The recent wave of new herbal liqueurs is proving a boon to contemporary mixology. In addition to fueling the growing resurgence of single-shot drinks, the bitter herbal components are ideal for balancing the overly sweet, savory or acidic characteristics present in a wide range of cocktails. These herbal newcomers are dynamic and versatile products, which to a large degree is why the mixology community is so warmly embracing them.
Harlem Kruiden Liqueur is an excellent example. Crafted with surgical precision by the producers of Ketel One Vodka, the 80 proof liqueur has a lightweight, velvety textured body and lavish bouquet of fresh citrus, sarsaparilla, mocha and classic earthy notes. The nose is complex, heady and thoroughly captivating — the best in the business by a long shot. On the palate, the liqueur is soothing and singularly delicious.
Another franchise player grabbing the headlines is Hum, a U.S.-born, amaro-styled liqueur created by celebrated mixologists Adam Seger of Chicago and London’s Joe McCanta. It derives its brilliant character from a blend of pot-stilled Martinique rhum, fair-trade hibiscus flowers, organic ginger, green cardamom, kaffir lime and raw Hawaiian sugar cane.
Hum must be experienced firsthand to be fully appreciated. The 70 proof liqueur has a riveting ruby-red appearance and redolent of peppery spice and wafting floral notes. Its textured, medium-weight body delivers waves of spicy, long-lasting, palate-warming flavors. It’s a culinary triumph without equal.
As is the case with the Harlem, Hum is elegant enough to be drunk by itself or used in crafting artisanal cocktails. Graced with tremendous finesse, it’s at once herbal, spicy warm and bittersweet. Cocktail wizard Seger suggests adding Hum to Champagne, Margaritas or as a substitute for sweet vermouth in a Negroni or Manhattan.
Classy Bitter Imports
Although it originated in 1919 in Padova, Italy, most Americans only recently have become acquainted with Aperol, a bright red/orange aperitif acclaimed for its calming, restorative properties. Relatively low in alcohol, 22 proof, Aperol has gained traction behind U.S. bars for its mildly bitter, fruity and herbal personality and broad range of drink-making applications.
Aperol is a precisely balanced blend of bitter orange peels, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona and various other herbs and botanicals. It’s lightweight and generously aromatic. On the palate, the aperitif has prominent citrus and herbal flavors that gradually fade into a slightly floral, spicy and bittersweet orange finish.
Its delicate bitterness and dry citrus components make it a natural modifier in cocktails, as well as enjoyed chilled as an aperitif. To know Aperol is to love Aperol.
On the other end of the spectrum, Killepitsch Kraüter Herbal Bitter Liqueur is a bold and assertive German import compounded with more than 90 different ingredients — roots, herbs, spices and fruit. The deep crimson-colored liqueur has a fruit, pepper and herbal bouquet, a viscous full body and a semisweet palate of caramel, black pepper and ripe red fruit. The finish is a sweet medley of chocolate, citrus and menthol.
Relatively high in alcohol at 84 proof, Killepitsch is an earthy, muscular product guaranteed to build character and add delightful bitter, spicy notes to mixed drinks. One German Website lauded the attributes of mixing the bitter liqueur with tonic. Good advice.
Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps is a 70 proof break from convention. Made in the Austrian Alps, the liqueur derives its alluring qualities from the fruit of the Arolla Stone Pine. The liqueur has a fresh, crisp array of forest-born aromas, most notably that of pine, cedar, dried herbs and sappy menthol. Best-known in the drinks community for its invigorating aromatics, Zirbenz also has a marvelous herbal and peppery palate with a pronounced bitter finish.
Those looking for a secret ingredient of sorts to help distinguish their cocktail from the rest of the field, Zirbenz is definitely on the short list.
Today, the world’s finest amaro bitter liqueurs can be found showcased on American backbars. Among the select group is Fernet Branca, a barrel-aged blend of 27 herbs and spices. The aromatic, mahogany-colored bitters is exceptionally spicy with a lingering finish. Favored for its healthful benefits, Fernet is an 80 proof classic.
Produced in Sicily since 1868, Averna Amaro Siciliano Bitters is an all-natural maceration of grape spirits with flowers, roots, herbs, spices and dried citrus rinds. On both sides of the Atlantic, mixologists rely on Averna Amaro for its fresh flora, anise and bitter orange notes and a warm, bittersweet medley of herbal, spicy and earthy flavors.
No discussion of the bitter delights of amaro is complete without tribute paid to Luxardo’s timeless offering. Luxardo Amaro Abano is renown for imbuing cocktails with a complex set of aromatics and warm, bittersweet flavors, all of which persist throughout the long, satisfying finish.
In this threesome, there are no such things as bitter disappointments. Salud!