Before we look into Italian bitters, let’s recap a little. In part 1 we explored Italian Amari. Amaro is a bittersweet herbal liqueur which is especially popular in Italy. It is mainly served neat as an after-dinner drink, allegedly because of its medicinal benefits. Amaro means bitter, but Italians do not use the word amaro when describing aperitivo liqueurs even if these are also bitter. Aperitivo liqueurs are simply referred to as Bitters (in English) – confusing, I know! Most aperitivo liqueurs are red or orange in colour, like the colour of a sunset.
These bright bitters are served at lunch time or before dinner, and they are therefore lower in alcohol by volume compared to Amaro. They are also rarely served neat, but rather in cocktails, or with Prosecco and soda.
Campari, 24% ABV, is one of the most widely known (and used) aperitivo bitters. It is very bitter with slightly floral notes. The recipe used is still the original from 1860 and none of the ingredients have ever been revealed. The Italians know how to keep a secret!! The beautiful bright red colour used to come from crushed insects, but since 2006 the colouring agent has been changed to an artificial red dye.
Campari is served with orange juice or soda and a slice of orange. There are many cocktails made with Campari – Negroni (my personal favourite), Americano, Old Pal, Boulevardier and Sorrentino, just to name a few.
Aperol, 11% ABV, was launched in 1919. It has 30 different botanicals, including bitter oranges, gentian root and rhubarb. You can really taste all three in Aperol, especially the strong notes of bitter oranges. In 2005 Aperol launched a successful international advertising campaign for Aperol Spritz, making this aperitivo cocktail a well-known cosmopolitan drink and the perfect way to kick start the weekend.
Next time you are in Milan, I recommend you visit Terrazza Aperol. It is not too pricey and a great place to enjoy an Aperol Spritz (or any other aperitivo) with views of the Duomo. Just make sure you dress to impress, it is Milan, after all!
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Casoni 1814 Aperitivo
This light red bitter liqueur has been in production since 1814, and the distillery has remained in the family for six generations. Casoni 1814 Aperitivo, 15% ABV, is similar to Aperol, with notes of grapefruit and orange. Casoni also makes Amaro using an old family recipe, kept a secret, of course!
Contratto is similar to Campari, but less bitter, making it a great alternative for Negroni or Boulevardier, for example. Contratto Bitter is 22% ABV and has no artificial ingredients. Some known botanicals are wormwood, orange peel, clove, cardamom, gentian root, hibiscus, juniper, mint, rhubarb, sage, nettle and ginger. The bright red colour comes from carrot and beet extracts. Contratto Aperitif has a lower ABV and is more like Aperol.
Gran Classico Bitter
Gran Classico Bitter is one of the strongest aperitivo bitters at 28% ABV. It is made without any artificial colour or flavours. Some known ingredients are wormwood, gentian root, bitter orange and rhubarb, which all contribute to the slightly darker amber colour. It is very aromatic, with floral notes and bitterness from the wormwood.
Cynar can go under Amaro or aperitivo bitters. It has a low ABV, 16.5%, and it is very suitable for cocktails. Although the name Cynar comes from Latin cynara scolymus, meaning artichoke, the liqueur itself is not strong on artichoke and is not as vegetal as you might expect. It also has a slightly sweet caramel finish. Artichoke is just one of the ingredients we know; there are 12 other botanicals used to create this dark-brown herbal liqueur. For aperitivo you would mix Cynar with soda and a slice, orange juice, tonic water or use it as a substitute for Campari to make a variation of Negroni.
There are many other aperitivo bitters available in Italy, but some may not be available in the UK market. Next time you go for a drink, see if you can find any new cocktails with Bitters. Although you can’t go wrong with a good old Negroni, it is good to try and explore beyond Campari.
Cocktails with Amaro and Bitters
Something old – The classics
Equal parts of Campari and sweet vermouth combined over ice in a tumbler and topped up with soda.
Garibaldi, or simply Campari and Orange
Pour 50ml Campari over ice in a highball and top up with orange juice, ideally freshly squeezed.
Equal parts of gin, Campari and Martini rosso is combined in a mixing glass with ice, stirred until chilled and strained into a tumbler over ice (or one huge ice cube). But if you feel brave, replace Campari with Cynar or another bitter liqueur. I’ve noticed how much bigger Negronis are in Italy compared to the UK, thanks to their relaxed measurement. More for me! #negronilove
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Originally equal measures of Bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth, Boulevardier is basically Negroni made with Bourbon. Today the amount of Bourbon is increased and the other two lowered. It can be served without ice in a coupe glass or with ice in a tumbler.
Something new – Some younger recipes
Easy to make: 3 parts of Prosecco, 2 parts of Aperol and one 1 part of soda. Usually served in a wine glass with ice and a slice, but I’ve also come across some in a tumbler or without ice in a champagne flute. Personally, I feel you need the ice to soften the bitterness of Aperol.
30ml Amaro, 20ml Bourbon, 10ml sugar syrup (optional), 25ml fresh lemon juice, and ½ egg white, all combined in a Boston shaker. Dry shake, add ice, shake again and strain into a glass filled with ice. Garnish with a cherry.
Equal parts of dry gin, Luxardo Bitter Bianco and white vermouth (such as Cocchi Aperitivo Americano) are combined in a mixing glass with ice, stirred until chilled and strained into a tumbler over ice. Other versions of White Negroni substitute Suze for Luxardo, and some use 40ml gin, 20ml white vermouth and 15ml Suze.
Slightly muddle a thyme sprig in a tumbler, add ice and an orange slice. Measure 25ml Limoncello, 25ml Luxardo Bitters and 25ml sweet vermouth, stir and top up with soda water.
Something borrowed – The latest inventions
In a cocktail shaker, combine 10ml fresh lemon juice, 10ml fresh lime juice, 15ml sugar syrup, 25ml Pisco, 50ml Aperitivo Bitters (such as Contratto Bitters or Aperol) and egg white. Shake vigorously. Add ice, then shake again. Strain into a chilled martini glass. Drop a few dashes of Angostura bitters on the top.
In a mixing glass combine 15ml Campari or similar, 15ml grenadine, 25ml peach puree and 100ml Prosecco. Stir gently and pour into a large chilled champagne flute.
In a mixing glass filled with ice combine 40ml rye whisky, 20ml Cynar and 15ml sweet vermouth. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass (I like a coupe glass). Garnish with black cherries.
Don’t worry if you do not like the taste of these Italian bitters on their own (you rarely see anyone necking them neat) as there are endless cocktail possibilities. You will find your favourites by testing different variations. You don’t need to wait till the summer to enjoy an aperitivo cocktail – it is ok to go and buy a bottle of Aperol and Prosecco and make yourself a Spritz!
What is your favourite pre-dinner cocktail? Are you familiar with Italian bitters?
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