Taste: Spirits: Bittersweet

Before or after a meal, indulge in European bitters

Bitters are medicinal spirits, and definitely an acquired taste. Best known are Angostura bitters in tiny bottles, measured by the drop. Infused wines, like vermouths, are sometimes called bitters, too. But throughout Europe, a different type of bitters can be found behind every bar. Served alone or on ice, they are spirits flavored with roots, seeds, fruits and bark.

 Tasting of semisweet black licorice, Germany’s Jägermeister has had the most success in the U.S. France’s monastic orders have produced restorative bitters, like herbal Chartreuse (right), for centuries. But Italy has by far the greatest penchant for bitter spirits, known as “amaro.” Most are “digestivos” that settle the stomach after dinner, but a few are “aperitivos” that pique the appetite beforehand.

Served before meals, Campari has a candy-apple color that belies its fierce dry and bitter taste, often balanced with soda or orange juice. Cynar draws cult interest because of its unusual artichoke flavor. Both are popular at D’Angelo’s, off Rittenhouse Square, and Moonstruck, in the Northeast.

However, most amari appear after dessert. The Bolognese Montenegro, at Cherry Hill’s Caffe Aldo Lamberti, softens the bitter blow with a delicate vanilla finish. Sicilian Averna, forceful, with a pungent herbal-cola bite, is a staple at Kristian’s in South Philly. Nonino’s Quintessentia matures for years in barrels, achieving a smooth, caramelized character ideal for sophisticated sipping at places like Old City’s Angelina. The most famous of all is tonsil-rattlingly bitter Fernet-Branca. Legendary for its ability to calm gastric distress, it can be drunk alone or to “correct” a late-night espresso, at classic Italian venues like South Philly’s Saloon.