The bitters truth

Bitters, a traditional European drink made from an infusion of herbs and alcohol, divide opinion like no other beverage – you…

Bitters, a traditional European drink made from an infusion of herbs and alcohol, divide opinion like no other beverage – you either love them or hate them, writes JOHN WILSON

ARE BITTERS the Marmite of the drinks world? They certainly divide opinion. Bitters are a traditional European drink, made from an infusion of herbs and alcohol. In the recent past, they were sold as medicinal tonics, often recommended by doctors for health reasons; it is likely that their origins lie in herbal remedies created by monks to cure illness. To many Irish people, they are so horrible that they must be good for you; otherwise why would you drink them? It has to be said that, with one or two exceptions, they are not hugely popular in this country, but virtually every other part of Europe has a tradition of drinking dark bitter drinks that are said to aid digestion.

Some bitters are sweetened, including the current favourite amongst the nation’s youth, Jägermeister. Other more bitter versions are typically drunk in small quantities on their own after a meal or frequently with festive breakfasts. In recent times, they have become popular in cocktails, the most basic, and possibly the best being with soda or tonic water. Fruit-flavoured bitters tend to be lighter and more often used in cocktails, or as an aperitif. The most common flavouring is orange peel or gentian. These are frequently wine-based, and therefore most likely to come from Italy or France.

One of my initiations into Danish culture was a magnificent traditional lunch that lasted four hours, starting with herring, and moving on through countless courses of food. These were all part of a precise ritual and God help you if you stepped outside the set order. I was seated beside my wife’s uncle, a lovely man with a wicked sense of humour, who always looked after me in these events, my Danish being non-existent. In front of us were arrayed a half-dozen or more very suspicious bottles with unpronounceable names. Some were Danish, others brought home from his frequent travels to the Baltic states. I can remember drinking Gammel Dansk, the Danish answer to Underberg (which also featured), and Balsam, a dark potent liquid from Latvia; there were others, but my memory fails me; I do know my stomach was certainly fully settled by the end of the meal. The Danes are known to take a Gammel Dansk for breakfast, as a way of kick-starting the day. The Germans do the same with Underberg, which comes in an immediately recognisable 20cl bottle (“the right amount for well-being”) with a brown paper coat. I was unable to find a bottle in Dublin to include in this article. I enjoyed my tasting of bitters, although I can see they might not be to everyone’s taste. With their bitter savoury flavours, mintiness and a medicinal edge besides, they would add a complexity and depth to cocktails, and were very pleasant watered down a little and served with ice.


Angostura Bitters 44.7% € 11.99 for a 200ml bottleOne of the oldest bitters, created in the town of the same name in Venezuela in 1824, although it is now made in Trinidad Tobago. The traditional cocktail is a pink gin, where the glass is "pinked" or coated with just a few drops of bitters before the gin is added. It is also used in a number of cocktails, including soft drinks, where it works very well. On its own, it tasted quite pleasant, with a spicy nose and palate, some underlying burnt orange, and a dry finish, lingering nicely. Added to soda, it made a very pleasant, almost alcohol-free drink. Stockists: Not easy to find. I bought mine in the Celtic Whiskey Shop, Dawson Street.

Fernet-Branca 40% € 35 for a 70cl bottleA brew of herbs and alcohol that has been aged in oak casks, Fernet Branca is one of the more extreme bitters. It is highly aromatic, powerful, very savoury woody and bitter, with flavours of herbs and liquorice. Fernet Branca is not the only Fernet; there are many versions, some of which are incredibly popular in places such as Argentina, where a whopping 25 million litres are consumed each year. In San Francisco it is drunk in bars with a chaser of ginger ale. According to Culinaria Italia, the original, which dates from the 18th century, made all sorts of claims, including that it "benefits the stomach, the digestion, strengthens the body, helps overcome cholera, reduces fever, and heals those suffering from nervous weaknesses; lack of appetite, sickness, or tapeworms, suitable for use as a preventative measure for those who are obliged to live in damp and infectious conditions." Stockists: Very widely available in off-licences nationwide

Campari 25% €20 for a 70cl bottleNamed after its inventor, Gaspare Campari, who created it in the 1860s for customers in his Milan bar. The ingredients, as with many bitters, remains a secret, but it is an infusion of cinchona or bitter orange peel, infused with herbs and fruits, topped up with sugar, alcohol and water. Campari and soda is probably the best-known mix, but orange juice is very good. The back-label suggests using 1/3 Campari to 2/3 orange juice; I found 50:50 was even better. Campari on its own is lighter and less bitter than Fernet or Angostura, but still certainly has a bitter edge. Stockists: very widely available.

Jägermeister 35% Around € 20 for a 70cl bottleHugely popular with younger drinkers, and often blamed for excess, Jägermeister is mixed with Red Bull, to create the Jägerbomb. Drunk neat, it was much sweeter than the bottles above, with strong flavours of liquorice. Stockists: Widely available

Buckfast Tonic Wine 14.8% € 10.99Buckfast is a very different concoction from the above drinks. Made by the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon for more than a century, it was originally sold as a tonic: "three glasses a day for good health and lively blood". These days it makes no such claims; the English version warns that the use of the word tonic wine "does not imply health-giving or medicinal properties". Interestingly, the "cuvée" sold in Ireland has no such disclaimer. "Buckie" has gained a very different reputation in recent years, as the favoured drink of the binge-drinking generation. At one stage, Scottish politicians tried to ban it, but only succeeded in increasing consumption. The version sold in Ireland is slightly lower in alcohol, 14.8% against 15% in the UK, and has less vanilla flavour. Buckfast contains large amounts of caffeine. Both tasted equally sweet and syrupy to me; I can see their appeal for younger drinkers.