Tucked away in the back of cocktail menus are the mysterious drinks known as apéritifs and digestifs. (In 1846, French chemist Joseph Dubonnet mixed malaria-fighting quinine with wine, adding herbs and spices to cut the bitter flavor. Voilà! The modern apéritif was born.) They might seem like intimidating, acquired tastes, but these traditional pre- or post-meal sippers are favored at all hours by bartenders—and for good reason.
Just ask Sother Teague, founding cocktail director of New York City bitters bar Amor y Amargo (“Love and Bitters”). “There are dozens of botanicals, herbs, and florals in here,” Teague says, pulling a bottle of Amaro Montenegro, one of the most ubiquitous digestifs, off the shelf. “It starts off with notes of bitter orange and orange blossom, has a center that’s very floral, and finishes with wet vegetables like cucumber and celery. It doesn’t need to be in a cocktail—it is a cocktail!”
No two drinking bitters are alike. After the base of a grain alcohol or wine, each is its own proprietary blend of herbs, florals, fruits, vegetables, or aromatics. A drinking bitter can be thick, syrupy, bittersweet, and downright tart, or light, airy, and ethereally delicate. They have one thing in common, though: Between their variety, mystique, and incredible range of flavors, they’re a taste anyone can acquire.
Here are three things to know:
1. THEY DO AID DIGESTION.
“You’re hardwired to perceive bitterness as poison,” Teague says. Even if they don’t taste completely bitter on your tongue, these herbs are detected by your brain, which then sends your stomach signals to, as he explains, “get that stuff out of here”—hence, helping the digestive process move a little more swiftly along.
2. ARE APÉRITIFS AND DIGESTIFS THE SAME THING?
They generally have similar flavor profiles and are 16-24 percent alcohol. “Truthfully, there’s no difference,” says Teague. “It’s just tradition. We just decided that lighter drinking bitters (Lillet, Campari, Aperol) are apéritifs. The darker, richer ones (amari, Fernet, Jägermeister) are digestifs.”
3. YES, JÄGERMEISTER COUNTS.
The college hangover-giver gets an unfair rap. It’s actually an excellent digestif, and one of Teague’s go-tos. His advice: Stop freezing it like they do in college! Cold compresses Jäger’s aroma, which means you miss its floral nuances and only taste bitterness. Keep it room temperature, sniff, then slowly sip. It’ll become one of your favorite bottles in the liquor cabinet.
The starter kit: Teague suggests stocking these bottles in your bitters bar. From left, Aperol, Jägermeister, Lillet Blanc, Amaro Nonino, Meletti, Amaro Montenegro, and Campari. Photo credit: Liz Barclay