Ask Paul: What Is the Difference Between Bitters, Amaro, and Vermouth?

And why do they help us digest our meals?

Published Aug. 4, 2021.

L. asked: I read that vermouth is a type of bitters. How can that be true??

What would happen, wondered the ancients, if you put bitter herbs into wine? The resulting medicinal infusions turned out to be not only effective but sometimes tolerable to drink. Or even pleasant. Downright pleasant.

Thanks to them, we now have a panoply of drinks and drink ingredients, from numerous far-flung traditions, made with herbs that impart a variety of flavors: spicy, floral, piney, earthy, and, most often, bitter.

The most familiar of the bitter products may be “cocktail bitters”—the ones you use by the dash. The most famous is surely Angostura, that intense orange-red liquid that improves cocktails even in single-dash doses. Its bitterness comes from gentian root (also familiar to Moxie drinkers) and helps disparate ingredients in a drink integrate into a harmonious mixture. There are hundreds of other bitters available in little bottles--orange, chocolate, creole, and celery all good in cocktails and all with one thing in common: bitterness. Some also get their bitterness from gentian; others from different bitter-tasting plants such as calamus, wormwood, cinchona, or quassia.

A dash or two suffices for most people, but if you really love bitters, you may like the Trinidad Sour, a cocktail that has more Ango’ than anything else.

More likely in that case you’re in the market for “potable bitters,” a broad category of bitter liqueurs that includes Campari, Fernet, Jägermeister, and many Italian sippables (called amari, Italian for “bitters”) such as Montenegro. (A “liqueur” is a spirit that contains sugar.) The degree of bitterness runs from gently invigorating and well-balanced by sweetness, in an amaro such as Cardamaro, to medicinal-tasting concoctions that strain the limits of the term “potable”; for instance Elisir Novasalus, another amaro, which cocktail writer Chuck Taggart likens to “getting kicked in the crotch by a tree.”

Though they’re great in cocktails, these liqueurs are most traditionally enjoyed before or after a meal, as an aperitif or digestif, respectively. They’re intended to whet the appetite and/or help us digest a big meal, and it seems likely that they work because most bitter tastes found in nature are associated with poisonous plants. The bitter quaff signals to the digestive tract, “oh dear, just ingested something toxic—better shift the digestive processes into high gear and get it out of our system quick.”

Vermouth can be considered bitters because it is made by adding bitter wormwood to wine: By definition, it is wine-based and made with wormwood (the word “vermouth” derives from the German word for “wormwood,” wermuth), with additional alcohol and herbs, as well as optional sugar and color. Dry vermouth, also known as white vermouth or French vermouth, is made from white wine, botanical flavorings, and a small amount of sugar. Sweet vermouth, also known as red vermouth or Italian vermouth, is made from white wine too, with more sugar, different botanicals, and red-brown color from caramel, spices, and/or red wine. They’re both made in many different countries and in a multitude of nuanced styles.

So yes, if you have an amaro or other drinkable bitters around, try using it in a Manhattan instead of sweet vermouth. If you like whetting your appetite with an aperitif, try a glass of dry vermouth.

Ask Paul Adams, senior science research editor, about culinary ambiguities, terms of art, and useful distinctions:


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