Since the middle ages, physicians, monks, witch- doctors and various charlatans have been combining different herbs and distilling them to create alcoholic tonics; perhaps the earliest examples of which was based on snake oil and could supposedly cure any ailment. In the 1500s, a Swiss physician by the fantastic name of Phillipus Paracelsus combined 11 herbs – including rhubarb, aloe, camphor and myrrh – to create a bitter alcohol that he believed could purify blood, speed the healing of wounds, as well as prolong life expectancy. His concoction was later named Swedish bitters and can still be bought in various herbal shops and, of course, online.
Thanks to Hong Kong’s colonial past, most people who had grown up here would have tasted bitters in a Gunner: served at any country club, it contains Angostura bitters and is therefore alcoholic; yet just as in England, it is a drink most commonly consumed by children and teenagers.
There are generally two types of bitters: the first are meant to be consumed on their own as a digestif to settle the stomach and aid digestion such as Campari and Fernet Branca. In Italy, where most bitters are produced, ‘amaro’ is the generic term for this type of bitters.
An amaro is usually sweet, as well as bitter, with a slightly lower alcohol content between 16 to 35 percent and are made from recipes that originated from monasteries. One of the best selections of amaro in town can be found at Goccia Ristorante E Bar on Wyndham Street: there is not only Amaro Averna, Amaro Montenegro, Amaro Ramazzoti, Amaro Limoncelllo, but also Fernet Brancamenta as well as Galliano and Aperol Barbieri. For beginners, executive chef Fabrizio Napolitano suggests the Amaro Averna or Montenegro. “They’re very good after coffee and help digestion. We call them ‘ammazza caffe’, which means ‘to kill the coffee’. They’re a good way to end a dinner.” The Amaro Montenegro also happens to be one of Napolitano’s favourite, as it’s “not too sweet and not too bitter, it’s very easy to drink. After you have one glass, you could have a hundred more!”
The second type, the bitters used to mix with other cocktails, such as Angostura or Collins Orange, are much more concentrated and only supposed to provide a dash of flavour in cocktails. According to Agung Prabowo, the head bartender at the Landmark Mandarin’s MO Bar, bitters are popular in cocktails because “nowadays, there are more people who prefer cocktails that retain the original taste and intensity of the liquor.” Unlike mixers that add sugar or acid, bitters do not alter the original taste of the liquor. Rather, “bitters enhance alcohol by changing it from a strong flavour to an aromatic one.”
At MO Bar, bitters such as Campari, Pimms No. 1, Aperol, Suze and Jägermeister are all used, but Prabowo’s favourite bitter remains the classic Angostura bitters. For a modern twist on a bitters cocktail, try the Old Fashion. It is a mixture of Jim Beam infused with bacon, maple syrup and Angostura bitters. Or try Prabowo’s own personal favourite, the Silver Fizz; made with Tanqueray, vermouth, lemon juice, monin cucumber, Angostura bitters and egg whites. If Angostura bitters aren’t your thing, Room One over at the Mira offers the Negroni; made with gin stirred with red vermouth and Campari, served with a citrus twist. Although not on the menu, customers in the know can also order the Campari cocktail with Campari, Bombay Sapphire, Yuzu sake, gomme syrup, fresh lemon juice and fresh cucumber. Garnished with parma ham, it is the perfect aperitif.
Although sadly not common in Hong Kong, there are also more exotic-flavoured bitters available. The central region of Umbria and San Marino in Italy, for example, are famous for their ‘l’amaro al tartufo;’ bitters that taste of black truffles. Paradoxically, there is a brand called Bittermens that specialises in producing bitters with unusual flavours, such as mint, grapefruit and even chocolate inspired by the Mexican mole chocolate sauce. So next time you see a drink with bitters in it, don’t let the name deter you, life is sweeter with bitters!