You wouldn’t think that a brown liqueur steeped with roots and tasting like dirt-infused toothpaste would be the hottest thing going in American drink culture right now, but that’s exactly what Fernet Branca is. But there’s a reason for this: Any kid who’s just had his first sip of beer can tell you that alcohol tends to be bitter, and the drinking life is a series of acquired tastes. People eventually come around to super-hopped craft beers and peaty single-malts. Indeed, more and more, seasoned drinkers — the kind of hardened imbibers who frequent bars specializing in serious cocktails — reach for certain bottles that offer truly bracing experiences, libations that are often downed by bartenders after their shifts, stuff like Fernet that has the kind of taste most people spend their lives avoiding.
Technically speaking, all of the drinks I’m talking about fall into the same extremely general category: Alcohol that is flavored with an absolute truckload of herbs and botanicals and roots. Many countries and regions offer their own takes on this very broad range — Italian amari, liqueurs from France, one specialty consumed almost exclusively in Chicago — but no matter how they’re made, the drinks listed below offer a pronounced bitterness, sure, but also depth and complexity that actually make these things worth drinking. (Or at least worth trying.)
Here now is what you might consider an introductory set of 10 Extremely Bitter Drinks, listed in increasing order of intensity.
Weighing in at a grandmotherly 34 proof — that’s 17 percent alcohol — this Italian amaro is wine-based and, as a result, lighter and sweeter than more potent amari. Hence, it’s great for beginners.
Tastes Like: Spiced sherry.
Best Time to Drink It: When afternoon tea gets a little out of hand.
9. Amaro Nonino
Another amaro, Nonino is 70 proof, so it goes down a bit hotter than Cardamaro. There’s an all-out arsenal of bitter aromatics — gentian root, rhubarb, multiple types of orange peel, quassia wood, tamarind, liquorice, saffron, chinchona — but it still has enough sweetness to make it appropriate for drinkers with gentler constitutions.
Tastes Like: It is one of many licorice-sarsaparilla types.
Best Time to Drink It: After a lovely meal in Milan.
8. Amaro Ramazzotti
Ramazotti has been around since 1815, so chances are good someone tried to sell it as medicine at one point (a lot of these root-heavy liqueurs started out as questionable cure-all tonics). It is certainly thick enough and dark enough to convince people that it might be curative.
Tastes Like: Equal parts root beer and cough syrup.
Best Time to Drink It: When you’re trying to cure a stomachache.
The first thing that hits you about Cynar is the label, which displays an artichoke — Cynar is short for cynara, Latin for artichoke — and who wants to drink an artichoke? The second thing is the name. I know how to say it and I still get nervous. ("CHEE-nahr.") Luckily, the drink itself is quite nice, and it’s an excellent aperitivo if you prefer your bitter drinks at the beginning of the night.
Tastes Like: Not-pink Campari.
Best Time to Drink It: When you’re tired of negronis.
This 200-year-old Czech offering is another liqueur with a top-secret recipe, but unlike some others, this one is low on the bitter accents and heavy on the spice. In fact, it would be lovely around the holidays.
Tastes Like: Chewing on a cinnamon stick.
Best Time to Drink It: Christmas morning with a European grandpa. (Not necessarily your own.)
This green French liqueur — made by Carthusian monks under strict DaVinci Code-like secrecy — is just plain weird. It is a stunning 110 proof and made with more than 130 ingredients, but it is also oddly sweet. If you really want to drink like a bartender, throw back a few shots of this stuff. (There’s also a milder, yellow version, if that’s more your speed.)
Tastes Like: Cinnamon and sugarcane and lots of pure ethanol.
Best Time to Drink It: When you want something surprisingly delicious that you also probably won’t remember drinking the next morning.
4. Fernet Branca
The current undisputed king of Extremely Bitter Drinks: Fernet, as it’s called, has passed from bartender fascination to mainstream awareness (if not acceptance). It’s been around since the 1800s and also has its roots as a medicinal cure-all that didn’t actually cure anything. As you know if you’ve ever even passed by a bar in San Francisco, Fernet is huge there for reasons that remain somewhat unknown. Lots of people drink it, but it’s hard to find anyone who will tell you they love it.
Tastes Like: Mentholated bark.
Best Time to Drink It: Anytime you are in San Francisco, or when a mixology-inclined bartender offers you a buyback.
Everything about Jeppson’s Malört is improbable: It is only really available in Chicago (there is a new brand of Malört from a different producer that’s more widely available — but when people say Malört, they mean Jeppson’s); the brand’s owner is a 69-year-old retired secretary who inherited the company from her boss and who also thinks the stuff tastes nasty; and the back label reads like a bad crime novel: "Jeppson Malört has the aroma and full-bodied flavor of an unusual botanical. It’s bitter taste is savored by two-fisted drinkers." (That it’s is sic, by the way.) Adventurous drinkers, this is your Mount Everest.
Tastes Like: Rotten absinthe, if that even sounds possible.
Best Time to Drink It: Anytime you are in Chicago or out drinking too late with Chicagoans.
Now we are at the summit, a place where conditions are harsh and only the most rugged drinkers will make it out in one piece. A bartender once described this French liqueur to me, boastfully, as, "the closest thing to Malört that we serve." This is dubious praise. Avèze is also "proudly the only liqueur flavored with wild yellow gentian collected from the regional park of Volcans d’Auvergne." There might be a reason nobody else is running out to harvest this stuff.
Tastes Like: An unripe twig.
Best Time to Drink It: You are stranded, about to undergo an operation, and you have no other anesthesia.
1. A Straight Shot of Angostura Bitters
There are two camps that willingly remove the plastic dasher spout from Angostura’s large-labeled bottle and pour themselves full shots of the red liquid inside: hardcore bartenders and patrons at Nelsen’s Hall Bitters Pub in Washington Isle, Wisconsin, where Angostura shots are the house drink. I have never been to Nelsen’s, but it is already my new favorite bar. Luckily, for anyone not heading to Wisconsin in the near future, bartenders around the country can easily pour you a shot of your own.
Tastes Like: Turpentine and courage — but it’s actually not as bad as it sounds.
Best Time to Drink It: When you are ready to take the final step, knowing that you may very well have no place else to go from here. (Or when you are at Nelsen’s, of course.)