The Case of the Confusing Bitter Beverages: Vermouth, Amaro, Aperitivos, and Other Botanical Schnapps

When it comes to booze, it’s fun to be bitter: an Aperol spritz has been the drink of summer for about five years, vermouth and soda was apparently the "hot girl" drink of 2023, and amaro is having "a major moment." Bitter botanical beverages are everywhere, but that doesn’t mean we understand what on earth they are. Could you explain the difference between vermouth and amaro, or whether either is an aperitif or a digestif? Where do Aperol, Campari, and Chartreuse fit in, and what’s the difference between drinks called bitters and the bitters your bartender dashes into a Manhattan? This episode, Gastropod is on the case of the confusing bitter beverages, starting with their origins in alchemy. (That pre-dinner spritz *is* pretty magical!) Listen in now to find out why Napoleon chugged cologne, how a shopkeeper’s assistant created the preferred drink of kings and influencers, and how you should enjoy these trendy new botanical beverages.

Episode Notes

Samantha Sheehan, Tim Colla, & Mommenpop

Samantha Sheehan is the founder of Mommenpop, which makes aperitifs out of California citrus. Tim Colla is her collaborator and the winemaker at Saintsbury Winery, Mommenpop's home.

Theresa Levitt

Theresa Levitt is a professor of history at Ole Miss and the author of Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and the Quest for the Secret of Life. (Big thanks to Nicky's husband Geoff for giving her this book, which turned out to be the key to botanical booze—and more!)

Becky Sue Epstein

Becky Sue Epstein is a wine and spirits expert and the author of several books on these drinks, including Strong Sweet and Dry: A Guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala. You can also hear her on our episode about champagne.

Wormwood, a traditional ingredient in European vermouth, but barely found now in their American cousins—photographed at Quady Winery in California. (Photo by Nicola Twilley)

Andy Quady & Quady Winery

Along with his wife Laurel, Andy Quady is the co-founder of Quady Winery, based in Madera, California, which makes three kinds of craft vermouth.

Matteo Zed

Matteo Zed is the author of The Big Book of Amaro as well as the founder of The Court cocktail bar in Rome.

Erin Hines & Bitter Girl Bitters

Erin Hines is the founder of Bitter Girl Bitters, which she makes with organic fruit, herbs, and other botanicals from her California backyard garden.

Flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices infusing into the next batch of bitters at Bitter Girl Bitters in California. (Photos by Nicola Twilley)

Adam Elan-Elmegirab

Adam Elan-Elmegirab is the operator of The House of Botanicals, Aberdeen, Scotland's oldest spirit business and the original home of Boker's Bitters, which Adam and his team painstakingly reconstructed. He is the author of Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Book of Bitters.

Jessica Moncada & Alkali Rye

Jessica Moncada is the co-founder and owner of Alkali Rye, a fabulous beverage shop in Oakland, California.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics

This episode of Gastropod was supported by a generous grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology, and Economics. Check out the other books, movies, shows, podcasts, and more that they support here.

The Best Vermouths, According to Punch

Still mystified by the world of vermouths? Check out this guide to the best vermouths, organized by style, from our friends at Punch!

Perfect Pairings

You can learn more about the science of bitter foods and beverages, and whether or not they're actually good for us, in our episode The Bitter Truth—and more about the history of the cocktail in The Cocktail Hour!


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.