The season of brightly colored drinks with sweet, fruity flavors has come to an end. But that only means there is room on the palate for something more intense or refined — something bitter.
Bitter cocktails get their taste profiles from amari, including Campari and Fernet Branca. But it’s all about balance here to keep the often herbal flavors from becoming too overwhelming. From a classic Italian aperitivo to the perfect drink to sip by a winter fire, here are the 10 best bitter cocktail recipes for any occasion.
The Negroni is known as a powerful aperitif, stimulating appetites since it was first concocted in 1919. As the story goes, Count Camillo Negroni of Florence, Italy, desired an Americano with “more kick,” and the rest is history. The Negroni requires a mix of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth to claim its title as a classic bitter cocktail.
A riff on the Mint Julep, this recipe substitutes bourbon or whiskey for Cynar. The inclusion of the Italian amaro lends itself to the drink’s earthy, woody flavors (and relatively low alcohol). Adding in grapefruit juice, lime juice, and strawberry syrup helps to balance the bittersweet notes from Cynar. Top it off with fresh mint for garnish.
The Bitter Lover is similar to an Italian Julep and inspired by an Argentinian mixed drink, fernet con coca. Made with tequila, Cynar, and flavored with orange juice and lime, the resulting cocktail blends sweet with earthy and bitter tones for a drink that lives up to its name.
A relatively new take on the classic Manhattan, San Francisco-based mixologist Todd Smith created the Black Manhattan in 2005. Along with rye whiskey, amaro — usually Averna — is used in place of sweet vermouth. This gives the cocktail a darker tint, thus inspiring the name. The Black Manhattan delivers earthy, herbal flavors derived from the use of Angostura or other cocktail bitters. Top it all off with a fresh cocktail cherry for the perfect finish.
There’s no reason to be bitter when a drink is this easy to make. Highballs are those popular two-ingredient drinks, and in this recipe, Aperol serves as the base. While it’s not as intensely bitter as other bitter liqueurs (looking at you, Campari), the gentle citrusy notes blend beautifully with grapefruit soda. Pour in a highball glass and garnish with an orange twist.
While a classic Negroni calls for a careful balance of its three ingredients, the Grapefruit Negroni offers leeway in flavor and style. Mix the same amount of gin and Campari as you would normally. But for this recipe, substitute vermouth for a sweet-and-sour grapefruit-honey syrup. Not only is the result flavorful and inviting, but a lower alcohol content means you can sip on a Grapefruit Negroni all night long.
Another take on the classic Manhattan, the Honey Rye Manhattan is a perfect sweet one to sip on as the nights get colder and darker. With a rye whiskey base, the sweet flavors come through from the use of amaro and honey syrup. (We recommend Italy’s honey amari, though it’s tricky to find in the U.S.). Tangerine juice and cocktail bitters can balance out the sweetness. Serve up your Honey Rye Manhattan in a coupe glass and top it off with a citrus peel for a perfect winter cocktail.
New York City mixologist Sam Ross first created the Paper Plane in 2008 after listening to the M.I.A. song of the same name. After introducing the cocktail at a Chicago bar that year, Ross played around with the recipe until it was just right, landing on a mix of bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, and lemon juice. The result is a balance of bitter and sweet. Cue up “Paper Planes” and mix up one of these cocktails for yourself.
Brooklyn-based bar owner and author Ivy Mix describes her Shadow Boxer cocktail as “green floral and bitter.” The Negroni served as inspiration for the drink, but after replacing gin with the oaky Yaguara cachaça — a Brazilian spirit made from fermented sugarcane — an entirely new cocktail came to be. Campari, dry vermouth, apricot eau de vie, and pamplemousse liqueur are added to the mix as the ingredients combine sweet flavors with bitter for a refined finish.
A springtime favorite from Mexico City’s Hanky Panky bar, La Naranja Amarga blends sweet and bitter flavors with a twist. This recipe calls for sweet vermouth, gin, and triple sec (Punt e Mes is also recommended for an orange tinge). But the star of the cocktail is Fernet Branca, which brings herbal, rooty flavors to the mix. Serve it up in a coupe glass garnished with grapefruit and you’ll feel as though you’re drinking at the Hanky Panky bar itself.