Bitter Love; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Bitters are all the rage on the cocktail scene these days. Whether they’re the type you take by the drop or by the ounce, they add depth and intrigue to every drink. Recently I was on the judging panel for a dozen drinks based on Averna Amaro, a Sicilian bitter with a renowned history. After this palate-eye opener, I’d say bitters are as essential as ice in a well stocked bar.

AvernaThe talented young bartenders from 12 of the trendiest spots in Toronto, created cocktails that not only showcased Averna, but were downright delicious. It was a challenge to pick just one winner. Charlie Lamont, a bartender at Whippoorwill and Rock Lobster won first prize with “Bumblebee” – a mix of majority Averna with orange blossom water, coconut liqueur and Luxardo Maraschino, garnished with lemon peel.

Adrian Stein who works at Rock Lobster and Mistura came in second with “Moda Antica”, a reverse take on an old fashioned in which the drink was inside a sphere of ice. Forty Creek rye, smoked maple syrup, house made cherry lavender bitter and smacked basil added to the drink’s pizzazz. Reed Pettit of Miller Tavern came in third with the delicious “Just One of Those”. Along with Averna it featured Bowmore 12 Year Old, Chartreuse and raspberry tea. Another great scotch for this cocktail would be the newly listed Highland Park 10 Year Old.

HIGHLAND PARK 10 YEAR OLDBowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single MaltBitters, created to cure the ailments of man, have a long history in Europe that dates back at least to the medicinal brews of medieval monasteries. The monks grew herbs, dried them and worked them into special elixirs according to secret recipes that people would literally murder to obtain. Some of the popular ingredients still used today include quinine, anise, rhubarb, gentian, juniper, alpine yarrow, mint, sage, verbena, chamomile, hawthorn, citrus peel and thyme.

There are two basic categories of bitters; strong which are 38% to 45% alcohol with low residual sugar, and medium (half) bitters with 30% to 35% alcohol and higher sugar. In North America we find the consumer friendly aspects of the latter more appealing, while many Europeans prefer the whack of the strong ones. Concentrated aromatic bitters such as Angostura, Vermont’s Urban Moonshine organic bitters and Dillon’s small batch range in Ontario made from botanicals and local fruit, are typically used a few drops at a time to add complexity to cocktails and other beverages.

A typical example of the half bitters is Averna (29% alcohol). Made from a recipe handed by a monk of the Order of Capuchins in the early 1800’s to Don Salvatore Averna of Sicily, it became the preferred elixir of the kings of Italy in the 19th century and the first licensed spirit in Sicily.

Averna, today Italy’s favorite amaro, is distilled from a blend of 60 herbs, dried flowers, spices and licorice: the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret of Fratelli Averna, a fourth-generation family-run company based in Caltanissetta. Traditionally a soothing after-dinner drink, I find it on the sweet side but used as a mixer in cocktails it shines.

Fernet BrancaUnderberg BittersItaly is the world capital of bitters consumption. They have invented over 300 different kinds of amaro (the Italian word for bitter) which is not surprising considering their love of multi-coursed meals which can leave you begging for a stomach soother. Most of the leading brands of amaro such as Averna, Fernet Branca, and Ramazotti started as family businesses which grew into huge internationals.

A Danish colleague of mine, Jorgen, who used to jaunt about the world covering the unlikely combo of wine and politics, would never leave home without, amongst his weeks’ worth of undies and socks, an equal quantity of paper-wrapped 20mL bottles of Underberg.

He used this natural tonic developed in Germany in 1846 with herbs gathered from 43 countries seeped in 44% alcohol to help him digest the pontifications and libations of the day. It’s a habit he came by naturally as Danes love their bitter drams. The local Gammel Dansk is the most popular there but Europeans have hundreds of choices available.

Most were meant to be consumed straight like a tonic, though it’s trendy today is to add sodas or use them in cocktails. Consumed this way, they make great aperitifs, setting up the palate and stomach nicely for the meal to come. A favourite summer perk me up is Campari and soda, a drink so popular in Italy it comes in premixed bottles there. Cynar, made by Campari, is artichoke based with syrupy, subtle liquorice root type flavours and also makes a good aperitif with soda and ice as does Jägermeister with cola.

Beefeater 24 London Dry GinBulldog GinThe pinkish-red Negroni cocktail is a classic summer “pick-me-up” that will transport you, at least in your mind, to beautiful Portofino. Bittersweet Campari is mixed with gin and sweet red vermouth – on the rocks, topped up with soda if desired. Generally it’s made two parts gin to one part of the other two. If like me you like the taste of bitters, go for extra Campari. Try Bulldog Gin a more approachable, less juniper centric gin with a creamy texture as the base or Beefeater 24, which features 12 bright botanicals and has a rounded, smooth texture.

The Champagne house Perrier Jouët developed a special cocktail this summer to herald in the new heir to the British throne. Called the “Royale Highness” it’s one ounce each of Beefeater 24 and Lejay Crème de Cassis and a splash of fresh lemon juice shaken with ice which is then strained into a flute glass and topped up with Perrier Jouët. It’s a princely way to salute the end of summer and baby George Alexander Louis.


Margaret Swaine

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Luxardo Maraschino