When Scotland native Ross Simon opened Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour in Phoenix eight years ago, he wanted to incorporate a European flair to the endeavor. Thus, the back bar mix is a bit different than in many establishments across the United States. “We focus a lot on amari, bitters, and liqueurs, to the point where they’re front and center on our back bar,” says Simon, noting that the popularity of those spirits has grown significantly in the subsequent years.
There was a steep learning curve for most of the Bitter & Twisted clientele. “No one wakes up one morning having never tried Campari before and says, ‘this stuff’s delicious,’” he says. “It’s kind of like kids with vegetables. People might not instantly like bitters, but once they understand [the category], they start enjoying it.”
At Trust cocktail bar in St. Louis, beverage director Kevin Titus says usage of Italian bitters has been driven by the hospitality industry. “The category is skyrocketing in my program and everywhere in St. Louis that has any kind of industry following,” he says. “Though the word bitter was kind of a taboo thing two or three years ago, now people have warmed up to it. As long as you can explain to your guests what they’re drinking and why it’s there, they are really receptive.”
The trend toward bitter flavors that began in the middle of the last decade is changing the expectations of cocktail drinkers in the U.S. “I think consumers’ palates have evolved quite significantly over the last few years,” says Campari America’s head of marketing Andrea Sengara. “People want to discover different flavors that haven’t historically been as popular. For the American palate, you look at how cold brew coffee and bitter chocolate are having a nice little renaissance. They’re changing how consumers perceive and think about the bitter taste profile that hasn’t historically been as popular.”
Eric Seed, principal at importer Haus Alpenz, which imports Italian bitter Aperitivo Cappelletti, says consumer discovery has been an important element for growth in recent years because U.S. drinkers only recently began understanding the role of bitters in a cocktail. “I think they discover that, while on first taste, some of these may be truly bitter, the majority of what you find is a mix of something bitter and sweet,” he says, noting that the combination is familiar due to the popularity of things like coffee, bittersweet chocolate, and even Coca-Cola.
The At-Home Bartender
This discovery by consumers accelerated during the pandemic, when restaurants and bars shut down and many consumers decided to try their hands at home bartending. Branca USA managing director Edoardo Branca says bartenders were instrumental in evolving consumer palates in the late 2010s, shifting them away from sugars and toward more aromatic drinks. When 2020 came and the Covid-19 pandemic hit early on, the interest had already been sparked. “About 70% of pre-pandemic consumption was done in bars and restaurants,” he says. “But during the pandemic people [expanded] their home bars, making new and more complex cocktails.”
The home consumption was, generally speaking, a growing factor before the pandemic, Haus Alpenz’s Seed notes. “I think what many have found is that there are some simple and delicious drinks that can be made at home,” he says. “For example, Cappelletti’s Sfumato amaro is a Rabarbaro—a rhubarb-based bitter—but to the general consumer, it’s like liquid campfire. Probably the most popular drink with it is made by mixing equal parts with bourbon or rye and adding a squeeze of citrus.”
At West Coast retailer BevMo, spirits buyer Kim Tsujimoto says the chain already had a wide selection of Italian bitters prior to the pandemic, but popularity spiked as more people became home bartenders in the past two years. Quintessentia Nonino amaro ($50 a 750-ml.) leads the category at BevMo, she says, noting that brands like Averna ($30) and Montenegro amaro ($35) are also driving sales.
Mat Dinsmore, managing partner at Wilbur’s Total Beverage in Fort Collins, Colorado, also saw increased demand, prompting him to expand the store’s selection of Italian bitters. “Once the pandemic hit, people began to experiment more at home with a bunch of different cocktails,” he says. “In the past we only carried two or three different bitters, but we now have over a dozen as the demand has grown.”
Dinsmore says that thus far, one brand isn’t standing out ahead of the others, but that’s because of the ongoing supply chain issues. “Each week we order four to six different ones to refill holes on the shelf, but each week about half don’t arrive at the store,” he says. “The lack of supply, plus the category’s growing popularity, is making it hard to narrow down our offerings. Once supply straightens out, there will be opportunity for one or two brands to actually grab hold and make a footprint.”
With increased consumer interest comes increased competition. Italian brands have “owned” the category for decades but they aren’t the only players. “The offering of amari has increased and more shelf space has been given to the category,” says Seed. “There is a lot of variety—while it’s most famous for coming from Italy there are bitter or bittersweet [liqueurs] that come from all over Europe and the United States as well. They’re interesting and consumers seem to be buying them.”
Bevmo’s Tsujimoto notes that competition is stiff and a few non-Italian brands have made their way into stores. “Offerings like Hypatia Rubi amaro ($20 a 750-ml.) from Coppola are great additions to our ever-growing selection,” she says.
Both at home and in the resurging on-premise sector, cocktails and long drinks that include Italian bitters are gaining traction. Many are classic cocktails that have recaptured the public’s imagination in recent years.
The Negroni is one such cocktail. The combination of gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari has become a staple at most bars. “The Negroni has really taken on new life in the U.S., and I feel like the variations that are possible on it are starting to become classic cocktails in their own right,” says Campari’s Sengara, who notes that spinoffs of the classic drink—like the Boulevardier, which substitutes the gin with whisk(e)y, and the Oaxacan Negroni, which adds mezcal to the mix along with the gin and Italian bitters—are becoming more popular. She also points to newer creations like the Rosita, which combines reposado Tequila, sweet and dry vermouth, and bitters.
At Bitter & Twisted, the bar menu includes a page focused on the classic Negroni and variations of the drink, evoking flavors that include tart cherry and strawberry, as well as Earl Grey tea. The classic Negroni ($14) at Bitter & Twisted is made with equal parts Sipsmith gin, Campari, and house-blended sweet vermouth.
Branca says a resurgence in the classic Hanky Panky cocktail is boosting Fernet Branca. The drink is similar to the Negroni but uses Fernet Branca in place of Campari. And like Sengara, Branca says many classic cocktails have variations that include Italian bitters, such as the Toronto, which contains Canadian rye whiskey, Fernet Branca, Angostura bitters, and simple syrup.
At Trust, Titus gets good customer traction with the classics but also likes to put a unique stamp on cocktails. One favorite is the After Dark ($12), made with Plantation pineapple rum, Averna amaro, Blueprint cold brew coffee, pineapple, Scrappy’s chocolate bitters, and orange oil. “This cocktail in particular has been one of the bestsellers on my menus at any location ever,” says Titus.
Of Italian bitters in general, he notes that Montenegro has been doing well and Fernet Branca remains a popular choice for his guests. Some brands are consumed as shots, but Titus sees opportunity to add bitters to a variety of cocktails. “I’ve been using it a lot in some daiquiris and the like, to add a little backbone and complexity,” he says.
Low Alcohol, Big Refreshment
Another favorite of Simon and his customers at Bitter & Twisted is a cocktail that attempts to recreate Irn-Bru, a Scottish soft drink. The Fae Scotland ($14) features Montenegro and Aperol combined with Fre Moscato and house-blended sweet vermouth. The cocktail is force-carbonated and served with mango caviar. The Fae Scotland falls into another cocktail segment that is growing nationwide: lower-alcohol drinks. “It’s actually a low-abv cocktail, but it’s super fun,” Simon says, noting the abv allows customers to drink multiple cocktails in a single sitting.
At Agua Caliente Resort Casino Spa in Rancho Mirage, California, Italian bitters aren’t something most customers are noticing but they add depth to various cocktails, according to food and beverage operations manager Emin Tabakovic. And the blazing hot summertime weather lends itself to refreshing drinks like the Aperol Spritz. “More customers are asking for the Aperol Spritz because it’s so light and refreshing,” he says. “In this weather, people love it.”
There are several light and easy long drinks where Fernet is coming into play, Branca says, including the Fernet Branca Collins, which mixes the liqueur along with club soda, simple syrup, and lemon juice. Fernet also combines well with both Coca-Cola and Sprite on hot summer days, or with hot chocolate when the weather is colder, he says.
Campari’s Sengara notes that Italian bitters weren’t created with the goal of providing a lower-abv option but in fact the lower abv is inherent to who they are. “Campari and soda, for example, is something that not a lot of American consumers have experienced, but we know there are significantly greater numbers of them trying that cocktail as something special they can have that’s lower abv and really easy to make,” Sengara says. “And the Aperol Spritz has been a fan favorite for quite some time and has only been increasing in popularity. It feeds into this trend of being sessionable and fun and really sparking those joyous occasions.” Campari is also jumping on the ready-to-drink cocktail trend this spring with the launch of a ready-to-serve Negroni in 375-ml. bottle format for $25, and is testing the Aperol Spritz, available in 3-packs of 200-ml. glass bottles for $15.
However consumers choose to drink Italian bitters, the biggest hurdle for marketers—getting in front of American consumers as an interesting flavor component—is slowly being overcome. The bitter flavor profile is being embraced, rather than eschewed, opening up new opportunities for everything from easy long drinks to nuanced cocktails. “People might not know nor care about the nitty, gritty details about an individual bitters brand,” says Seed at Haus Alpenz. “But the hesitation is gone. There is an understanding that whatever the makeup, they’re willing to try.”