Bitter Is Better

The hottest craft libations bite back with aromatic cocktail bitters

Since the 1930s, the sole U.S. brand of an extremely strong—many say foul—tasting Swedish wormwood liquor known as Jeppson’s Malört could only be purchased in the Chicago area. 

But over the last few years, Malört’s popularity has grown by 80 percent thanks to mixologists throughout the city and Chicago hipsters, who wear their affinity as a badge of honor and use the drink to inflict pain on out-of-towners.

Malört’s meteoric rise has been paralleled by an increased interest in other bitter cocktail ingredients, most notably fernet, a type of amaro long popular in Argentina, and ambergris, a bile-like waste secreted by sperm whales usually found floating in solid form atop the sea. It’s known for its potent muskiness (no joke). 

The popularity of the bitter drinks is in step with current culinary tastes, says Brandon Wise, president of the Oregon Bartenders Guild and head of the cocktail programs at Portland restaurants Imperial and Penny Diner

“Bartenders and chefs are accustomed to big flavors,” he says. “Our inclination is to keep pushing, going bigger, and see how we might challenge and excite our palates and our guests.” 

So Bad, It’s Good

Robby Haynes, the beverage director at Chicago’s prominent cocktail lounge Violet Hour, became so intrigued with Malört that he partnered with local distiller Letherbee to create his own in late 2012. The result, R. Franklin’s Original Recipe Malört, is a 100-proof version (Jeppson’s is 70 proof) that borrows Haynes’ middle name and is already so popular that it’s available in bars and stores across the Midwest. 

Popularity, however, doesn’t sell a cocktail by itself. The drink still has to taste good even if the main ingredient doesn’t, Haynes says. “In the way that people like to be challenged by different types of art, film and music, they want to be challenged by what they eat,” he says. “It might be more demanding to start, but you learn to appreciate it. Still, drinks with these ingredients have to taste good and they have to showcase what’s unique about them, or you haven’t achieved anything.”

Drink Your Perfume

Ambergris is the rarest and priciest of the bitter ingredients (about $20 per gram) and is more common as an additive in perfume (it helps scent attach to the skin) than cocktails. “It’s hideously expensive, hard to get and difficult to handle,” says David Wondrich, a drinks correspondent for Esquire magazine and the author of “Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl,” which includes a recipe for ambergris punch and a brief history of its use in alcoholic drinks. “But it’s sweetly musky and something I’d compare to white truffles in its allure—your eyes open a little wider after tasting it.” 

Says Matthias Merges, owner of Chicago bar Billy Sunday, “I have a lot of success making bitters with ambergris after adding some gentiane and wormwood. Just a spray of this from an atomizer or a few drops in cocktails such as our Blonde Negroni (gin and dry vermouth) brings forefront aromatics to unsuspecting heights.”

A Balancing Act

Fernet is popular as both a digestif and with coffee and espresso drinks. The Italian brand Fernet-Branca, originally used as a stomach medicine, is the best known, and has recently been adopted in more creative cocktail recipes.  

“(Fernet-Branca’s) complex flavor profile works well for mixing in cocktails,” Wise says. “[It’s used] in classic cocktails like the Toronto and the Hanky Panky, and its resurgence coincides with the interest in classic cocktails. The presence of potable bitters in these drinks makes them alluring and off the well-worn path of sugary cocktails.” 

Fernet is seen as a way to balance cocktails, as its bitterness contrasts with sweet ingredients, says William Hamrick, a bartender at Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala.

“It is something with a bit of mystique, so people are usually willing to try it,” he says.

Wise compares bitter spirits’ impact in cocktails to salt and pepper. “They can heighten or compress flavors, add nuance and aromatics, provide balance and texture to a drink, and often are the difference between a good drink and an extraordinary drink,” he says.

A Chicago-based writer, Judy Sutton Taylor wouldn’t hesitate to challenge out-of-towners with a bitter cocktail.