If you're stuck in the no man's land between being completely sick of shots of Fernet Branca and going for the gusto and switching to shots of bitters, you aren't alone. Luckily, the wide world of digestifs, aperitifs, and whatever else you want to classify them as have something bitter, sweet, floral, and herbaceous out there for pretty much anyone. Finding one you like-- I mean really, really like-- is like making a new best friend, and I can think of ten you might want to add to the short list of potential drinking buddies.
Bénédictine If any herbal liqueur could be labeled as a classy b, you better believe it's Bénédictine. Not only is it an essential ingredient in, perhaps, the world's most sultry cocktail: the Vieux Carré, it's also made from a brandy base. However, the sweet French liqueur was actually created by monks, thus furthering my belief that monks are complete culinary badasses. If you need further proof, try Trappist beer and cheese.
Bonal Gentiane Qiuna Before departing from the world of French liqueurs for now, it's worth it to stop and try Bonal. This wine-based reddish aperitif is flavored with both gentian flowers and cinchona bark. The gentian gives Bonal an herbal quality while the quinine from the cinchona bark gives it that bitter bite you know from tonic water, which is also made from cinchona bark.Warning: This video contains a moderate amount of fake puke.
Jeppson's Malört Proud Chicagoans have been tormenting their friends with surprise shots of Malört for years, but it's just recently found popularity out of the Windy City. You can research "Malört Face" for days, laughing at the disgusted faces of first-time tryers, but really this strongly bitter, oddly spicy liqueur doesn't deserve to be relegated to a role as punisher. It's dry and, once you get used to it, actually kind of tasty. The Swedish wormwood liqueur is likely something you'll either love or despise, and you really won't know which it is until you try it, so skål.
Campari Like Malört, Campari is somewhat known for the face it invokes after a taste. Unlike Malört, it's already got a good base in cocktailing, as it is a main component in both Negronis and Americanos. Maybe the liqueur has an excellent marketing team, but this liqueur has become a cocktail bar mainstay quickly. Sure, it's as bitter as an orange peel, but it rounds out so perfectly with sweet vermouth.
Cocchi Americano Rosa This one isn't a liqueur, but its strong herbal and bitter qualities make it near to the typical amaro flavors. The fortified wine, like Bonal, is given bitterness with cinchona bark. It also has citrus peel and herbs to make it highly aromatic. Unlike Bonal, Cocchi Rosa has a noticable floral flavor and scent from rose petals. It gets a light spicy kick from ginger root as well.
Chartreuse To quote Quentin Tarantino in my favorite of his films, Death Proof, "Chartreuse: the only liqueur so good, they named a color after it." Green chartreuse is made from an impressive 130 different herbs and such, making it kind of a lot to taste all at once if you're not ready for it. In that case, go for the milder yellow variety, which is slightly less of a kick in the pants, but also not as fun.
Génépi Once you decide you like Chartreuse, take a few steps back to where it came from, and where it came from is Génépi. The wormwood liqueur is often described as the in-between point from absinthe to chartreuse in terms of flavor, though it definitely doesn't have a prominent anise flavor like the Green Fairy. Commonly bottles will have a génépi flower in the bottle as well.
Suze If you're really wild about gentian flavor, Suze is the liqueur for you. Herby, grassy, and floral with a light hint of orange, Suze is great for bright, clean spring cocktails. The French aperitif is made by Pernod, and has been used as a Campari substitute for making White Negronis.
Cynar Italians seemed to have mastered the art of taking anything on hand and making an intense bitter digestive or appetite aid out of it. Cynar follows in that tradition, being made from, believe it or not, artichokes. The brown color might be a little off-putting after you know that, but give it a shot. If you can't give up your after meal Fernet, you can at least start them with Cynar.
Grand Poppy This one is actually kind of exciting, being that it originated right here in the Western U.S. The specifically Californian liqueur might be tough to get your hands on (it's available at Top's, though), but once you do, you'll be wowed by its competing floral and bitter flavors. Aside from the flower that gives it its name and predominant flavoring, has citrus, bay leaf, pink peppercorn, dandelion, gentian, and artichoke, among other things.
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