Bitter is Still Better

Bitter is Still Better

Chewing the food of sweet and bitter fancy,
Lo, what befell!—Shakespeare, As You Like It, IV, iii, 103
I have always had what I call a “bitter tooth,” a liking for bitter tastes, and in fact, a corresponding dislike of anything sweet. Come at me with all the psychological theories at your disposal if you must, but I think the proclivity is simply a matter of brain wiring.

A few years ago when I was working for a paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico I wrote a food article entitled Bitter is Better. “The (bitter) irony is this,” I wrote, “science has proven that a wide array of bitter foods are, pardon the cliché, 'good for you.' Bitter foods like spinach, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, mustard greens, radicchio, and dark chocolate are all rich in dietary phytonutrients, which may serve to prevent many diseases, cancer included.” I was on to something. For years the web version of this article has brought me excellent traffic, and a number of positive comments. I'm not the only bitterhead out there.

The world of drink is filled with bitter products and bitter terminologies, bitter drinks and bitter additives. One of the most widely craved bittering substances in beverages is hops. Originally brewers noticed that adding Humulus lupulus to their mix helped the beer last longer; later, the bitter hops taste became desirable on its own account. Bitter ale, the most widely consumed beer in Great Britain, owes its name to its high proportion of hops. The Irish produce bitter stouts, including the iconic Guinness, that derive their bitter flavors from both darkly roasted barley and added hops. Among the light lager beers so popular around the world, un-hopped beers are a rarity.

That which is not bitter in beer and ale, the frothy malt-derived main body of the beverage, tends to be mouth-filling and sweet; here we have a theme. Chocolate is a perfect example of a bitter product made palatable by adding sweet. In bitter beverages, sweet and aromatic components allow us to enjoy the bitter bite at an acceptable threshold. The perception of bitter taste is believed to center around the back of the tongue, but this has never been conclusively proved. Some theorists believe we evolved the ability to detect bitter tastes to warn us of noxious elements. Be that as it may, the bitter side of taste, though it demands a learning curve, is one we can absolutely enjoy.

To the hungry soul every bitter thing is sweet—Proverbs 27:7
A mild bitterness in wine may function as just another flavor element, especially when it becomes part of the refreshing finish of certain wines (many Italian reds, for example). Beyond a limited point, however, a bitter taste in a wine shows something is amiss: unripe tannins, too much alcohol, overzealous extraction during red wine maceration, or excessive oak contact in white wines. It is important not to confuse bitterness, which we taste, with tannic astringency, which we feel in our mouths, often as a drying sensation. Of course bitterheads like me tolerate, even crave, a higher level of bitterness in wine than do many people; you might find us mentioning notes of “sticks” or “twigs” or “burnt toast” or even “dirt” with surprising enthusiasm.

The drinks category called “bitters” is extremely broad, encompassing several sub-categories, but if these beverages do have any one thing in common it is that every last one of them guards some form of “secret” recipe. The formula for Trinidad's Angostura bitters, for example, unchanged since 1824, is known only in segments by a select few. The veil of secrecy has a flip side of course; many of these producers are more than willing to broadcast the fact that they guard secret recipes—it makes good press—however reticent (and even litigious) they may be about revealing the contents.

Bitter drinks of these various types generally combine bitter ingredients with aromatics, oftentimes sugar, and almost always alcohol. Gentian root, quinine, yarrow flowers, angelica, rue, bitter aloe, cassia and bitter orange peel are reliable sources; these are invariably complemented and tempered by herbs, spices, barks or fruit essences. Considered one of the most bitter substances on the planet, gentian root doubles as the source of the odd taste in the New England soda Moxie, a term which in turn has come to indicate a certain degree of sassy nerve, even boldness.

All bitter things conduce to sweet.—Richard Wilbur
Cocktail bitters like Angostura and Louisiana's Peychaud's Bitters (an essential in the New Orleans poster cocktail, the Sazerac) are designed to be added as concentrated flavoring agents to cocktails, although a conservative dash of any of these into a soup or stew can add valuable depth of flavor. For most of the nineteenth century, in fact, the term “cocktail” referred to a mixture of spirits, water, sugar and bitters (bitters originally came on the scene as a form of health tonic). As a brand, Angostura is huge; I only have to go to my local Stop & Shop to find it on the shelf next to the tonic water, the club soda, the grenadine, the Rose's lime juice, and the Bloody Mary and Margarita mixes. Both Angostura and Peychaud's (the older of the two brands, slightly sweeter) weave their complexities from a gentian base. New York's Fee Brothers produce a range of orange, lemon, cherry, grapefruit, rhubarb and other aromatic bitters, while many other small players come and go on the world market. In bars when I do not feel like braving a house wine or committing to a cocktail I sometimes order club soda with a few dashes of bitters; the distinctively tawny-colored result is a good conversation starter. If you garnish this with a sprig of mint or a lemon twist, it qualifies as the cocktail called the “Bitters Highball.”

An important sub-category of cocktail bitters has a single member: tonic water, a quinine product, without which the iconic gin and tonic would not be possible (Bitter Lemon is a flavored variant). I am very thankful that sugar-free versions of this are now available and on an occasional hot summer day I enjoy it cold and straight.

Digestifs are bitter drinks designed to be consumed on their own. Some, like Italy's Amaro (literally “bitter) and Spain's Calisaya, balance the bitter with sweet. Others—and these truly warm the bitterhead's heart—cut right to the quick and dispense with the sugar crutch. These will be consumed in small quantities or may be diluted with water. Italy's Fernet Branca (gentian, rhubarb, mushroom, myrrh, chamomile, angelica, saffron, cardamom and more) is the best known; a few inky tablespoons of this will concentrate my brain when it runs errant; Fernet Branca is also super with soda.

Jägermeister from Germany has been well publicized as a mixer and a shooter among the younger set in recent years (it is a big sponsor in automobile racing), but since this drink is semi-sweet, it qualifies only as a Kräuterlikör (“herbal liqueur”) under German law. The Germans do produce my own digestif of choice, however, the entirely dry Underberg, a concoction of aromatic herbs from 43 countries (matured in Slovenian oak barrels) that is sold exclusively in individually-wrapped 20ml bottles. Underberg is 44% alcohol. The company recommends consuming the 20ml in one go, and I do, especially when either my stomach or my brain feels a little off. The warmth of Underberg, as it diffuses through my being, is generosity itself. Underberg sells special tall glasses designed to enhance the experience, as well as other distinctive Underberg memorabilia, but these are not readily available in the United States. (As it is, I need to trek three towns over to find my Underberg at a gourmet shop). When I make my memorable chocolate paté (a salubrious mixture of bitter chocolate, heavy cream and egg yolks), I add a 20ml bottle of Underberg as a flavor catalyst.

Gammel Dansk Bitter Dram has actually a rather short provenance, brought to market in Denmark in the 1960s where it is extremely popular today, sometimes as a beer chaser, yet oftentimes as an accompaniment to morning coffee (in either case consumed as a digestif unmixed). I lived in Denmark during the 1970s and I remember the enthusiasm “our own” bitters engendered among the fun-loving Danes. The smooth digestif includes gentian root, anise, ginger, rowanberry, laurel, Seville orange, and cinnamon. (The rowanberries are harvested by children every autumn near the Danish city of Roskilde; the company purchases as many pails of berries as the children can collect.) Gammel Dansk (literally “old Danish”) now puts out an aperitif, Asmund Special (named for the original inventor of the drink), taking off on the original formula by adding Canadian maple syrup, Mexican vanilla, crushed Kenyan coffee and ground West African Forastero cocoa beans, to give some idea, but don't ask for too many specs since, according to Gammel Dansk, “the only two employees who know the recipe do not accept flowers, theatre tickets or any other bribes!” The fact that Asmund Special is aged in French Limousin oak Cognac barrels is an aspect the company is all to ready to reveal, however. Asmund Special, extant only since 2007, sounds like a beverage with a future.

That which was bitter to endure may be sweet to remember—American proverb
The popular deep blood red Campari from Italy is the most widely known bitter aperitif. I discovered the drink in the late 70's when I was in love with a woman who worked for the company that distributed the beverage. I am still in love (with Campari). Campari's formula is—guess what—secret, although it is known that it derives bitter essences from quinine, bitter orange peel, bergamot, and rhubarb. I order Campari and soda now and then, enjoy the bitter herbal element, but usually don't go for seconds because I find the sweet segment a bit too cloying (but that's me). Campari is a key ingredient in two mainstream cocktails, the Negroni (with gin and sweet vermouth) and the Americano (with club soda and sweet vermouth). You could also mix Campari with cranberry and lemon juices to make a Roman Candle.

I have tried the artichoke/quinine Cynar (chee-nar) from Italy, finding it mild in all respects, though the concentrated artichoke is unique. A few years ago I started to gain a taste for the Italian vermouth Punt e Mes, a worthy mélange of bitter and not-too-sweet with warm cedar and herbal notes and an orange peel finish. The tawny Punt e Mes is decidedly on the bitter side as vermouths go; I've only had it unmixed on the rocks, but imagine it would be an interesting martini component. Italy and its regions offer dozens of other bitter drinks, of course. Among these, Ramazzotti Amaro, which has an orange peel and anise pedigree, turned my head for a bit, but I ultimately found it too sweet for the long haul, especially when I cooked with it.

People have been telling this bitterhead for years that I ought to try the most popular French bitter aperitif, gentian-based Suze. I had enjoyed the French Amer Picon (bitter orange, with cinchona bark for quinine, and the ubiquitous gentian) more than once stateside, but Suze and I did not cross paths until one day early last year during my Loire Valley wine tour. Suze has a nice bitter bite at the back of the mouth combined with a rather unctuous, almost luxurious mouthfeel. I cannot be objective as to its efficacy as an aperitif, however, since I was in…ahem…France, where I always have an appetite. I cajoled a Suze glass from the waiter, meaning to give it as a gift to my sister Susie, but I couldn't quite part with the souvenir. The single glass sits proudly even now in my living room, along with my antique cocktail shakers and my collection of sake sets. If only I had a proper set of four I sometimes think…bitterly.


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Bitter flavors can taste mighty sweet.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

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