Central Europeans’ and Italians’ love for bitters is well known. They produce many and consume more than any other nation.
Of late, bitters have started to become fashionable in North America, possibly because Italian and Central European immigrants spread the word, but more importantly sampled their British-born friends and business associates.
Bitters are a special category of alcoholic beverages produced from a combination of herbs and spices. Some are very bitter with a truly medicinal nose; others tolerable and sweetish. Speaking of bitter, Italians have a much higher tolerance for amari (bitter) than English. An Italian will indulge in one or two shots of herb- and spice induced amari like Fernet-Brance or Averna after a rich meal.
North Americans prefer Cognac or single-malt than a bitter after a gourmet meal.
Generally, western Mediterranean people prefer moderately alcoholic beverages, like wine, than super alcoholic drinks like spirits containing 40 – 50 percent ABV.
Campari, although not dark (it is red) and highly alcoholic, is served mixed with sparkling water as an aperitif in Italy. It never caught on in North America due to its unusually medicinal taste.
Then there is Cynar, an artichoke flavoured liquor, which Italians love as an aperitif, but very few North American could be coerced to enjoy!
Hungarians are great bitter consumers. Unicum, a company specializing in bitters, makes and markets several. European marketers are allowed to make medicinal claims in their efforts to sell. Unicum takes advantage of this legal right.
Germans and Austrians believe in bitters so much that Underberg, that ubiquitous product in Germany, can be even purchased from roadside vending machines and restaurants.
Then there is Jaegermeister, which supposedly hunters use in their pursuit of game and most likely enjoy after a meal to settle their shaky stomachs.
Swiss and Austrians stick to their Alpenbitters based on wild herbs gathered in the Alp mountains. All claim medicinal properties and actually are used as remedies for upset stomachs.
Grappas, a fiery distillate derived from a by-product of viinifiication, managed to become famous in North America. In Italy it was at one time the spirit vineyard workers and winery workers, then marketers decided to position grappas as a sophisticated digestive.
A few specialised distillers like Poli, Scarpa, Rialto, Sandro Bottega, Mazetti and Stravecchia started to market varietal grappas from Chardonnay, Nebbiolo, Moscato and aged their products for smoothness. Now some charge over a $ 100.- per bottle and people line up to buy them
Freshly distilled Barolo or Barbarersco grappa can be delightful in its robustness, particularly after an extended meal, but never more than two shots.
Angostura Bitters, invented by a German surgeon in Simon Bolivar’s army in Venezuela, is now produced in Trinidad and Tobago. It contains 40 percent ABV but happens to be so bitter that Canadian and American authorities have classified it as food. Still, enough desperate people buy bottles and try to get drunk on it.
Bitter aperitifs and digestive have their place in gastronomy both in cooking and enjoyment, but only if used in moderation.