ALPINE LIQUEURS: Europe’s Bitters Invasion
Europe’s Legendary Alpine Liqueurs Take the States by Storm
By Erica Duecy

bitters preparationThe next time you step into the lodge’s watering hole note the bottles behind the counter — the color palette may seem a little brighter than in the past. Neon-orange Aperol, scarlet hued Campari, pale-green Chartreuse, cola-brown Amaro Nonino, tarry Fernet-Branca — a rainbow of colors with one thing in common: They’re the Alpine Liqueurs; European bitter liqueurs with an alpine lineage.

Europeans are crazy for the stuff but — until recently — Americans have been hesitant to swallow bitter liqueurs. Now, with the cocktail boom miraculously still in full swing, these Old World formulations are catching on in the New World. In some cases, boosted by American ingenuity, the products are being used in new ways — as cocktail mixers instead of as traditional digestive remedies.

Before ordering, it’s best to get a little background. Bitter liqueurs are a class of herbal, complexly flavored preparations infused in a spirit base, sipped for their digestive benefits (not to be confused with cocktail bitters like Angostura, which are dashed into drinks for flavor). The unifying “bitter” element in these liqueurs is the root of gentian lutea, or yellow gentian, a tall, sturdy plant with yellow flowers that grows wild in the European Alps.

Since recorded history, gentian root has been used in medicines, says Dr. Lena Struwe, a professor of botany at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who studies the plants. “The chemicals found in gentians are said to be anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and to help with digestion,” says Struwe. Today, gentians can be found in myriad alternative medicines, from weight-loss pills to hair-growth tonics.

Many bitter liqueurs still on the market today originate from 19th century recipes and were created as health tonics. “At the time, these were the state of the art in medicine,” says David Wondrich, a cocktail historian and author of multiple cocktail books, including the recent Imbibe! “Alcohol had known anesthetic properties, and at least it was effctive in that respect — it made you feel good.”

bitters selectionIn Europe, most bitters are still used for their medicinal benefits; in the States, anything goes. “Something like Underberg is sold here mostly as a curative and less as a taste sensation,” Wondrich says.“Fernet-Branca kind of goes both ways; there are people who drink it for the flavor, but they’re mostly crazy bartenders in San Francisco and Boston. It’s a funny thing.”

Propelled by these enthusiastic bartenders and their restaurateur brethren, as well as an ever-more-sophisticated consumer base, bitters of all types are gaining momentum in the States. “They’re way more prominent than they used to be,” Wondrich says. “It’s part of the whole cocktail boom. It’s very much a trend.”

In some American cities, regional Italian restaurants are leading the way. Why? Italy has the deepest bitters heritage, with dozens of regional styles. Some, like Aperol and Campari, are taken with soda water as an aperitivo cocktail before a meal, with the bitter herbs said to stimulate the appetite. Others, like Fernet-Branca, Nonino Amaro, and Ramazzotti Amaro, fall into the category of amari, or post-meal digestive bitters, and are heavier and more complexly herbal.

At Manhattan hot spot Bar Milano, for example, partner Tony Abou-Ganim — a renowned mixologist and self-proclaimed bitters ambassador— has created a cocktail menu showcasing Northern Italian bitters,including Aperol and Campari. Bar Milano also has an extensive amaro selection, enjoyed by both European and American customers.

“Who has never tasted what is bitter does not know what is sweet.”— GERMAN PROVERB

Campari, which Abou-Ganim calls “light and approachable,” was created in Milan by barman Gaspare Campari in the 1860s. Don’t bother asking what’s in it, though: Bitters producers are notoriously secretive about their recipes. We do know that the recipe contains more than 60 ingredients, including gentian, rhubarb, ginseng, bergamot oil, and orange peel. Campari initially called his product Bitter all’uso d’Hollandia, after a Dutch bitters he had encountered. Once the product caught on he changed the name to Campari and marketed it as a proprietary tonic that was sold in drinking establishments throughout Milan.

shot of bittersDown the road, a housewife named Maria Scala had whipped up her recipe for Fernet-Branca in the 1840s. The first advertisement for the product appeared in a Milan newspaper in 1865, describing it as a “renown liqueur” that was “febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric.” Fernet-Branca contains more than 40 ingredients, including gentian, myrrh, rhubarb, cardamom, chamomile, and aloe. The product is alternately celebrated and reviled. There’s even a Booker Prize-nominated send up novel about the brilliant awfulness of the flavor: Cooking With Fernet Branca by British author James Hamilton-Paterson. But Fernet-Branca has rabidly loyal fans.

“When you’ve got an upset stomach, that stuff is like magic,” Abou-Ganim declares.

Elsewhere in Europe, Carthusian monks in the French Alps have been producing Chartreuse from 130 herbal extracts using an alchemical manuscript that dates to 1605. The product was originally created as an“elixir of long life,” and is used as an after-dinner digestive. It is rumored that no one person holds the entire recipe; the sacred knowledge — even today — is held by three monks who have taken a blood oath never to reveal their secret. Among the identifiable ingredients, though, are gentian, hyssop, and anise. As a cocktail mixer, “it can be overpowering, but it lends fabulous complexities to whatever you mix it with,” Abou-Ganim says.

In Germany, Jägermeister was created in 1935 as a digestive aid (its name means “hunter master” or gamekeeper), and was introduced to the United States in the mid 1970s. It is Germany’s top-selling spirit brand, now distributed in 80 countries. In the States, Jägermeister likely is familiar to anyone who’s attended a raucous college party, though “Jäger bombs” and related shots are entirely American innovations. Due largely to its university fan base, Jägermeister sold more than 36 million bottles in North America in 2007.

While it is often used in the States as a party drink, “Jäger has introduced a lot of people to that digestive bitters category even though it has been misrepresented,” Abou-Ganim says. “Hopefully there will be a progression — with more exposure people will become better educated. Maybe it will help bring people into that amaro category.”

underburg adAnother a popular German bitters is Underberg, which bills itself as “the tasty herbal digestive” — an arguable marketing claim. A reporter who recently tested the product as prescribed immediately began sweating and developed a colossal headache. Buyer beware: The stuff is strong. Yet the company sells about 1 million bottles a day, primarily in Germany, Denmark, Holland, Austria, and Switzerland, says Martyn Bignell, general manager of U.S. sales for the spirit. The company would only disclose that its product contains gentian and “aromatic herbs from 43 countries.” To our knowledge, no bartender has found a suitable cocktail application for Underberg.

Bitter liqueurs may sound scary, but some are user-friendly and delicious. The best way to sample these products is at a bar or restaurant, where you can buy a single serving without investing in the whole bottle. Even if they don’t settle your stomach, they’ll give you a sweet buzz — especially at higher elevations.

Bitters Primer

Whether you’re interested in an herbal digestive or a new cocktail mixer, use the chart below to determine which bitter is best for you.

amario nonino bittersAMARO NONINO
Experience level: Beginner
Alcohol: 70 proof; 35%
Taste: Sweet, with warm flavors and smooth texture. Hints of orange, caramel, licorice, and baking spices.
Classic preparation: Served neat in a highball or shot glass.


aperol bitters preparationAPEROL

Experience level: Beginner
Alcohol: 22 proof; 11%
Taste: Bittersweet, with orange and rhubarb notes.
Classic preparation: Served with soda water in a tall glass over ice, or mix one part Aperol to three parts chilled prosecco in a champagne glass.


campari bitters preparationCAMPARI

Experience level: Intermediate
Alcohol: 41 proof; 20.5%
Taste: Bittersweet, with grapefruit and citrus peel top notes and subtle spices.
Classic preparation: Served with soda water in a tall glass over ice.


Chartreuse green bitters preparation CHARTREUSE
Experience level: Advanced
Alcohol: 110 proof; 55%
Taste: Dry, strong alcohol burn. Minty and spicy. Hints of rosemary, thyme, and anise.
Classic preparation: Served in a rocks glass over ice.


Fernet Branca bitters preparationFERNET-BRANCA

Experience level: Advanced
Alcohol: 80 proof; 40%
Taste: Dry and bracing. Aggressively flavored; hints of bitter chocolate, resin, and Listerine.
Classic preparation: Served neat in a highball or shot glass. Can be mixed with cola and served over ice, as the Argentines drink it, or taken as a shot followed by a ginger ale chaser, as is done in San Francisco.


Jagermeister preparationJÄGERMEISTER
Experience level: Beginner
Alcohol: 70 proof; 35%
Taste: Sweet and herbaceous. Hints of licorice.
Classic preparation: Served neat in a highball or shot glass, or, stateside, pounded as ice-cold shots.


Experience level: Intermediate
Alcohol: 60 proof; 30%
Taste: Semisweet. Clove, cardamom, and cinnamon notes.
Classic preparation: Served neat in a highball or shot glass, or serve with soda water in a tall glass over ice.


underburg bitters preparationUNDERBERG
Experience level: Advanced
Alcohol: 88 proof; 44%
Taste: Dry with severe alcohol burn. Intense herbal flavors.
Classic preparation: Drunk from a 20 ml bottle at room temperature.