Explainer: a look at bitterness and amari

cinchona_officinalis
When a drink tastes good, who gives a damn about why, right? You know, you don’t have to know how a car works to enjoy driving one. But if you want to recreate the drink or understand the experience for yourself — whether it’s the mechanics of a drive or a tasty drink — you’ll need to know what’s going on under the hood.

Part of understanding why a drink works is knowing how we perceive flavour. Flavour is built upon two pillars: aroma, which is detected through the nose and olfactory system, and taste.

What do we mean by taste? It’s the five major tastes that we currently know about (there’s research being done on more): salty, sour, umami, sweetness, and bitterness. It’s the bitterness we’re discussing today.

The working theory on why we have developed taste receptors for bitterness is a simple, evolutionary one: many things that taste bitter can kill us.

It’s part of the reason why kids don’t like bitterness. But then, as we age, why do we grow to love things like coffee?

Food scientist Harold McGee has explained this to NPR in the past. Caffeine is an alkaloid, he said, much the same way that quinine — the classic bitter component from cinchona bark that you find in tonic water and many amari — is also an alkaloid.

“Humans… find almost all alkaloids bitter. And the biological thinking about that is that almost all alkaloids are also toxic, and our bitter taste, which is an intrinsically unpleasant experience, bitterness is way of warning us that there is something in whatever we’ve put in our mouth that is likely to be bad for us. Now, you might say, well, but we love caffeine because it does wonderful things for our attentiveness and wakefulness and so on. And that’s true to a certain point. But if you have too much caffeine, it will, in fact, be toxic.”

The same is true for quinine, by the way, which is why the sale of quinine is regulated.

That unpleasantness, though, is why a little bitters in a cocktail goes such a long way, if Mark Bitterman, author of Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari is correct.

“When our mouths taste bitterness, our brains immediately go into high alert,” he writes. “That is why putting bitters into a cocktail or food makes all the flavours pop. The presence of bitterness doesn’t increase the amount of flavour molecules in your mouth, but it sure makes us notice them more. Add a little bitter to something sweet and both sensations are heightened.”

Which in the end is just a smarter way of saying that a little bitters can make your cocktails pop.

Amaro

Amaro — or the plural, amari — is a class of often Italian digestive or aperitif style drinks that employ a range of herbs and spices that are bitter; they’ve been referred to as potable bitters in the past, as opposed to aromatic or cocktail bitters.

That’s not to say they’re only tasting bitter — many of them, like Averna and Amaro Montenegro, have a sweetness to them to offset the bitterness. Some, like Fernet Branca, are more bracingly bitter.

Styles of amaro

Given that amaro is made throughout Italy (and overseas — Vallet makes some great Fernet from Mexico) it isn’t easy to categorise the different styles. Suffice it to say there are sweeter styles and drier styles; lower ABV amaro and higher ABV. Alpine amari refer to those made in the north of Italy, and as such will tend to use more alpine botanicals; the south of Italy sees more citrus-driven specimens.

Fernets are a category within the overarching category of amaro, the most famous of which is Fernet Branca. Bracingly bitter, it’s not for the fainthearted. Fernets are usually more medicinal tasting than other amari, and weigh in at a higher ABV (Fernet Branca tips the scales at 40%).

Bitters Elsewhere

The European Union handily codifies pretty much everything that gets made in the territory, and it’s the same with booze, and potable bitters like amaro can be labelled as Bitter or as Amer (the French term for bitter). Think Amer Picon, the classic inclusion in the Brooklyn cocktail, and you’ll know what we mean. Germans are also fond of the bitter taste — Underberg being just one digestive that springs to mind — but so too does much of the rest of Europe.

There are a range of potable bitters throughout the world, such as the Gammel Dansk Bitter Dram – a favourite tipple of the Danes and without which a traditional Danish Christmas lunch is not complete.

Other potable types of bitter include quinquinas (in which quinine plays a dominant role) and chinati (wine based bitters, like Barolo Chinato). Also in the amaro category is Campari; arguably the most recognisable bitter brand in the world.

bitterness

Bitter Bottlings

Fernet-Branca
Fernet-Branca ages for at least one year in oak barrels and has a rich brown colour with amber hues. Its aroma is intense, penetrating, balanced and rich.
Think Spirits

Amaro di Angostura
Bottled at 35% ABV, Amaro di Angostura is a deep amber colour, offering aromas of cinnamon, dark chocolate and unmistakable Angostura aromatic bitters. The flavours explode on the tongue with warm cinnamon and liquorice notes.
island2island

Averna
Averna is made using the same recipe made popular by Salvatore Averna in Caltanissetta in 1868, and is the second-highest selling bitter in Italy. It’s velvety on the palate, with a rich taste and a delicate citrus fragrance.
Campari Australia