The 1950s and ’60s were spirituous. The ’70s were creamy. The ’80s were sweet, and the ’90s, well, they were the ’90s. But the aughts and the 2010s? Honey, they’re downright bitter.
If there were one cocktail to represent this tannic time in drinking history, it would be the simple, sophisticated and unapologetically bitter Negroni. This three-ingredient masterpiece has inspired awe from the listicle architects at Buzzfeed to master mixologists like Gaz Regan, who published a book in May aptly titled The Negroni.
And while it may be representative of how tastes are evolving in the 21st century, the Negroni is only one of hundreds of like-minded bitter elixirs dotting cocktail menus across the country.
The classically bitter, much-beloved Negroni.
But the drinker’s love affair with bitter flavors started long before the aughts. Dating back to at least 822 A.D., hops have been used to brew beer. They primarily functioned as a preservative, but their bitter kick became an integral part of beer as we know it today.
Then there are bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s, and amari like Campari and Averna. Infused with roots, herbs and spices, many of these quaffs didn’t start out as cocktail ingredients. Instead, they were used throughout Europe and the Americas to cure colds or other diseases caused by an “impure state of the blood,” as some advertisements claimed. This rise to fame is somewhat ironic considering that our bodies are programmed to reject bitterness.
“The assumption is that our bitter receptors are really designed to protect us from ingesting toxins,” says Richard Doty, the director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “Some of the natural agents in the environment that are poisonous are bitter, and we have a large number of bitter receptors—actually more bitter receptors than we have sweet receptors or any other receptors—designed to avoid these toxins.”
So how, exactly, did bitter become all the rage in cocktails when it seems that people are programmed to reject it?
The Jerry Thomases and Charles H. Bakers of the 1800s and early 1900s played a big role in popularizing bitter flavors by inventing drinks like the Sazerac and the Old Fashioned, in which that medicinal bite is an integral part of the balancing act. When today’s mixology masters launched the resurgence of classic cocktails more than a decade ago, they had no choice but to learn how to once again play nice with bitters.
Balance is key—a little generally goes a long way.
“If a forest punched me in the neck”? “It’s just like a nightmare”? There might be something to the body’s inclination to reject bitter flavors—at least at first.
Aside from potentially eating a poisonous bitter herb (which is now highly unlikely), many people just don’t like the taste. But bitter has prevailed as a popular cocktail flavoring—seasoning, if you will—and is a go-to choice for aperitifs and digestifs used to aid appetite and digestion.
Another twist to the strange bitters story? Doty notes that “on average 20 to 22 percent of the population really doesn’t taste bitter very strongly”—and some even confuse bitter with sour. Bartenders’ willingness to shoot fernet is suddenly less mysterious.
Despite the potentially devastating effects natural selection could have had on those who don’t taste bitter flavors very well, those of us who can appreciate its piquant potential should raise a glass to celebrate bitter’s rise to greatness. Because it is great, indeed.