Ask a Bartender: How Do I Get Into Bitter Drinks?

20140304-bartender-Amali - Jason Lakow - Bar-primary.jpg
Jason Lakow of Amali in NYC.

Fernet and Cynar, Negronis and Boulevardiers—bitter amari, and the cocktails that showcase them, are all the rage these days. But to drinkers unaccustomed to those powerfully bitter flavors, a first sip can be off-putting. We've mentioned this challenge before, but today we're asking bartenders from across the country: What's the best way to start appreciating bitter flavors?

Here's what they had to say.

"My favorite non-agave cocktail of all time is a Negroni, but if you have an aversion to gin, or you just have your heart set on exploring amari, try mixing Fernet and Coke. It's delicious and widely popular in Argentina." — Jason Eisner (Gracias Madre)

"The Negroni always is the first to arrive in my mind, but those can be too much of a punch in the palate. When confronted with an adventurous tippler wanting to explore bitter I tend to lean towards something closer to their current comfort level. I like to mix a gin sour and bring Aperol or some Gran Classico into the drink's sweet element. This seems to help ease a drinker into the bitter side without asking their taste buds to dive headlong into the unknown." — Bill Anderson (Vie)

"Depending on what guests normally drink, you could go a couple of ways. If they like lighter, juice-forward cocktails they might like a simple Campari and orange juice. If they like heavier, boozy drinks, they should try what some are calling a Black Manhattan: rye whiskey, amaro, and bitters." — Josh Berner (Poste Moderne Brasserie)

"Amaro Montenegro. There's a reason this amaro is the #1 selling amaro in Italy. It has a beautiful sweetness in the beginning and just the right amount of bitter at the end. It won't shock your palate like some others on the market and also leaves you thirsty for another glass. For those who are looking to start drinking bitter liqueurs, consider this your gateway amaro." — Pamela Wiznitzer (The Dead Rabbit)

20140304-bartender-Amali - Jason Lakow - Bar-primary.jpg
Jason Lakow of Amali in NYC.

"I am a total freak for anything bitter. We have over 12 different amari on our bar at any given point which can often be a little overwhelming for a customer with little or no knowledge of these spirits. We currently are serving a really delicious twist on a classic sour with Averna in it. It's simply equal parts Hendricks, lemon juice, Averna, and St. Germain. It's a great way to introduce someone to amari because the drink is refreshing, well balanced, and has a mildly bitter finish." — Jason Lakow (Amali)

"Amaro Nonino and Amaro Montenegro are some easier spirits to drink in that category. They tend to have a nice sweet / bitter balance rather than the heavy, bitter and earthy flavors people usually try first." — Eric Johnson (Sycamore Den)

"A good gateway to Campari is simply Campari and soda with a splash of OJ. Once you get used to it, you can cut out the OJ and enjoy the Campari with soda and in other drinks. I like the Jasmine (gin, lemon, Campari, Cointreau) and the Old Pal (rye, Campari, dry vermouth). Averna goes particularly well with St. Germain, so mix the two of those with soda and you're good." — Jon Harris (Firefly)

"I would recommend the Americano. It's equal parts Campari and sweet vermouth, topped with club soda. The bitterness of the Campari is tempered from the vermouth and club soda, but enough of the herbs and bitterness shine through to get the palate used to the flavor. If you like that, it's an easy transition to step it up to a Negroni!" — Jeff Faile (Iron Gate, Red Apron, Birch & Barley)

Brandon Lockman of Red Star Tavern in Portland.

"There are some less bitter amari out there that I recommend first. Averna, Ramazzotti and Meletti come to mind." — Brandon Lockman (Red Star Tavern)

"Using bitter liqueurs/amari in small portions as modifiers in bright, citrusy cocktails is a great way to slowly familiarize someone with these new flavors. A standard sour formula is good starting point—approximately 2 parts base spirit + 1 part citrus + 1/2 part sugar or cordial + 1/2 part bitter/amaro." — Kevin Dowell (Foreign Cinema)

"A classic highball is great—Cynar and soda with an orange peel. That crisp, fizzy water cuts through some bitterness and the orange brightens the nose." — Nate Howell (Jsix)

"I think a good way to ease into amari is trying them in a twist on a Manhattan. It'll get you used to the herbaceous/medicinal flavors, while still being balanced by whiskey." — Jesse Cornell (Sbraga)

"There's a drink called the Hanky Panky. It was originally created by Ada Coleman at Savoy Hotel's American Bar in London. It's equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, with a few dashes (or a rinse) of Fernet Branca. It's a great gateway because the Fernet is used almost in the same way that one would use Angostura Bitters in a Manhattan; it's a small dose. The rinse gives you all of that bitterness, eucalyptus, and menthol that one would expect from a Fernet, but without any of the aggressive qualities." — Rene Hidalgo (Lantern's Keep)

"I think bitter cocktails with citrus make them more approachable. A drink from Milk & Honey called Rome with a View is one of my favorites—it's lime, club soda, Campari, and dry definitely dry and bitter, but so refreshing. Once people can appreciate the touch of bitter, it's easier to move on to other styles and play around with amari instead of sweet vermouth in many classic drinks. Some are more medicinal than others, so I usually start with the Campari/Aperol side and then get to Gran Classico or Fernet." — Meaghan Dorman (Raines Law Room)

Mike Ryan of Sable in Chicago.

"I like to start with something lighter and less bitter, like Aperol or Cynar, and build it into a refreshing, approachable drink like a spritz or a smash. Balancing the bitterness with a little sweetness and some acidity helps people understand the flavors." —Mike Ryan (Sable)

"A Boulevardier—sweet bourbon, Campari, sweet vermouth." — Andy Nelson (Jackson 20)

"Gateway amari? I'd probably go to Cynar, it's a wonderful artichoke-based bitter liqueur that I really enjoy and use it often in cocktails." — Elizabeth Powell (Liberty Bar)

"If your go-to sip is whisky, pour some Cynar or Zucca in your whisky old fashioned or Manhattan. If you take gin, add a dash or ten (or twenty) of Campari to your glass—throw in some orange slices and top up with a splash of soda if you like. Only drink wine? ... That's fine, throw an ounce or so of any old amaro in your glass: you just invented vermouth, which is another good place to start." — Dave Porcaro (Bigalora Wood Fired Grill)

"A neat trick, if someone wants to try a bitter spirit on its own, is to mix the spirit with ice and a small pinch of salt. The salt will block some of the bitterness, allowing for the spirit's other notes to flourish." — Steve Yamada (Bar R'evolution)

"A so-called Black Manhattan, where an amaro takes the place of the aromatic bitters and some of the vermouth. A familiar friend with a twist. The one we serve at Hog & Rocks uses Nardini, which is also great by itself. At the other end of the spectrum, I also love turning Fernet drinkers on to straight shots of Angostura bitters. There's a reason we use so much of it and drinking it as a shot give you the opportunity to deeply savor all the layers." — Michael Lazar (Hog and Rocks)