An exercise in acclimatisation. Patrick Leclezio ponders the ultimate in acquired tastes.
First published in Prestige Magazine (Best of the best edition 2013).
I have this belief, a general life rule if you will – that some might interpret as masochistic, that anything worthwhile is not easy. Perhaps this explains my fascination with acquired tastes. The first time I ate an olive, as a child, I thought it vile, spitting it out in disgust. My parents laughed and told to me that I’d have to eat lots of them before I started to understand them and enjoy them. I think that’s what galvanised my resolve – the idea that I should earn this cultivated pleasure – rather than the detection of any promise in that initial experience. Today I eat olives on a daily basis, devouring them like peanuts. The turnaround has been complete, and pervasive; they’ve become one of my firm favourites. It was an important lesson, I think – not life-saving, or anything quite that dramatic, but certainly life affirming. We’re here so we may as well make the most of the varied delights on offer (within reason of course, I’m not advocating debauched hedonism), and in pursuit of such first impressions can sometimes get in the way. But they call them that for a reason, because other, different impressions may well follow. Some spirits are burdened with this barrier – who can genuinely say that they enjoyed whisky from the very first sip, for instance? – none more so than the strange breed known as bitters.
Years ago, I enjoyed what I’d describe as an iconic Tuscan experience. Ok, I should admit that it wasn’t actually in Tuscany, more like Lazio – a inconsequential distinction. I had come across a small countryside town, a village really, called Sutri; built on a hill, a cobbled, hemmed-in street winding its way to the top, where it opened up onto a piazza, this was the traditional Italy of a past era. I had wanted to soak up the scene with an appropriate aperitif – and when asked the local bartender recommended something called Crodino, which I soon discovered was a non-alcoholic version of bitters: astringent yes – to my uninitiated palate – but intriguing. It struck a chord; whilst I can’t say I’ve drunk much Crodino since, the encounter prompted me to persist with bitters, and I’ve kept a bottle in my cabinet ever since.
Ok, so hopefully I’ve convinced you now by that this is something worth some further consideration. It’s a stretch though to refer to it as a unified drink. Bitters are possibly the most fragmented category in classic spirits – the only common feature which they share is a broad, bitter (as the name suggests) flavour, created by either an infusion of the essences from one of or a combination of herbs, spices, roots, fruits and barks, or a distillation of these ingredients. Since these recipes vary greatly from product to product the specific flavours can also be miles apart. They’re also distinguished by significant variations in alcohol content and drinking formats.
Here’s a quick run-down of the four types of bitters over which you’re most likely to trip in a local bar or bottle-store.
This is one taste that I just haven’t been able to acquire. It’s a hotchpotch concoction of an over-the-top 56 ingredients which continues to taste like cough syrup to me…but I must be in the minority. All round the world people are chugging Jäger shots and Jäger bombs (a shot of Jägermeister depth-charged into a Red Bull), and the odd few might even be drinking it old school as a digestif. In volume terms this stuff is the king of the bitters – some 80 million bottles are sold every year – and it packs a punch at 35% ABV, especially since it’s largely drunk neat.
Originally intended as a stomach tonic way back at its inception in 1824, Angostura has now evolved into a pretty much unique (its imitators notwithstanding) style of spirits. Whereas most are drunk neat or with a mixer added, this highly concentrated potion is used primarily as a drop-by-drop additive – for flavouring and / or colouring other drinks. It is well-known for pink gin and the almost-teetotalling rock shandy, and it is easily distinguished from other seasoning bitters by its legendary, mistakenly-then-deliberately oversized label.
The definitive Italian bitters has been given a run for its money in recent years, particularly by arch-rival Fernet Branca – which ironically counts South African aloe amongst its ingredients despite not being available here. Synonymous with style and elegance, as epitomised by its annual (is that redundant?) calendar, the drink has garnered an anecdotal reputation (which I don’t have the data to quantitatively verify) for a distribution footprint that far outreaches its actual consumption. If it’s true then this is good news for us aficionados – we’re unlikely to be disappointed, wherever we might be, in our quest for a Negroni, an Americano, or any other Camparied libation.
The distinguishing feature of Campari’s little brother is its low alcohol content: it weighs in at 11% ABV, versus the former’s 25%, although I should note that it is bottled at 15% for the hard-core Germans, with whom it has become extremely popular; thanks to them its volumes have almost come to match Campari’s. It has a similar flavour to Campari but is milder and not as bitter. So all round a moderate bitters. It’s highly recommended in a Spritz: three parts Prosecco (a Cap Classique will do), two parts Aperol, and one part soda water. Picture yourself in a little Mediterranean alfresco bar and let rip!