1.3 The best bitters
Something bitter perfectly pairs with a premium gin
On my bar, I have a line of little bottles containing an elaborate array of flavoured bitters. There is a whole world of bitters, each with a unique and historic relationship with gin.
Pride of place goes to the iconic Angostura Bitters with its oversized label and bright yellow lid. Whether mixed with gin and tonic for a Pink Gin, added to a herbal cocktail to enhance those earthy flavours, or simply used to garnish egg white cocktails, Angostura is a mixologist’s magic potion.
‘Concentrated’ bitters, like Angostura, are intensely aromatic alcoholic tinctures that come in a variety of flavours. You’ll rarely need to add more than two dashes to a cocktail. Bitter ‘aperitivos’, like Campari and Aperol, or ‘digestivos’ like Amaros, are longer bitter liqueurs used in more liberal quantities.
Angostura is the essential concentrated bitters. Here are my four bitter aperitivo choices.
Classic Italian Bitters
Campari is the all-time classic bitter aperitivo. Instantly recognisable by its brilliant red glow, this Italian liqueur is composed of somewhere between 30 and 60 secret ingredients. The flavour is almost peppery, with citrusy undertones that add a touch of sweetness to the complex bitterness.
If you like these orange citrus notes, but are looking for a lighter bitters option, then give Aperol a go. Burning a Mediterranean sunset orange, Aperol is a sweeter and fruitier, entry-level bitter aperitivo. Both are popular Italian liqueurs and, given their vibrant colours, easily found on supermarket shelves.
Campari is vital for a classic Negroni, but can also be enjoyed over ice with gin and a splash of soda. If you sub Aperol into your Negroni, you’ll have inadvertently made the Queen Mother’s favourite tipple: The Contessa.
If you prefer to do your shopping online, you might stumble across a true secret to mixology magic. Before making those amazing vermouths, Asterley Bros. first conjured up an enchanting bitter liqueur called Dispense Amaro. Hidden within a cauldron black bottle, 24 botanicals are expertly blended with their British Estate Sweet Vermouth. The result is an intensely full-bodied bitter liqueur, with a rich herbal core, sweet spicy notes and a light, summery tartness. With all that going on in one bottle, imagine the explosion of flavour in your mouth when paired with a punchy, powerful premium gin.
The French Twist
The French tend to think anything the Italians can do, they can do better. While ‘better’ might be up for debate, it turns out they can definitely make a superb bitter liqueur. Suze is a luminescent yellow aperitif, which has an aroma more eye watering than its bite – I promise. The main flavour is derived from the roots of wild gentian plants growing on the grassy French side of the Alps. Once you’ve got over the initial sting of bitterness, appreciate the delicate notes of grapefruit and the momentary, sharp sweetness of wild flowers. Explore its complex earthy flavours in a Bianco Negroni, or add a teaspoon to a Dry Martini for a vegetal kick.
Use these bitter aperitivos as the main flavour of your cocktail, or use them like salt and pepper to ‘season’ your drink. Add a teaspoon to your stir or shake to bring out the herbal notes or to give sweeter cocktails a bitter twist.