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Bitter, Sweet, and Strong: Aperitifs and Digestifs

When my sister, a bartender, wanted to play a joke on a friend of mine, she offered him a free shot of the grossest thing she could think of: Pernod, a licorice-flavored aperitif that tastes, to the uninitiated, like Robitussin spiked with Good & Plentys. Even though he has an iron-lined stomach when it comes to drinking, this particular beverage set him back. He took it, grimaced, and let out a yelp. Out shot his hand, quick to the beer chaser.

That was almost ten years ago, and my how things have changed. Now, intensely herbal, overwhelmingly bitter, and sometimes syrupy sweet aperitifs and digestifs have swept the nation, sweeping over most parts, and largely settling into pockets of foodie havens. These days, drinking something retro—something so immediately revolting and noxious—is looked upon as a badge of honor and a rite of haute cuisine passage.  

Back to the Basics
Like the rise of offal and snout-to-tail cooking, these drinks have resurged as initially repulsive concoctions that most American palates wouldn’t recognize, let alone consume. Although old Italian men have been drinking them for decades, their rise in the mainstream has tracked that of an ever-growing interest in niche and exotic foods and changing flavors. While most of us are attuned to overly sweet cocktails and bland beers, these liqueurs offer something we usually only get a taste of in a Manhattan or an IPA—bitters. And due to their successful branding, they’re attracting a legion of extreme followers. In San Francisco, where they drink more Fernet Branca per capita than any other place in the world, bars have Fernet promo nights; in Manhattan, Campari, a bitter pink aperitif, is served with soda in downtown nightclubs and uptown dinner houses.

Sugar and Spice Make My Belly Feel Nice
Aperitifs and digestifs are a huge class of broadly defined liquors, but usually consist of a fortified wine or herbal concoction meant to impart tonic-like qualities. An aperitif, derived from the Latin aperire “to open,” is meant to be consumed before a meal, to enhance the appetite. Although an aperitif could mean anything that is consumed prior to eating, such as champagne, the Italian and French versions are specialty liquors concocted with a blend of herbs and bitters. They’re usually less alcoholic and sweet than digestifs and are light, astringent, and slightly or really bitter. Traditionally they’re served chilled and straight, in a stemmed glass slightly smaller than a shot glass, as water can cloud their sparkling clear appearance. Yet drinking them this way can be an acquired taste. When a friend and I, just out of college, were served a small pre-meal aperitif in a home in France, our eyes meet with frantic bewilderment: what was this stuff and how could we get it out of our glass as fast as possible?

Digestifs are no less potent. Meant to aid in digestion, some tout curative properties and were once used as remedies for ailments as varied as cholera, PMS, and hangovers.

Brandy, grappa, port, and sherry are all considered digestifs and pack a wallop of alcohol. They are meant to be sipped slowly. Even now, with the rising tide of bitter drinks, you’re likely to see these traditional liqueurs mixed with something to make them friendlier to the American palate. And now, most of these drinks don’t adhere to the strictly before-and-after-dinner or sip-slowly ethos; as with most things in America, we tend to overindulge, whenever and wherever possible.

Before Dinner Winners
Good marketing certainly plays a role in the rise of some of these bitter pills. I can’t imagine some aperitifs becoming more popular than others for any other reason than the marketing—including Campari, whose ads usually involve a semi-clad star, like Jessica Alba, Eva Mendes, or Salma Hayek, wrapped around a Campari bottle or sipping the pink drink on the beach surrounded by adoring men.

Campari is bitter—to some undrinkable—and is often served with soda, without ice. You’ll also find it on restaurant and bar menus mixed in a Negroni—one part gin, one part Campari, one part sweet vermouth—or an Americano, which is Campari and sweet vermouth with a splash of club soda.

Lillet is another popular aperitif. It is a French, wine-based drink usually served with a twist of orange. Like most aperitifs and digestifs, the recipe is a secret, but most contain some combination of herbs, fruit, spices, roots, and flower parts. Lillet comes in red and white; you can find it served with mint on restaurant menus in New York and mixed with tequila and lime in LA.

Vermouth is another classic aperitif, although it’s most widely used in martinis and Manhattans. The white version is dry, while the red is sweet. In Italy, these herbal-infused wine drinks are often enjoyed with sweet vermouth, straight and chilled.

A large group of acquired-taste aperitifs and digestifs are anise- or licorice-flavored. These include pastis, from France, whose popular brands include the Ricard and the infamous Pernod, which is usually mixed with water; ouzo, which is a strong Grecian drink that will put hair on anyone’s chest; sambuca, which is prevalent in most bars in Italy and is sometimes served with espresso; and ojen in Spain. Most notorious perhaps is absinthe, the potent anise-flavored spirit that is made with wormwood and fennel.

To Digest with Drink
Fortified wine digestifs, like port, sherry, grappa, and Madeira have been popular for years, while others, including Jägermeister, seemed to rise to popularity in niche crowds. The syrupy brown liquid has been popular chiefly among the shot-taking college crowd, but other potent drinks might usurp its crown.

The most widely consumed is probably the Italian-made Fernet Branca, which is taken as a shot with a ginger ale back, served with soda, or mixed with coffee. Fernet and Coke is Argentina’s unofficial national beverage and it’s a favorite among U.S. bartenders for its purported ability to leave one without a hangover and also cure a hangover if you’re unfortunate enough to get one. Once past the initial shock to the taste buds, fans become addicted. One consumer describes his experience with the drink on yelp.com:

“I spotted a bottle of Fernet Branca on the bar. Not only did the gregarious bartender talk me into trying a shot of this noxious stuff, he gave it to me for free and did a shot with me … Fernet tastes like what your parents describe medicine tasting like when they were kids. Completely vile and with no redeeming qualities, no potentials for mixing. I like it!”

Fernet can also be used in place of the traditional bitters, Angostura, to turn an Old-Fashioned into a King Cole Cocktail or use it to swap out vermouth to turn a Manhattan into Fanciulli Cocktail.

Another up-and-coming drink is Tuaca, a citrus and vanilla liqueur from Italy that is sometimes served with tequila or Kahlua; a 2008 Washington Post article speculates that it will become the next Jägermeister.

Nardini Tagliatella is a grappa-based digestif I’ve seen on cocktail menus, either served straight or mixed in a cocktail. It has a cherry-juice flavor, and is served before or after a meal, with a soda or a ginger beer.

Wherever your taste preference leans—sweet, bitter, or fragrant—these beverages offer something for everyone. And they are nice bookends to a meal, even if getting past the initial intense flavors can take some grimacing, cringing, and a fast chaser.

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