Depending on region and personal preference, you might order a vermouth on the rocks in Barcelona before lunch or amaro neat in Sicily after dessert. Aperitifs and digestifs — alcoholic drinks traditionally served before and after a meal — are rituals inextricably woven into the social fabric of many countries.
But you could also enjoy a pre- or post-dinner tipple in Brooklyn, perhaps even from a bottle made in the borough.
Many aperitifs and digestifs are bitters flavored with old-world herbs and roots, and boast centuries-old origins in medicine and monasteries. But a new and growing class of producers hopes to make your Americano truly American.
The bartender and author Sother Teague, an owner of the bitters-centric cocktail bar Amor y Amargo in New York City, said the American palate has “one thousand, thousand percent” grown more bitter since the bar opened in 2011.
Accordingly, the number of domestic bitters stocked on Mr. Teague’s shelves has sextupled. “We went from one or two outlying makers in America, to, now, more than I can count,” he said. “More than I know.”
Selling bitter liqueurs to Americans would be far more difficult if not for the Aperol spritz, said Henry Tarmy, an owner of Ventura Spirits in Ventura, Calif. The refreshing, low-alcohol cocktail in a cheerful shade of orange became America’s drink of the summer in 2017, thanks to a concerted marketing push. In the years since, sales of spirit-based aperitifs in the United States have grown by 20 percent, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis.
Mr. Tarmy’s Ventura Spirits produces its own Aperol-meets-Southern-California bitter called Amaro Angeleno, and began offering canned spritz cocktails in 2020. The spritz craze “has changed U.S. drinking culture in a really meaningful way,” he said.
Aperitivo, a bittersweet red liqueur, is the best seller for the three-year-old brand Faccia Brutto — grammatically incorrect Italian for “ugly face” — based in Brooklyn. The founder, Patrick Miller, calls it the company’s “gateway drug,” especially for customers already acquainted with Campari-based cocktails like Negronis and Boulevardiers. Faccia Brutto’s annual revenue grew to $840,000 last year, from $100,000 in 2020.
But that hasn’t deterred American producers, who have widely embraced ingredient transparency in direct contrast to the “super paranoid” approach of European producers, Mr. Teague said. In the early days of Faccia Brutto, Mr. Miller bought compilations of out-of-print books to research closely guarded Old World methods. But mysterious ingredients and practices are less of a selling point on this side of the Atlantic.
Many domestic producers proudly advertise their use of organic ingredients or avoidance of artificial colors or flavorings. Faccia Brutto’s Aperitivo, for example, owes its rich red tint to a natural dye derived from crushed insects known as cochineals — a traditional additive used in Campari until the company switched to artificial coloring in 2006.
Chareau, an aloe vera-based aperitif made in Camarillo, Calif., features just seven locally produced ingredients, including cucumber, mint, melon and lemon. The founder, Kurt Charron, said he chose aloe because it gave Chareau a pleasant mouthfeel without a high sugar content.
In New York, Rachael Petach sweetens her company’s C. Cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur, with only honey. “Let’s be honest, we’re selling alcohol,” Mr. Miller said, whose Faccia Brutto spirits use “markedly less” sugar than big-name competitors. “But I think the less sugar we all ingest, the better.”
For Francesco Amodeo, making Italian liqueurs is a birthright. Since 2011, his Washington, D.C., company, Don Ciccio & Figli, has produced liqueurs using family recipes that date back to 1883. Mr. Amodeo estimated that he stays “94 to 95 percent faithful” to the original formulations, though he sometimes uses as little as a third of the sugar his forefathers specified.
He’s also less secretive than them: Mr. Miller credited Mr. Amodeo with providing valuable advice when he was starting Faccia Brutto — the more the merrier, Mr. Miller said.
Other brands lean into their American provenance as a distinctive angle in a crowded market, hoping to achieve a region-specific “terroir” that their European cousins may lack. For example, Fernet-Branca, the popular amaro brand that originated in Milan, touts a secret recipe featuring 27 botanicals gathered from four continents.
Mr. Tarmy infuses his Amaro Angeleno with California-grown Valencia orange zest, thyme and lemon verbena, among other ingredients. Much of the blackcurrant supply for C.Cassis is grown by a single farmer in the Hudson Valley. And Mommenpop, a six-year-old company in Napa, Calif., makes its line of aperitifs with Napa wine and other fresh local citrus.
Samantha Sheehan, a Mommenpop founder, sought to achieve a “bright, juicy and fresh” flavor profile that was uniquely Californian. “Why would they buy a California product wanting it to taste like something from somewhere else?” Ms. Sheehan said. “We don’t have Alpine herbs, but we have an amazing climate” that yields high-quality produce.
Though he worries that the market might become oversaturated, he believes that “the people who are serious about it are going to stick around.” And in his experience, these first-generation recipes, which haven’t been precisely calibrated over centuries, taste younger and wilder.
“There’s sometimes one ingredient that raises its hand — it pulls back the curtain a little bit,” Mr. Plenke-Hammond said. “From a geeky standpoint, that’s the most fun.”