Budget bitters, amaro alternatives, or digestifs for dabbling
November 10, 2017 8:01 PM   Subscribe

I hardly drink alcohol at all, but over the past couple years, my girlfriend and I have slowly discovered that we like bitters/digestifs. What are some after-dinner liquors (or digestifs, or bitters, or even brandies, or what have you) that are worth checking out, but won't break the bank?

We have bottles of Amaro Montenegro, Amaro di Angostura, and Fernet Branca. I probably sip a half a shot of any one of them at a time, and she doesn't drink much more than I do, so our current stock isn't disappearing too fast, but it would be nice to try something new.

Of what we have, I think I actually prefer the Angostura the most (which was the cheapest and probably least classy of them all). Girlfriend prefers the Montenegro. We've also had Underberg a few times, and we both liked it a lot. I also had what was probably Spanish hierbas, years ago, and thought it was delicious. So... I think everything we've enjoyed tends to be sweet, except the Fernet, which I personally don't care for as much. I mean, it's OK, but it's not my first choice.

Neither of us has ever had brandy, except when we were cooking. I've heard it's... nice? I'm out of my depth here.

Cost is a factor. Amaro Nonino looks good, but its price (at least here in the Bay Area) is a little outside what we feel comfortable spending right now. This sort of thing is a "once in a while" sort of purchase for us, and I imagine there are things we can try that won't break the bank before we take the plunge on pricier stuff.

Anyway, I am willing to hear any and all recommendations for a nice after-dinner or evening sipping drink, and if it's inexpensive (or relatively cheap), all the better.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
This may sound a little strange, but I have found bitters and club soda, or bitters and tonic water to be a very refreshing drink over ice.
posted by blurker at 8:05 PM on November 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Campari is inexpensive and a classic for a reason. To follow up what blurker said, add some soda water to Campari and you've got a great Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou night.

There's also Amaro Averna, which is quite rich and sweet and perfect for the winter.
posted by ZaphodB at 8:14 PM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Try Aperol or Cynar.
posted by reeddavid at 8:34 PM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

On the ion alcoholic side there's also Chinotto and Sanbitter, really great over ice, or mixed with an amaro, or gin of prosecco
posted by whatdoyouthink? at 9:01 PM on November 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I love Ciociaro but have no idea how much it costs.
posted by matildaben at 9:03 PM on November 10, 2017

I second everyone else's suggestions! I also like Meletti. Or you could try some nicer vermouths like Punt e Mes (pretty bitter), Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, or Carpano Antica.
posted by ferret branca at 9:04 PM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Seconding Campari. I prefer it with orange juice.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:47 PM on November 10, 2017

Averna is delicious - if very, very sweet. Definitely one for after a rich meal.
posted by bifter at 3:35 AM on November 11, 2017

Ferret branca is onto something great with the vermouth suggestion. There are some really beautiful, interesting vermouths out there these days that are great for drinking on their own - just be sure to refridgerate them once open and they’ll keep beautifully for months. They are also often right around $20/ bottle. Two brands that I really love, in both the white and red expressions, are Vya (from California) and Atxa (from Spain).
posted by amelioration at 4:14 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes on Campari, it is my absolute fave. It's great with soda and it mixes well into cocktails. I loooove a simple Negroni (mixed with vermouth and gin). It's also even better with bourbon in a boulevardier). It's also such a lovely color! And it's easy on the stomach, I've found. I've never sipped it straight or seen it served that way, though.

Aperol, also mentioned above, goes great with grapefruit and sparkling wine and is not too expensive, though I don't think it's as versatile as Campari. I've also not tried it straight.

Chartreuse is very high abv but surprisingly smooth, but possibly a little spendy. I was at a French restaurant once where the bartender suggested a shot in hot chocolate and it was mind bending, though.

For sipping, my absolute favorite is Braulio. It's piney and minty and very unique.

I'm not actually wild about amaro nonino, though it is very popular. It tastes a mite too medicinal, along those lines is benedictine which is a super old recipe.

fwiw, I have had great success going to cocktail bars, sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender about amaros. They are usually extremely knowledgeable and excited to talk to you about it, and will probably pour you a little taste. You can try a bunch and see if there's a pattern you like. That's how I found Braulio, which is the only one I've ever purchased for home.

PS I considered leaving all of my phone's auto correct typos here because it made me sound like I was testing all of these while writing this answer but I decided that was too meta
posted by pazazygeek at 6:59 AM on November 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Averna is delicious. It's the only amaro I drink.

Aperol is lovely for summer mixed with club soda or prosecco. It's so beautiful!
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:10 AM on November 11, 2017

Over the summer I was in Normandy and I picked up a bottle of 12 yr old calvados - it's a different creature from the 'usual' stuff. Most importantly you can get a small bottle - thus less expensive. My experience with Schnaps and other kids of high alcohol digestifs and etc is that almost always the more expensive the better. But you can get smaller bottles to mitigate that. Which is good because the best of these are remarkable.

Also, Metaxa. Get at least five star.
posted by From Bklyn at 8:14 AM on November 11, 2017

It’s amazing how every thread seems to have an eponysterical response:
posted by ferret branca at 12:04 AM on November 11

I like Bonal, a French quinquina. It’s one of the darkest-colored in the category, with a complex bitter flavor based heavily on quinine and gentian, balanced with a moderate sweetness reminiscent of stone fruit. It’s perfect for fall and winter sipping, I think, and it’s only $20 for a 750ml bottle (at a fancy butcher shop in an expensive city, so it can probably be had cheaper). Byrrh is another one to try if you like this style.
posted by musicinmybrain at 8:54 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

Plenty of good suggestions here. My favorite digestif to sip is Amaro Meletti, which has just a touch of that medicinal character you get in spades with Fernet, but has some sweetness to it and a flavor that I really enjoy, with some nice cinnamon notes in particular. Not expensive.
posted by dfan at 9:43 AM on November 11, 2017

I really love pear eau de vie, which is unfortunately usually on the spendy side in this part of the world, but I think there are cheapish brands and Canada is just generally not a place to get a terrific deal on booze...

Nth Campari. With orange juice I find it develops an inexplicable apricot note, which I really enjoy.
posted by kmennie at 9:48 AM on November 11, 2017

Cynar 70 (same price as Campari and Fernet around me, but for a liter), Amaro Meletti, and some of the now-more-commonly available, cheaper Fernets (Jelinek--not as good as Branca, but reliably $10 cheaper per 750 ml). Not actually cheap at all but fun: shots of Angostura bitters, or 50/50 Ango/Fernet. My all-time favorite but, again, not cheap: Nardini Amaro Bassano.
posted by thack3r at 11:09 AM on November 11, 2017

Cardamaro is a wine-based amaro, so it's low-ABV and relatively inexpensive, and it's delicious -- a little like Cynar, but lighter and ime more approachable. (I quite like Cynar, but it's not to everyone's taste; you may want to try a bit before you invest in a full bottle.)

Aperol is fun, and is a little on the sweeter side; it's like Campari's younger sibling. If you're choosing between Campari and Aperol, it sounds like you'd prefer the Aperol.
posted by halation at 11:15 AM on November 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Saint Germain is pretty popular too, made from elderflowers.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:17 AM on November 11, 2017

Limoncello is varyingly lemony and Acqua di Cedro - grappa-based liqueur - is like tasting a very fresh big lemon without the sourness. It's all the high notes of lemon peel in a glass.

The Calvados one finds at Trader Joe's during this season is surprisingly good for the price.

If you like smoky flavors Mezcal will provide them. You can have this as a digestif if you like. Pair it with a sangrita to manage the intensity.

The entire family of anisettes has gone missing here. They can be apéritifs, digestifs, or afternoon beverages that are neither. Among anisettes, Henri Bardouin has in my opinion the cleanest flavor - of anise. Anisettes are made all around the Mediterranean so pick your country and try theirs: pastis, ouzo, arak, mastika, sambuca.
posted by jet_silver at 4:09 PM on November 11, 2017

I don't know about the prices but I like nocino (walnut liquor), limoncello, and a violet liquor that is probably creme de violette, though I don't know the brand of the one we have offhand. My tastes lean to the sweet though the violet one is also vaguely medicinal.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 6:39 PM on November 11, 2017

Aperol and Campari are aperitifs, not digestifs (more for afternoons and pre-dinner drinking). Aperol is lower proof and less bitter; Campari is higher proof (but still not as strong as whiskey) and more bitter. There are a few other spirits that are basically other brands' Campari alternatives, like Luxardo Bitter or Contratto Bitter. This looks like a good guide to the category but even that ignores Gran Classico, said to be an attempt to replicate "classic" Campari.

Fernet is a specific (minty) type of amaro; Branca is a brand. I've also seen Fernet-Vallet (AKA Mexican Fernet) and Fernet Leopold, to name two. If you like the idea of that sort of amaro you don't have to limit yourself to Fernet-Branca, which can come on strong (although after about two meals a year, Fernet-Branca is exactly what I want and nothing else will do). Also Fernet and Coke is surprisingly delicious. We don't drink a lot of Fernet at home but if we finish our Fernet-Branca I'll probably replace it with Fernet-Vallet.

Montenegro is lovely and I wouldn't try to replace it (it's my wife's current favorite). If you'd like to try the more viscous digestif style of amari, Averna is sort of the standard, but Ramazzotti is an even more reasonably priced alternative (although I don't feel like Averna is particularly expensive). Vecchio Amaro del Capo is in the same vein but sweeter than either of those. It's not the one I'd buy first but it can be nice on ice. If you want an upgrade, my favorite is Bigallet China-China Amer, but I think that one's near $40/bottle. Apparently the next one in that vein I need to buy is CioCiaro, but I haven't bought it yet so I don't know what it costs. (NB: the tasting notes on that 101 page and the three followups match my experiences pretty well, so make sure you follow the links in the footer).

Side note, if I may digress further, and I've decided I may: both China-China Amer and CioCiaro are sometimes used as substitutes for Amer Picon, which is the amaro fan's white whale, since it's not distributed in the US and what you can buy overseas isn't the same as it used to be anyway. If you ever come across a bottle of the original Amer Picon, buy it and send it to me.

Other bitters: I do like Cynar 70 (that somebody mentioned above) but the original, lower-proof Cynar is probably the one to buy first. But maybe try it at a bar before buying, because not everybody is into it. On my first trip to Germany 25 years ago I was introduced to Becherovka, which is a Czech bitter with a strong hit of baking spices. Many Germans (and former exchange students) keep a bottle in the freezer, but we use it in cocktails and as an accent in hot toddies [see: baking spices; try 1½ oz bourbon and ¼ oz Becherovka in your hot apple cider] so we just have it on the shelf next to the other bitters. If you find yourself in Prague looking at a shelf of crazy flavors of Becherovka, ignore them all. They're terrible. (OK, the cordial isn't terrible, but it's not great).

For other digestive sippers: brandy is kind of a nightmare of mostly bad domestic products (except for Germain-Robin, which is excellent) and Cognacs that get really expensive really fast. If you just want to sit around sipping it, you will better understand the fuss around Cognac if you skip VS and VSOP (along with any Cognac without an age statement) and go straight to XO, but XO is expensive. Your better price point for French brandy is Armagnac, the tradition of which predates Cognac by a couple hundred years and has some other significant differences. Because fewer people have learned about Armagnac's charms it hasn't had the price inflation of Cognac, so the price you pay is correlated more to actual costs than what the market will bear. I'm also a fan of Calvados (apple brandy), which you can find quality bottles of for less than Cognac money. There is also Laird's apple brandy, which is domestic and actually quite good.

I'm a big fan of Chartreuse and we brought this particular one back from Paris last month, but a 750 ranges from $55 to $70 here depending on markup. If you don't know you love it, don't spend the money. If you do know you love it, do yourself a favor and try the VEP Yellow.

In summary: get a bottle of Ramazzotti or Averna for a classic after-dinner sort of Amaro. You might like Becherovka if you like Underberg, and it mixes well (at least in small quantities) in hot winter drinks. If you want to try brandy, try Armagnac instead of Cognac. You should pick up some Laird's apple brandy because it's better than its price or cheap looking bottle would indicate. Try Chartreuse at a bar before you invest in it.
posted by fedward at 8:29 PM on November 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

I was coming to recommend Cardamaro. My husband has gone to town making Americano’s with it-equal parts Cardamaro and good sweet vermouth, topped with soda and an orange peel. Best summer cocktail ever.
posted by purenitrous at 8:30 PM on November 11, 2017

What about making your own?
I make a couple of herbal bitters every year, some are great, some less so, but the proces of foraging for ingredients and extracting the flavors and then waiting for them to come together and mature is fun. I use the "failures" in cocktails where they can work just fine with complimentary tastes. I haven't actually tried the recipe I linked to above, but it seems to be in your line of taste, and it demonstrates the principle.
posted by mumimor at 1:45 AM on November 13, 2017

I like my Averna in a Boulevardier in place of Campari.
posted by freezer cake at 9:55 AM on November 13, 2017

Thanks so much for all the suggestions! I forgot to mention, but my girlfriend loves Campari. I've always found it to be way too bitter, but it sounds like that's where Aperol could step in.

Incidentally, it looks like BevMo carries most of these, but is there anyplace else I should be looking? Online maybe? There's a fancy liquor store near us, and they carry some obscure things, but it's a relatively limited selection.

I'm definitely interested in brandy, but it looks like it might just be too expensive. Is there such a thing as a cheapish, decent brandy, or is it not really worth it unless you're getting the nicer stuff? Is there a two-buck-chuck of brandy? (Note: it doesn't actually have to be $2, and besides, I don't think two-buck-chuck is even $2 here anymore)
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:41 PM on November 13, 2017

The two-buck-chuck of brandy is domestic brands like Korbel, Paul Masson, or E&J, but they don't really compare to Cognac (as much as they'd like you to believe they do). An absurdly large percentage of all domestic brandy sold is consumed in Wisconsin, where it is served in a drink called the Brandy Old Fashioned (that article puts Wisconsin's share of domestic brandy consumption at 75%, which may be an exaggeration, but it also may not be). When I needed something to bake with years ago the staff at a liquor store recommended Paul Masson to me. We used it in cocktails until we finished the bottle but I wouldn't recommend sipping it neat. If you want to make Brandy Old Fashioneds like a Wisconsinite, however, go for it.

VSOP Cognac seems to run about $27-$35 a bottle around here, depending on the producer and the markup. There are a few VSOP Cognacs that are decent sippers, but your best bet is to find a trustworthy liquor store where they don't just carry the biggest brands (Courvoisier, Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin) and get a recommendation for a Cognac from a smaller house where the blend might not just be on the bottom end of the age range. We mostly use Cognac in cocktails, but as a specific example we currently have Gilles Brisson VSOP on our shelf. I don't know if you can get it where you live. It's passable as a sipper and I prefer it to the three VSOPs that I've tried out of the big four (somehow I've never had Martell VSOP), but it's unlikely to wow you. If you want to be wowed, XO is a good starting point.

To digress: it's hard to know exactly what Cognac producers are putting in the bottle based on the age classifications. VS, VSOP, and XO are supposed to indicate the minimum age of any brandy used in the blend, at 2, 4, and 6 years, respectively. I skip right over VS, even for mixing in cocktails. VSOP can be fine, but it also pushes the boundaries of Minimum Acceptable Product. There was a push to reclassify XO as a minimum of ten years, but that change was delayed from 2016 to 2018. There are lots of things that are generally understood in the Cognac world but not really coded into law, so you'll see stuff in articles about age classification saying that "many" XO Cognacs feature blends with an average age of 20 years, but that doesn't actually mean that XO Cognac is 20 years old.

Part of the reason I recommend Armagnac over Cognac (aside from the fact I just like it more myself) is that Armagnac has both less markup and more specific age statements. While the change to the XO classification for Cognac was delayed from 2016 to 2018, the same change to XO was done for Armagnac in 2013. You can definitely find VS or VSOP Armagnac that more or less parallels what's going on in the Cognac world, but you can also find affordable and worthwhile Armagnac with a minimum age specified in years on the bottle. Some Armagnac houses even produce vintage Armagnac (dated from a single year of production). They can get really expensive, but really expensive vintage Armagnac is still less expensive than trophy Cognac.
posted by fedward at 8:10 AM on November 14, 2017

Special Bonus Amaro Content: I went to a blind amaro tasting yesterday with 13 amari lined up on numbered spots. In the category of Things Like Averna I'd now add Braulio and Lucano. Oddly, in the blind tasting Averna came across to me as too sweet, which surprised the hell out of me since that's probably the single amaro I drink most often. I misidentified Braulio as Averna, so if you like the idea of Averna but find it too sweet, try that. Lucano tasted like Coca-Cola with a hint of licorice. I thought it was fine; my wife called it out as one she liked. She also picked out the Montenegro as one of her favorites in the tasting (phew).

New (to us) amari we really agreed on were: Lucano Anniversario, which was less sweet and had more orange peel and alpine aroma than the standard Lucano. We both correctly identified Cynar, but were pleasantly surprised by the one after it in the tasting, Don Ciccio C3, which had a more rounded profile and a nice lingering bitterness.

We were both not really crazy about Dell'Erborista or Sibilla, but if you like that really tannic style you should like one of the two.
posted by fedward at 8:29 AM on November 14, 2017

Incidentally, it looks like BevMo carries most of these, but is there anyplace else I should be looking?

broadway liquors in oakland has a huge selection of different brands of fernet and lots of other aperitifs and digestifs, as well as some interesting bitters!

my go-to post-work drink at home is a la croix (usually pamplemousse) with a healthy splash of angostura bitters on ice. mmmm
posted by burgerrr at 11:05 AM on November 14, 2017

« Older A MONTH RAFTING THE GRAND CANYON?!??   |   life after depression 🌅 Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.