A Not So Beginners Guide to Bitter Spirits
Updated: Feb 18
My favorite cocktail is a Negroni. Basically equal parts Gin, Sweet Vermouth and Campari, served either up or on the rocks and garnished with a orange peel or slice. (Lots of bartenders will "test" a bars prowess by ordering a daiquiri. I like to order a Negroni severed up for two reasons: 1- to see if they properly dilute and chill the drink. 2- A bad Negroni is much like its Italian friend Pizza; it'll still be enjoyable. We'll circle back to the daiquiri at the end).
Now, I'm not going to talk much about Campari, Aperol, or any of the Campari groups spirits much here. That can wait for another and hopefully sponsored day. To get the real essence of Campari, I probably should experience being on a Vespa in Milan, tooling around with an espresso and some pizza cut with scissors. Campari was my first experience with a bitter spirit. It made my taste buds submit and open to more blissful bitter pleasures. Most of these recipes were made as local remedies for general illness by pharmacists and apothecary by steeping local herbs and spices in neutral spirit. I wanted to showcase some lesser discussed bitter spirits that'll bring you back sense memories of Sour Patch Kids but with the added bonus of a slight buzz and a soothed tummy.
Riga Black Balsam
Balsam is a Eastern European herbal liqueur noted for its high alcohol content. Riga Black Balsam is Latvian potion originally formulated in 1752 by pharmacist Abraham Kunze in Riga, Latvia. This pitch black drink is made with blueberries, raspberries, nutmeg, wormwood, black pepper, and ginger among others. Its also sold in a clay bottle, which the producers claim changes the flavor complexity for up to six months after bottling. I might not have this bottle around six months because its robust vegetal and punchy earthy flavors make it very fun to play with in drinks. A little goes a long way, so maybe try a teaspoon of it in an Old Fashioned to start, and work your way up to a whole ounce in a Black Manhattan riff.
One of the best ways to boost your home spirits collection with unique offerings is to travel to different countries. The easiest way to bring spirits home is from Duty Free shops the airports. No taxes and no checking bags. This is how my fiancée brought me back several bottles of Danish Bitter. Danish Bitter characteristics include little to no sweetness, baking spices, gentian, licorice, etc. Gammel Dansk, which means "Old Danish", is one of the most popular Bitter spirits in Denmark. Gammel Dansk and its herbed compatriots may be hard to find, but the recommended drinking suggestion makes it a worthwhile search. It can be drank after dinner as a digestif, but its more common to have during breakfast as an apertif. I assume this is major factor to Denmark's consistent ranking as one of the happiest countries in the world. I enjoy this one neat because, sadly, I do not get to fly to Copenhagen for Research and Development nearly enough.
I said I wanted to focus on lesser know Bitter. While Jagermister is one of the most famous spirits in the world, its reputation as a bitter spirit for cocktails is generally not a talking point among craft cocktail bartenders. Its a form of "Krauterlikor" which is a spirit infused with herbs and spices that has a high sugar content. While this was originally used to aid with digestion, the mixture of alcohol and sugar is not conducive as a digestif. Some other Krauterlikors include Underberg, Benedictine, Chartreuse, and Riga Black Balsam.
Jagermeister's marketing campaign to turn a bittersweet hunters' beverage into a party shot was successful, but that reputation is keeping Jager from being on the back bar in more "serious" cocktail bars. I'm sure they are crying all the way to the bank as it is still in the top ten of worldwide liquor sales. Jagermeister is made from 56 herbs and spices infused into spirit, rested for about a year in oak barrels, then mixed with sugar, caramel, and additional alcohol. Its sweetness tamps the bitter to make for a even handed neat sipping experience. Try it in a Egg White Sour or Jägerita.
Since moving to Chicago, I fell in love with Malort. Malort is a Swedish style Bask liquor notable for its spiced wormwood flavor (wormwood translates to "malört" in Swedish). Its two notable characteristics were bitter and chalky, its mostly paired with Old Style beer to become a boilermaker called "The Chicago Handshake". It was originally produced in the 1930's by Carl Jepsen, a Swedish immigrant to Chicago. The rights to Malort have changed hands several times. Production began in Chicago, then moved to Kentucky, then to Mid-West Distillers Products in Auburndale, Florida. In 2018, CH Distillery acquired the rights and moved production back to its facility in Chicago in 2019. Malort was reformulated for a cleaner mouthfeel with more natural ingredients (goodbye Yellow no 5). These changes make it a touch more palatable and cocktail friendly. Many Chicagoans aren't fond of the changes, as I've been told its not supposed to taste good. Harsh winters, harsh spirits I suppose.
I've been tinkering with malort in a drink inspired by a famous son of Illinois; Ernest Hemingway. He drank his daiquiris with rum, lime, grapefruit, and maraschino liqueur instead of sugar. Malort has subtle grapefruit notes and bit of additional bitter booze probably wouldn't disturb Mr. Hemingway too much.
Recipe: Hemingway's Chicago
1.5 oz Charanda or Rhum Agricole (both distilled from sugar cane and a little funky)
1 oz Fresh Lime Juice
0.5 oz Maraschino liqueur
0.5 oz Malort
Technique: add all ingredient to a shaking tin and shake hard with ice for at least 10 seconds. Strain into a coupe and enjoy.