A Beginner’s Guide to Drinking Bitters

Sother Teague of New York City's Amor Y Amargo gives me a crash course on amaros, fernets, and other bitter forms of booze that can save you from yourself.

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Nov 24 2016, 10:00pm

There's a wonderful secret that can simultaneously whet your palate, relieve you of the misery of eating yourself nearly to death, and get you drunk—all at the same time.

I'm talking about bitters. Amaros, fernets, digestifs, aperitifs. All of the above. Maybe you've had Campari in a negroni, or shared a Fernet-Branca shot with a bartender friend, but the world of bitters goes far beyond these mainstays. Once considered medicinal, bitters are now mostly known for the rich qualities their flavor can add to cocktails. But just because they're more often found in the liquor cabinet instead of the pharmacy nowadays doesn't mean they can't still do your body good, too.

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Sother Teague. All photos by Sydney Kramer.

I recently visited beverage director Sother Teague of the celebrated bitters-centric bar Amor Y Amargo in New York City's East Village to learn about how these complex, herbaceous forms of booze can help rescue you from your own gluttony. With a chef's background (including for Alton Brown's series Good Eats) and a fearless approach to flavor, Sother would guide me on a journey through some of his favorite fernets, amaros, and even vermouths.

One common misconception is that aperitifs and digestifs are entirely different in composition or effect. On the contrary, Sother stresses, "They are both aperitif and digestif, all of them. We've just created these two pigeonholes on our own. We associate the more citrusy, lighter-colored ones as what you have before a meal. The darker ones are the ones you go for after. But it doesn't matter. The functionality is exactly the same and it's a little bit, I don't know, impolite." They encourage the healthy movement of your digestive tract, let's say.

How do they work?

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"You sit down and have, maybe, a glass of Campari, and it sets the system in motion," Sother explains. "Your brain associates the bitter flavors with poison, right? Your brain goes, 'Oh my gosh, poison! Turn on the system and get it out of here!' If you're on an empty stomach, that makes you hungry. That's an aperitif. After a meal, maybe you have some Fernet-Branca."

There are two categories of bitters: tincture—a.k.a. the ones you use a couple drops of in a drink—and potable. Let's talk potable, because we're gonna need at least a shot's worth to get us through Thanksgiving dinner or the aftermath of a holiday party.

Here are his recommendations. After sampling all of them, I felt fantastic. And kind of drunk.

Bottoms up.

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Amaro Montenegro

"All bitters are built on the same construct," Sother says. "It's three pieces. Alcohol is always the base. In the middle—surprise, surprise—a bittering agent. Typically a root, flower, bark. The third component, that's the top note, is the flavor."

He recommends Amaro Montenegro for beginners to the world of bitters. Founded in 1885, Amaro Montenegro is "pretty low-proof" at 23 percent alcohol, so it's a great aperitif for sipping on an empty stomach. When I tell him that I find it very, very smooth, he warns me that he's going to give me an amaro that has no sweetener at the end of the tasting, "just to burn your face off." Can't wait!

Sother's notes: "This one has big, bold flavor notes of orange blossom and bitter orange on the front, some bitter floral properties in the center, and then it winds out with some wet vegetables, like cucumber and celery."

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Meletti 1870

Sother: "This is Meletti 1870. It's got a bit more of that medicinal, almost ... what's the… you know … Dimetapp, cherry? Cherry kids' medicine."

Me: "Robitussin?"

Sother: "Yeah, that's the one. Robitussin, yeah."

Me: "And it kind of looks like Robitussin."

Sother: "Little bit."

Sother calls this one "a sipper," best with a piece of ice to dilute it a bit, or a spritz of seltzer. I liken it to a "lavender Dimetapp." But not in a bad way.

Sother's notes: "Floral, floral, floral, floral."

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St. Agrestis

The aesthetic for this one makes it the odd man out, since many bitters have been made for decades or centuries by the same Italian families and come in very colorful, old-school-looking bottles. St. Agrestis is a new kid on the block, made in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I make a note that it "smells like a Christmas roast." A bit burnt, like a yuletide log. And so tasty.

Sother's notes: "Boom! Man, this tastes like the season to me. Big, big punch of spearmint right off the nose, and then comes racing right up behind you with lots of savory notes like rosemary and sage and oregano … It kind of gives you that candy cane effect. A lot of pine needles, too."

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Punch Fantasia

"This is Punch Fantasia by the Varnelli Family. Don't forget, a lot of these things have names based on the name of the family," Sother says. "Varnelli punch is interesting stuff and definitely seasonally appropriate." It reminds me of butterscotch Lifesavers initially, then kicks me in the head with its bitterness. It's a trick, says Sother.

"Bite down on a cinnamon stick. Not sweet, right? We associate aromas with sweetness that aren't necessarily sweet at all."

Sother's notes: "Off the nose you get these butterscotchy caramelly notes, as well as initial palate notes kind of like [egg nog]. Again, not ludicrously offensive to the first timer."

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R. Jelinek Fernet

This bad boy is from the Czech Republic. Sother has me taste it side-by-side with "the litmus of Fernet-Branca" as evidence that people often forget the diversity of different styles of fernet: "Jelinek Fernet has a much juicier, rounder mouthfeel, though [the two are] similar in ABV." While Fernet-Branca has "big bold menthol, and lots of botanical medicinal herbs," Jelinek has more of a pumpkin spice vibe, with a little bit of meanness, of course.

Sother's notes: "Gingerbread and cinnamon and clove and Christmas cookies."

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Amaro dell'Erborista

"They recommend you drink it warm," Sother says of this amaro. Because it's unfiltered it's cloudy-looking, and because it's honey-sweetened it smells glorious. "They have their own apiary, and the bees are flying around pollinating bitter flowers. So this is a bitter amaro-flavored with bitter honey." Who knew that bitter honey was a thing? (And yes, it is very bitter.)

Sother's notes: "Honey and floral, and bitter—it has a lot of botanical properties on the backside. Puckers your tongue a little bit. It has some smokiness."

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Elisir Novasalus

Sother has warned me about this one.

"I'm gonna die," I say.

"This one will give you a new perspective on life," Sother counters. "If we had a sweetness scale going, and we started with the sweetest on this end of the bar, that one would be across the street."

It tastes like Satan's homemade Pine-Sol, or like biting into a tree. It's great.

Sother's notes: "This one has no sweetener whatsoever in it, and you'll get some pine notes off this one, because they [add] pine sap. And pine sap is not sweet. Hearty winter herbs."

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Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino

So what does Sother recommend having with leftovers, come Black Friday? Vermouth. A good choice: Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino. "This one to me just fucking screams 'winter time.' I really enjoy it."

Isn't vermouth typically used in cocktails?

"Just pour it in a glass and drink it. I say tomorrow night, after the dinner party's done, eat leftovers and drink fucking vermouth."

Sother's notes: "Fruity and savory, and [it's] got big punchy notes of those winter herbs again. Oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme."

But seriously, at the end of the day (or holiday party), Sother says to drink what you love: "I drink like I eat, which is first to the season, second to the occasion, third to the atmosphere."

Here's to hoping your season, occasion, and atmosphere are all fantastic. Cheers.