines, you’ve graduated to hardcore bitters junkie. These wines, which go by a few different names based loosely on which bittering agents are used, are a subcategory of aromatized wines (the same category in which vermouth resides) and are probably the least-popularized of the bittered beverages—but not for long.

Thanks to renewed interest in artisanal alcoholic beverages, vini amari are ripe for rediscovery. These beverages are based on wines steeped in various bitter herbs. Some use members of the artichoke family, such as cardoon and blessed thistle. Vermouth gets its name—and trademark taste—from the bitter botanical artemisia, known in German as vermut. While being a wine snob is rightfully frowned upon, if one were a bittered wine snob, their vini amari of choice might be Barolo Chinato, which, as the name suggests, is based on the great nebbiolo-based Barolo wine of Piedmont.

Fans of 007 might opt for something from the quinquina family as homage to the Vesper Martini ordered by Bond in Casino Royale. Bond’s martini was made with a wine bittered with cinchona bark called Kina Lillet. Although Kina Lillet was reformulated in 1986 to make it less bitter (much to the dismay of devotees), another cinchona-bittered wine, Cocchi Americano, serves as a suitable stand-in, and it is made with wildly popular moscato wine. In addition to being retro-trendy, sipping cinchona might ward off a disease or two. Cinchona, also called quina, is used to make the quinine once considered the mainstay of malaria treatment. These days, it’s more likely to be consumed for leg cramps.

If fruit peels, alpine flowers, or tree bark are not your bitters bag, you may prefer a wine or spirit infused with gentian, the root of a small trumpet flower plant that’s used in making gin. Or maybe one flavored with cardamom seeds. Bitters offer new worlds to explore for the spirits enthusiast, and it’s a sweet way to spend one’s time.

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