TRANSCRIPT The Case of the Confusing Bitter Beverages

This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode The Case of the Confusing Bitter Beverages: Vermouth, Amaro, Aperitivos, and Other Botanical Schnapps, first released on December 19, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.

CYNTHIA GRABER: Nicky, I have a question for you.


GRABER: So, I have been getting really into vermouths lately. And I also have a bunch of things at home that I love which are amaros, and they’re also a little bit bitter. But there also also drinks called aperitifs and often those are bitter, and then there are digestifs and those are bitter, but [LAUGHING] I don’t actually know what the difference between any of this is.

TWILLEY: No, I mean, me too, and also because I’ve been getting into making cocktails, I have bitters. Which I add a dash or two of to mixed drinks. But then I also have things in my cabinet that are called bitter. Just, without the S. But those you drink straight. So, what’s the difference?

GRABER: Seems like even the people who make these drinks, they get a little confused too.

SAMANTHA SHEEHAN: I actually called it a sparkling citrus vermouth, the first bottling, which, really confusing. I sent a bottle to my distributor, and I just remember he called me and he was like, Sam, how do I sell this? I was like, what do you mean? He’s like, I don’t know what a vermouth is. I don’t know what a citrus vermouth is. And I surely don’t know what a sparkling citrus vermouth is.

TWILLEY: Yeah, me neither. But things didn’t get much clearer when Samantha Sheehan changed the classification of her sparkling citrus vermouth to an aperitif instead.

SHEEHAN: Yeah, I mean… People definitely don’t know exactly what an aperitif is. They don’t usually, like, know how it’s made or what to do with it. But I think aperitifs just sound a lot friendlier. And so it feels like people are more open minded to at least try it and talk about it. Whereas with vermouth, a lot of people just said no.

GRABER: There is a lot of confusion out there when it comes to what we’re calling bitter-y type drinks. We of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—

TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode, we’re on the case of the confusing bitter drinks. Because we know that we are not alone in this confusion.

CASS MCCHAREN: My name is Cass and I’m calling to ask you about amaros. Or, amari? Bitter liqueurs? Honestly, I’m not really sure about the name. It seems like nobody’s sure. And like what—what’s the right amount of bitter to be an amaro, and how would you, anyone determine that?

GRABER: Cass is only one of the many listeners who’ve written in with questions about this topic. What’s vermouth? How is an amaro different from an aperitif, and how are they both different from a digestif? Why would you drink one type of bitter liqueur before a meal, and one after?

TWILLEY: This really matters, because these drinks are so hot right now! It’s been the summer of aperol spritzes for about five years, and the name aperol literally comes from apero, short for aperitif.

GRABER: Vermouth and amaro are also super popular, it seems like every local craft distillery is making their own version. But it can be super confusing to order one or buy a bottle and have any idea what to do with it.

TWILLEY: Like Sherlock Holmes, we are going to solve this mystery. Or at least, we promise we’re going to try!

GRABER: Buckle up. But before we launch our investigation, we just wanted to say a huge thanks to all of you who’ve really stepped up and contributed to help keep the show running. So many of you have become supporters recently, which is amazing.

TWILLEY: To say thank you, we’ve added some pretty cool new rewards. Of course you know already that supporters at the superfan level get an awesome newsletter with each episode, stuffed with exclusive extras and behind the scenes stories. But Gastropod fans, superfans and supreme fans now also get to join us for an annual gastro-hang, with me and Cynthia.

GRABER: We’ll all get together—virtually, of course—and chat about the show, Nicky and I will take questions from all of you, it’ll be a great way for us to get to hang out!

TWILLEY: Check out the new rewards at slash support or on Patreon, and join the movement! We rely on listener support and we’re so thrilled to have such awesome listeners helping us keep making the show we all love. Thank you!

GRABER: Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network in partnership with Eater.


GRABER: First things first, let’s start with basic definitions. Since amaro means bitter in Italian, we decided to ask an Italian who wrote a book on amaros, just what in the world amaros are.

MATTEO ZED: So amaro is, the biggest class of liquors on the market. We have a thousand, thousand of different labels. It’s a spirit, normally could be alcohol, but also wine. Infused with different herbs, barks, leaves, flower, whatever you find by the natural.

TWILLEY: Matteo Zed is a bar manager, a cocktail designer, and the author of the Big Book of Amaro.

ZED: My connection with amaro is, I’m crazy passionate for amaro. Since I was kid, I was in love for amaro, because my grandpa was in love for amaro as well. So I grew up with this taste, this flavor.

TWILLEY: I guess they start them young in Italy.

GRABER: So Matteo says an amaro is basically a wine or a spirit infused with herbs. That sounds familiar to me—it sounds like my favorite pre-dinner drink, a vermouth.

ZED: Vermouth is still an amaro. So it’s an, it is an amaro made with wine. So if you think about the process, how to make a vermouth is perfectly the same, the same as an amaro.

TWILLEY: OK, so Matteo is telling us that vermouth is just a subcategory of amaro, it’s the same but made with wine rather than spirits. So that’s one question answered. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, we are so on this case!

GRABER: But I’m still confused about this business of aperitif and digestif. Is vermouth an aperitif or a digestif? How does amaro fit in?

TWILLEY: Well, to start with, what is an aperitif?

BECKY SUE EPSTEIN: So it comes from the Latin verb, which I am not a Latin scholar, but it means to open, in other words. To open your palate and open your senses also in a way to begin to have a great evening. It’s before dinner, after the worries and cares of the day are over. And you can relax and open your mind to a whole other part of the day.

TWILLEY: This is Becky Sue Epstein, she has been on the show before for our champagne episode, and she’s also the author of Strong, Sweet and Dry: A Guide to Vermouth, Port, Sherry, Madeira and Marsala.

GRABER: So Becky Sue says that an aperitif has to do with opening yourself up to the meal and the evening, and then a digestif obviously has to do with digestion. But so what should I be drinking my vermouth to do?

EPSTEIN: So you have vermouth, which was taken generally before the meal. Then you have digestifs, taken after the meal to kind of settle your stomach. And then you have bitters, with an S, which is something that you just put a drop of in a cocktail. So these are three very different things.

TWILLEY: Woah. OK, so vermouth is an aperitif and an amaro, but amaros are also digestif, and… yeah I still don’t understand.

GRABER: I don’t either, yet. But to figure it out, let’s go back in history to the origin of these drinks. One thing they all have in common is that they include botanicals. That’s basically one of their defining features. And historically, there have been a few different ways you can get at the taste and flavor of botanicals. One of the earliest methods for extracting those flavors was to steep them in, say, wine or other similar alcohols, and that seems to be what people did in ancient China and ancient Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

TWILLEY: Archaeological evidence from pottery found in these regions shows that thousands of years ago people were infusing their base alcohol with flowers like chrysanthemum, the resin from pine and fir trees, fruit, like hawthorn berries and jujubes, and lots of local herbs. When one 3000-year-old pot was excavated, the residue of the drink it once held still smelled fragrant and herbal today.

GRABER: This botanical steeping was partly probably done to make the wines taste good and to disguise bad or poor quality wine, but it’s also clear that a lot of these plants were being added because they were thought to have medicinal properties. The drinks were kind of an early tonic.

TWILLEY: Like we said, at first, this botanical booze was made kind of like tea—just steeping the herbs and spices in the wine. But to really get at the essence of the most delicate and ephemeral botanical flavors, people needed better technology—some flavors could only be captured in higher proof alcohol. So people needed to be able to distill.

THERESA LEVITT: So, distillation is in some ways extremely old. An ancient practice of trying to simply, sort of, separate out the more volatile components of something from its more inert components.

TWILLEY: This is Theresa Levitt, she’s a professor of history at the University of Mississippi and she’s also the author of a delightful new book called Elixir: A Parisian Perfume House and The Quest for the Secret of Life.

GRABER: Distillation has two meanings. One is getting at the heart, the essence of these plants and flowers, and it also means the technology to make alcohol stronger—which helps get at the essence of the plant. Concentrating alcohol involves heating it and evaporating the alcohol and then cooling it down in tubes and letting it collect in a separate container.

TWILLEY: That process requires a special apparatus that historians think was introduced a couple thousand years ago by a woman who lived in Egypt, and is known to history as Maria the Jewess.

LEVITT: We don’t know a lot about her necessarily, other the name. And she is, indeed, credited with inventing this, this glass apparatus, which makes distilling possible.

GRABER: Maria’s invention made extracting smells and flavors from botanicals more effective than steeping them in wine. But Maria’s invention was still pretty difficult to make and use, and it wasn’t super widespread for more than a thousand years.

LEVITT: But it really got a big boost, around, like, say, the 14th, 15th century when they developed these new methods of making glass, which made the distillation of alcohol more possible. And that sort of was the origin story for a lot of these botanical alcohols that we have.

TWILLEY: Maria the Jewess is often described as the first alchemist. Alchemy is kind of like chemistry’s magical grandparent, alchemists were on a quest to capture the essence of materials and manipulate them. They had ambitious goals, the idea was basically to create elixirs of eternal life and turn base metals into gold.

GRABER: Theresa told us that in the 14th and 15th century in Italy, there was a marriage of alchemy with the advancement of glass technology and the perfection of distillation, and the whole herbal distillation into elixir thing really took off. They used a variety of methods, distilling, steeping, whatever, but Theresa said it was all about capturing plant vitality.

LEVITT: There’s sort of a, a mess of people who had—you know, there were medicinal concerns. There were sort of pharmaceutical concerns. But really, sort of the core group of people, interested in, in distillation were alchemists at this time. And again, it’s this act of sort of separating out the different components, trying to capture these really, sort of volatile elements that are normally sort of so ephemeral and fugitive. But this is a way of, you know, sort of capturing them and preserving them.

TWILLEY: Plant parts—things like flowers and leaves—obviously, they withered and died. But if you could extract their aroma in distilled alcohol, then you could preserve their essence forever. It was kind of like a step toward immortality.

GRABER: And so the alcohols that captured the vitality of plants and flowers were called spirits, the spirits of the plants.

LEVITT: And that’s really sort of rooted in this alchemical notion, that what you’re trying to do is capture this living element of it. So these early spirits really were considered the best effort to get at, sort of the vital living essence of these plants. Like what you see, the, the term for, distilled wine in a lot of languages, actually is, sort of the water of life, aquavitae in Latin, eau de vie in French, whiskey, vodka, aquavit. They all actually mean the water of life. And the thought is, the alchemists were really trying to get at the isolation of the vital essence of these plants.

TWILLEY: Alchemists believed that everything was made up of active and passive elements.

LEVITT: And what they were really interested in were these, sort of active vital components. And usually it was thought that the more volatile things were, the more active they were. And then, you know, the less volatile, the more inert, the more, you know, sort of like dead and uninteresting they were. So aroma is in some ways the most volatile component of a thing that, that you have. I mean, it evaporates into the air almost immediately. And it actually becomes quite connected to the idea of how living things grow, the growth of living things.

TWILLEY: This wasn’t just a metaphorical connection. Alchemists really believed that the smell of plants held the key to their existence and thus their beneficial properties.

LEVITT: So among alchemists, there’s this idea that aroma is equated with what’s called the spiritus rector, which is the spirit which guides a plant, you know, from its origins as, you know, a small seed to this enormously, you know, sort of complex, organized organism. And that aroma was what gave it this form, and, and, you know, sort of held it in its complexity. So the idea was if you could capture that, and consume it, then that would help you preserve your, the organization of your body.

TWILLEY: Basically, smell was the most active principle, it was the alchemical equivalent of DNA. It was smell that made certain herbs and flowers into medicinal powerhouses, and so, capturing the smell was like cutting to the chase and getting hold of the master code for wellbeing.

GRABER: And it’s not just whether or not you could capture a particular smell, and the plant’s vitality, the smell also had to be a good one.

LEVITT: I think a lot of people are familiar with this sort of miasma theory, which is that bad smells are at the root of decomposition and decay, and they actually are bad for your health because they’re causing the organization of your body to decay. But there’s also a flip side of this, where good smells were actually associated with the process of growth and the process of living things taking on an organized form.

TWILLEY: Basically, in late Medieval, early Renaissance Europe, you had the combination of this powerful belief that the aromas of plants, captured as a liquid in alcohol, had enormous benefits. Plus you had the distillation technology to do it, and the result was a boom in what people now would recognize as aromatized booze. But these botanical alcohols weren’t necessarily always being used in ways we’d recognize today.

LEVITT: One of the first ways that they became popular was as a, as a sort of a plague preventative. So the idea was if you could prevent yourself from smelling, you know, these foul odors of the plague that would keep you from, from getting sick. So. One of the earliest ways, often people would have like a little vial that they kept in a chain around their neck. And then, you know, they would open it up and smell it if they were feeling weak or there was a bad smell. There were scented handkerchiefs you could put in front of your nose. But it was really sort of much wider than that as well. For example, if you had a headache, you could rub a little bit on your temples or, you know, any place that your body had an ache, you could like, rub it on your body for that. It was used for cleaning wounds. If you had an open wound, there were sort of certain compositions that were recommended to put on it.

GRABER: But of course you could also actually consume this aromatized booze, not just smell it or apply it to your body.

LEVITT: You could drink it, either sort of by the spoonful in a medicinal way, or you could add a bit to your wine, add a bit to your water. You could dip your bread in it if you’re having stomach trouble, you know, dip your bread in some and eat it.

TWILLEY: The weird thing is that these fragrant and herbal liquids people were rubbing on their wounds and dunking bread in and drinking—they were also essentially perfume.

GRABER: Just a side note, kids, don’t drink your perfume today.

LEVITT: You know, if we hear that somebody’s been drinking perfume, we think, oh, that person has a huge problem. It’s like, oh, they need to be hospitalized. But the reason we think that is because in the 20th century, they begin adding these denaturing agents. Like methyl alcohol. So they’re adding poison to perfumes so that people don’t drink them, and they’re doing this for tax reasons, really. But before that, it was perfectly fine to drink them. There really was a very, very blurry line. There was, you know, sort of no firm line at all between perfume and these, these botanical schnapps.

GRABER: One of these early famous botanical schnapps is the original eau de cologne, or Kolnischwasser, but it was also called aqua mirabilis as a drink. The official recipe was secret but it had distillations of bitter orange, lemon, lime, bergamot, also rosemary, thyme, jasmine, and lavender, and many other fruits and herbs too. And it had almost as many uses as it had ingredients.

LEVITT: There was a book sort of published by one of its manufacturers of all the various uses and it comes to, you know, sort of 30 or 40 pages of what you can do with it. And he recommended putting like three bottles of it in your bath, probably because he wanted to sell a lot. But it was widely used. Napoleon, for example, was an enormous fan and used it in virtually all these capacities. Napoleon was not a huge drinker, but he would often put a little bit of cologne in his wine to drink.

TWILLEY: Who knew that Napoleon drank cologne? I do not remember that from history A level. Or Ridley Scott’s new movie. But Napoleon wasn’t alone. Everyone had their favorite aromatized beverage slash perfume.

LEVITT: There were so many recipes. Many pharmacists tended to have their own signatures or secret recipe, that they would sell. There are at least just like, monasteries, which of course grew famous over their secret recipe that only, you know, only a few, of the monks were ever allowed into. And these could be enormously complex.

GRABER: Monasteries were some of the centers of production of these spirits and colognes, because they had botanic gardens with plants they’d use for medicinal purposes. Chartreuse, which is a bright green, bitter-y herbal liqueur and is still popular today—it’s also still made in a monastery today. It first came out in the early 1700s, based on a recipe from 1605 with more than 130 different ingredients. And it must have taken the monks FOREVER to make it.

TWILLEY: Just gathering the botanical ingredients was a huge amount of work. It took 3 million individual jasmine flowers, all picked by hand, to get a single pound of jasmine essence to add to the mix. And jasmine was often just one of a hundred or more ingredients, all of whose essences then had to be captured slightly differently.

LEVITT: They all have different, different evaporation points, different volatilities. Which means that often you’re doing, you know, sort of several different distillations, over and over again with different ingredients, each time, doing it a little bit differently each time.

TWILLEY: Theresa and other Chartreuse fans have lately found their favorite aromatized alcohol a little harder to get hold of. In 2019, the monks decided to limit production because they were worried about their environmental footprint, and they wanted to focus on prayer. So for the past couple of years, people have been panic buying, hoarding, and generally bemoaning the loss of this so-called liqueur of health.

GRABER: At the time, though, chartreuse was only really known in its corner of the world, because everywhere, all the monasteries, the pharmacies, the perfumers, they’d all have their own botanical schnapps. And they all included not only beautiful floral, herbal, and citrus elements, but every maker was sure to include bittering elements, usually more than one. They might have been things like gentian root or angelica or artichoke leaves.

LEVITT: You really have to consider that these were not drunk for pleasure. These were drunk for health. These were drunk to extend your life. The pleasure was really an afterthought. And so they don’t necessarily all aim for bitterness. Chartreuse, for example, has a much more sort of, you know, floral, type bouquet to it. But I think that people were willing to put up with it because, again, it was associated with a life-extending tonic.

GRABER: At the time, bitter flavors were thought to particularly improve your health and digestion. There’s not a lot of modern scientific proof behind those claims, but there’s also a lot we don’t know about how bitter receptors in different parts of the body work and what they’re doing. Meanwhile, many bitter compounds like the antioxidants and flavonoids in coffee and tea, as well as in fruits and vegetables, they’re known to be good for us. You should listen to our episode The Bitter Truth for more.

TWILLEY: So basically, people were drinking these bitter aromatic elixirs, as well as, you know, bathing in them. But then how did these health tonics become drink-drinks—aperitifs, digestifs, amaros, even vermouth…

LEVITT: Well, it’s coming out of the same pathways. These aperitifs are in many ways an offshoot of these pharmaceutical preparations. You can see the guild of distillers, for example, essentially grew out of the apothecary guild. Same with the perfumers, actually, the perfumers sort of grew out of the apothecary and distilling guilds. So they’re coming from this similar background.

GRABER: But still, there is at least one moment we can pinpoint when a drink taken for health turned into a drink sipped for fun. And we have that story coming up, after the break.


TWILLEY: So everyone in Europe was drinking aromatized wines and spirits in the form of these elixirs. And vermouth is an aromatized wine. So how did it split off from the pack to become its own thing?

GRABER: The origin story of vermouth begins in Torino, or Turin, in northern Italy in the 1700s. It was a major political center, and it was also one of the major centers of trade.

EPSTEIN: And merchants, royals, things like that, and other people that wanted to be in trade or were in trade or were religiously or politically important, all gathered in Turin. And at the end of the day, they would gather and they’d have some—something to drink and they’d have some snacks. And there was a rising merchant class there. And there were wine shops around the piazzas. And in one of them, a young man called Antonio Benedetto Carpano, he got a job as an assistant there.

TWILLEY: Carpano had studied to be a herbalist, before he got this gig at the wine store.

EPSTEIN: And he took some of the herbs that he knew from Piedmont and he added them to the distilled wines. And they were very pleasing to the palate. So he had a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of bitterness, and this balance really piqued the interest and the palates of the people in the area. So much so that the, that the king there decided that he was going to only drink vermouth. So, of course everyone wanted to only drink vermouth.

GRABER: The drink was based on white wine but turned red from the botanicals in it. Apparently only a handful of people today know what the botanicals in Carpano’s original recipe actually were—it’s still a secret, and you can still buy a vermouth under the same name, Carpano. But it seems to have included bitter orange peels and vanilla beans and saffron, also rhubarb and angelica and cinchona bark and the herb that gave it its name: wormwood.

TWILLEY: Wormwood is a light green, sort of feathery looking herb, it’s part of the artemisia family. And it grows wild in the hills around Torino. It was already pretty trendy in the medicinal elixir world. A few hundred years earlier an awesome-sounding woman called Hildegard of Bingen, who was a musician and natural philosopher and made up her own language—she also wrote a medical treatise that promoted the powers of wormwood.

ANDY QUADY: So, you know, in Hildegard’s treatise. She recommends that, when spring comes, you need to take what she called a spring cleanse.

GRABER: Andy Quady is a winemaker and a vermouth maker in California.

QUADY: What that is, consists of a mixture of wormwood and water, make a really strong wormwood tea. And what that will do to you—it will cause you to be cleansed in such a way that you have diarrhea and vomiting simultaneously for a day or so. And that’s the spring cleanse.

GRABER: Sounds lovely. Andy told us the fact that this bitter herb was trendy at the time was why Carpano decided to use it in his drink, and then even to call his drink vermouth. Wermut is German for wormwood. And apparently Carpano thought that the German word was a catchy name for his new beverage.

TWILLEY: Like Becky Sue said, Carpano’s Vermouth caught on. The flavor was good, the name was catchy, the king and other influencers loved it, and most importantly, the price was right—the growing bourgeoisie and merchant classes could afford vermouth on the regular. It was so successful that the wine shop Carpano worked at apparently had to stay open 24 hours a day.

GRABER: In a way, obviously, vermouth wasn’t new, aromatized wines and spirits had been around for a long time already. But Becky Sue told us that vermouth was special at the time—it was probably one of the first of all these bitter drinks that was meant as a recreational beverage, it wasn’t meant to be medicine.

TWILLEY: The drinking vermouth for fun trend spread to France, and of course, vermouth makers there put their own twist on it, and as more people drank it and more people made versions of it, a few distinctive styles of vermouth evolved.

EPSTEIN: So they made a dry white vermouth and that became the signature of vermouth of France, dry white. And then, after that, the Italians decided they wanted a white, but they made something called bianco, which is slightly sweeter. So you’ve got these three basic styles of vermouth. Red, white, and slightly sweeter white.

GRABER: But the one thing all these vermouths had in common was wormwood. After all it was in the name. But neither Nicky nor I had ever tasted wormwood before. What could it be contributing to the drink?

TWILLEY: Fortunately, Andy had a wormwood plant in his backyard.

QUADY: So this is wormwood. Don’t be shy.

GRABER: Oh! It has a very, very… strong, a little bit minty.

QUADY: Smells nice, huh? Yeah.

GRABER: It smells lovely. I would love this in like a… It would be like, nice in a sachet. So now I’m going to just eat this. Try these? …Agh! Whoa, it’s bitter. Blegh. Smells better than it tastes. Bleh.

QUADY: Oh, yeah. Bleh! The bitterness stays, though.

TWILLEY: Smells great, though. …Oh!

GRABER: I would just like to point out that Nicky’s face looks like just what I, the sounds that I made.

TWILLEY: That is like, the most bitter thing I’ve…

QUADY: This is a whole different kind of a disgusting taste.

TWILLEY: But I will, I will say… that what is interesting about it is it makes you salivate, because it’s so disgusting and you’re trying to get it out of your mouth, and that is quite refreshing. In a weird way.

GRABER: I am not convinced I would want this in my drinks, noticeably. I like bitterness. I like bitter notes in drinks. I’m not sure that I would really want to be able to taste this in my, in my beverage.

TWILLEY: I’m just, I’m just intrigued by how… much saliva it brought to my mouth. [CYNTHIA LAUGHING] Sorry, listeners.

GRABER: Truly, listeners, the wormwood experience was disgusting.

TWILLEY: Not everything we get to try while making this show is good.

GRABER: But it turns out most vermouths don’t actually have all that much wormwood in them. So wormwood also was the plant in absinthe that people thought made you crazy when you drank it, it doesn’t actually do that. But in any case, it got a bad rap and so you’re still not allowed to use a lot of it in drinks in America.

QUADY: In the US, they’re very conservative about plants that might have something to make you act funny or something. And so, they have a level of wormwood that is permitted, which is, non detect.

TWILLEY: Non detect means there’s so little it doesn’t even show up in a lab test.

QUADY: You would never taste it or anything, so nobody puts it in. In Europe, though, they have the requirement that you must have wormwood in your vermouth, because the wormwood is the name of vermouth, and vermouth, without wormwood, wouldn’t be vermouth.

TWILLEY: So all European producers do still use at least some wormwood.

GRABER: In the 1800s, everyone who made vermouth was using wormwood, and vermouth had become an incredibly popular pre-dinner drink in many countries in Europe. Different places developed a particular vermouth culture, like in Italy, and in France. Many towns in Spain had their own local vermouths.

EPSTEIN: So in many parts of many cities there would be a little vermuteria that, somebody had a cask of wine and they added their own herbs and spices. And people would stop and get a glass on their way home, or they would stop and have a little bottle filled to take home with them. And it really became part of the culture.

GRABER: This is still the case today—I actually fell in love with vermouth in Spain because so many bars in Madrid and Barcelona all have their own house vermouths. And everyone’s sipping one with an orange peel before dinner.

TWILLEY: Andy experienced vermouth culture in the south of France.

QUADY: So, everybody at 5 PM, was in one of these little outdoor cafes with all the umbrellas that said Martini on them. Drinking Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth on the rocks.

GRABER: Martini and Rossi is one of the big vermouth brands, it is not necessarily the origin of the cocktail name martini, that’s still up for debate. Instead Martini and Rossi is a sweet and bitter reddish Vermouth that people drink on ice.

QUADY: I mean, it’s like everybody in their bar was drinking it. You sit outside, you know, you smoke a cigarette, and then you wonder what you’re going to do with the rest of the evening. But this is the hour of the aperitif.

GRABER: In the US, vermouth rose to popularity along with cocktail culture in the late 1800s. The Manhattan and the martini were the classic vermouth cocktails, and at the time there was more vermouth than either gin or whiskey in them.

TWILLEY: For a while, vermouth was all the rage. And then… it wasn’t.

PEGGY: Did you try Don’s office?

ROGER: All I found was lighter fluid. I’m not there yet.

PEGGY: Would you drink vermouth?

ROGER: Yes, I’m afraid I would.

GRABER: This is a clip from the TV show Mad Men, but this was actually the attitude at the time. It’s a sign of how desperate Roger is that he’s even considering drinking vermouth. Vermouth was considered crap. If you wanted a martini, basically just drink the gin straight.

QUADY: Roosevelt would talk about having martinis and, and telling ‘em to leave the vermouth out and stuff like that, you know. And Winston Churchill, Churchill would say that instead of vermouth he would nod in the direction of France. Vermouth had a very bad reputation as an ingredient in cocktails, in those days.

TWILLEY: The story of vermouth’s decline at least in the US is a pretty standard one. All American alcohol went down the pan because of Prohibition, Europe would send over their worst stuff, and people figured let’s just maximize the ABV and drink our spirits straight. No vermouth necessary or welcome.

EPSTEIN: And I really think that people just thought it was kind of old fashioned. Vodka became really important and gin, which was aromatic. And it just seemed like something that your grandfather would’ve had.

GRABER: But as with most foods and drinks, a few decades ago there was a renaissance of interest in good vermouth. And in fact, Andy Quady of Vya Vermouth was one of the early entries in this new craft vermouth. His is modeled after the classic European recipe.

TWILLEY: And it was the start of a movement—a wave of exciting new vermouths.

EPSTEIN: Well, vermouth has exploded. I mean, people are making vermouth all over the world. And people make it in the US. People make it wherever they want to drink it. And they add their own herbs and spices to it in order to make it slightly different, in order to make it their own.

GRABER: So we wanted to try one of these new exciting spins on vermouth. And Samantha Sheehan who founded the company Mommenpop—you heard her earlier in the show—she started off wanting to create a new version of an herbal aromatized wine she’d tried. She was already making wine.

SHEEHAN: So I took a barrel of my Chardonnay. I added grape spirit to it. And then I added some citrus peels, like Seville orange peels and some different botanicals. And then I went onto the TTB’s website, and I was like, well, what do I call this? Like, what do I put on the label?

TWILLEY: The TTB is the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is the federal agency responsible for regulating America’s booze, cigarettes and guns.

SHEEHAN: On the TTBs website, it said I could call it a vermouth or an aperitif. And at the time I didn’t know what an aperitif was. So I was like, well, I’ll just call it a vermouth. But then I took it out into the world and started trying to sell it to bars and restaurants. And there were a lot of, very traditional bartenders, who would say, oh, is there a wormwood in this? And I was like, no, I want it to be really citrus forward and bright. And so I didn’t add wormwood because it’s sort of a woody, darker, bittering agent.

GRABER: So aperitif it became. But as we know, vermouth is an aperitif—a bitter-y drink you drink before your meal—and also, most vermouths made in America don’t actually contain wormwood. So, you know, we figured Samantha’s aperitif still fit the bill.

TWILLEY: Samantha is based in California’s Napa Valley, and in the tradition of vermouths, she wanted to highlight her local plant flavors. And in California, we have a lot of citrus.

SHEEHAN: So we just, really started there, and it was all about being citrus forward. And then the botanicals just kind of came next, it was, what botanicals highlight the citrus? So Seville orange was the first citrus flavor that we used. And we noticed that the Seville orange extractions tasted like vanilla.

GRABER: So they added some vanilla to it. And then the bitterness comes from the oil in the skin and the pith of the Seville orange, plus seville oranges are bitter themselves. And then like most vermouths, the wine is also fortified with a grape spirit, kind of like brandy, so it’s a little stronger.

TWILLEY: Samantha works with a partner, a winemaker named Tim Colla, and together they’ve come up with a few different citrus-botanical flavors. It’s kind of a fun experiment to see which citrus works with the wine base notes, and then which herbs to add to make something delicious.

SHEEHAN: And I think this is the fun of aperitifs. When you’re making wine, you’re always pointing out these tasting notes like, oh, this pinot has a little bit of like cinnamon or this sauvignon blanc has a little bit of like a green note. And you always wish you could heighten those characteristics, and make them more dominant. And I think when you’re making aperitif, you can. It’s like, oh, the Seville oranges have a vanilla character. Well, let’s add vanilla to it. Or, lemons have a bit of a greenness to them. So let’s add tarragon and enhance that. And so it’s kind of like being a winemaker and getting to play more? It’s almost like the combination of wine making and cooking

GRABER: And like when you’re experimenting in the kitchen and trying out a new dish, Tim says not everything is a success.

TIM COLLA: The cherry blossoms were pretty gross. I think all the florals, the, like the fresh florals were pretty gross. Walnuts were kind of gross. The, the prickly pear cactus, those fruit, those got gross.

SHEEHAN: They also, they also really hurt to pick. I think I got a couple of needles in my eye that day, it was windy I was trying to whack them off the cactus.
TWILLEY: Samantha told us that she and Tim have arrived at a core set of flavors plus some seasonal specials.


SHEEHAN: We have, Seville orange, ruby grapefruit and blood orange. And those are the core flavors that we have all year. And then we have the Meyer lemon, the makrut lime and the kumquat. And so those are our kind of limited seasonal flavorings.

GRABER: We started with the Seville orange, because that’s the first flavor they ever made.


GRABER: Ooh, I love the smell. …Oh wow, that is so good. You do, you get the like, juiciness that you kind of wish a Seville orange had, but like the bitterness that I love, like I love that marmalade flavor. That’s really, this is amazing.

TWILLEY: It smells incredible. Oh, that’s delicious.

TWILLEY: Fast forward quite a while—I’m not going to lie, we tried all the flavors—but the one that really stuck with me was inspired by a chicken salad.

SHEEHAN: We were trying to decide what should, which botanical should we add to the, the Meyer lemon? And I said, well, I said Tim, like what’s your favorite way to use Meyer lemons? And he said, Oh, I love, I love having Meyer lemon in my chicken salad. And I was like, okay, what do you, what else do you like to put in it? And he said, I like tarragon in my chicken salad.

GRABER: So tarragon it was, and of course we had to try it.

GRABER: I love the savory notes in this. I love, I love tarragon. And I, yeah, I love the, the complexity of the citrus and the green of it. It’s just, it’s really amazing.

TWILLEY: The other ones feel like, oh, party, sunshine, pool. And this… this feels very sophisticated.

TWILLEY: You know, just like me. And like today’s vermouths, or aperitifs, which I now feel very sophisticated in being able to say are, basically, the same thing. But that still leaves us with bitters with an S — we’re going to drink our way through that mystery after the break.


GRABER: So until now, we’ve been talking about a class of drinks that are basically called bitter, these are all really kinds of amaro.

ADAM ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: And they’re the likes of Campari and aperols, Fernet Branca, Jägermeister. Those kind of things where you actually buy them to drink. Whereas we produce are more concentrated flavoring that you dash into cocktails and foods as a flavoring.

TWILLEY: Adam Elan Elmegirab makes bitters, with an S, at the House of Botanicals in Aberdeen, Scotland. His bitters are bitter, but they’re definitely not something like Jägermeister or fernet that you’d drink as is.

GRABER: Erin Hines also owns a bitters company, called Bitter Girl Bitters, and she used the same language; she called her bitters a concentrated flavoring additive.

ERIN HINES: I like to explain to people it’s a bartender’s salt and pepper. That little something you can add to a cocktail to enhance the other flavors that are in the drink. Another good way to explain it is an extraction. So think vanilla extract. If you look at a bottle of vanilla in the store, it’s typically about 40 percent alcohol. And essentially you’re infusing alcohol with vanilla beans. So same idea with bitters. There’s just more flavor components to it.

TWILLEY: The difference between bitter drinks and bitters turns out to be super straightforward—it’s just how concentrated they are, and thus how you use them. Bitters with an S are really just a concentrated version of the kinds of bitter, herbal alcoholic extracts people have been making and drinking for hundreds of years. Even in Europe, back in the day, you could either have added a drop of a medical elixir in concentrated, tincture form to your wine, maybe with a bit of sugar. Or you could buy a pre-diluted version, and chug that, like Napoleon did.

GRABER: So if you don’t make cocktails at home, you might not have ever used bitters, though maybe you’ve seen them as an ingredient in a drink at a cocktail bar. These are things that come in little glass bottles that you either shake out or use a dropper to add those flavorings into your drink. As Erin said, they’re like vanilla extract, you wouldn’t drink them on their own.

TWILLEY: These botanical tinctures emerged at about the same time as the boom in ready-to-drink botanical beverages. They were also medicinal originally, but then in the 1800s they became a key part of a new kind of recreational drink, the cocktail.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: So word cocktail comes from a specific style of drink, consisting of spirit, sugar, water, and bitters. With bitters being defining ingredient into what a cocktail was.

GRABER: We’ve made a whole episode on the cocktail, you should definitely check it out. Probably the most famous bitters in the US are Angostura and Peychauds. Angostura was invented by a German army surgeon stationed in Venezuela in the early 1800s as a stomach tonic. And Peychauds was created by a Creole apothecary in Louisiana.

TWILLEY: But those are just the ones we know today. There were more.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: Oh, I mean, there was hundreds. There was hundreds. I mean, there was so, so many more than I even know. I still discover new brands all the time. There was a whole suite of bitters. I mean, every state in the US had their, you know, wave of Bitters brand selling some form of medicine that they claimed cure all sorts of ailments.

GRABER: Most of these bitters ended up disappearing. Prohibition killed a lot of alcohol brands, and also the pure food and drug act in the early 1900s meant you couldn’t just claim anything you wanted to, you couldn’t say these bitters cured your flu. And so for a long time, even until kind of recently, you could mostly only find three kinds of bitters: Angostura, Peychaud’s, and orange bitters.

TWILLEY: Which meant that when Adam wanted to make all the cocktails from the first ever cocktail book, Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide, he had a problem. The bitters that Jerry was using in his recipes were no longer available.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: Then led me to recreate the bitters from that book as well which were called Bokers. And that was almost a two year project.

GRABER: A big part of why this took Adam so long is because most people kept their recipes secret. He found a bunch of recipes, but he knew they were counterfeit, because the original company literally took the people who made those bitters to court.

TWILLEY: But in these counterfeit recipes, there were certain botanicals that came up again and again, so it seemed like those might actually be in the original. And then Adam also managed to get hold of a couple of historical samples. Of course the contents had aged, but with a chemical analysis, he was able to get pretty close to the Boker’s bitters original recipe.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: They’re not an identical replication ’cause there’s no way we could unless they’re wanting to legitimately sell poison to the world.

GRABER: That’s because there were some ingredients in the original recipe that today we know are actually poisonous, like Virginia snakeroot, which is a flowering plant in the eastern US and happens to also be endangered.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: But we managed to put together an idea of how it tasted. And what it would’ve been like back in the day. But for the modern palate. So we can use some botanicals nowadays that are safe to use, instead of using some of these botanicals at the time that we now know are poisons

TWILLEY: Adam’s reconstructed Boker’s bitters include cardamom, citrus peel, star anise, angelica root, and a super super super bitter extract from a tropical shrub called the quassia

GRABER: Adam sells his recreated Boker’s Bitters today, but the first time he tried it, he had no idea what to make of it.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: I mean, there’s nothing like it. I mean, the first time I tried it I was like, what the hell is this? It just made no sense whatsoever. But when you actually try it within a drink and then you add it to cocktails, you can see what it does and how it lengthens flavor and also gives it more of a, a kind of tannic taste. So when you use it in cocktails that are maybe a bit sweeter, you can see why this more tannic bitters would’ve worked. Versus maybe just adding loads of spice flavor like Angostura would.

TWILLEY: So this is interesting, because as Adam was describing how his Boker’s Bitters were different from Angostura bitters, I was realizing that although I have drunk many a cocktail in my time—including Manhattans and Old Fashioneds which both rely on Angostura bitters—I have no idea what the bitters itself actually tastes like.

GRABER: We wanted to remedy this, so you know what comes next… Bitters field trip!

JESSICA MONCADA: My name is Jessica Moncada and we are at our office of Alkali Rye Beverage Shop.

TWILLEY: Jessica is the owner and co-founder of Alkali Rye, which is in Oakland, California, and which is completely awesome, I wish it was in my neighborhood. She had gathered a whole bunch of tiny bottles for us to play with.

GRABER: We started with the classic, with Angostura.

MONCADA: So, how I encourage people to taste and how I taste, and I’ll just wash my hands is, I’ll put a little bit here, like where your pointer finger and your thumb come together. And so I just do a little drop.

GRABER: Ooh. It’s not—you know, because bitters, you worry about it being too strong, but just getting that one drop. There’s the, the cinnamon is really strong.

MONCADA: Yeah. It’s like a lot of baking spice. I think of like Christmas spices. Clove, cinnamon, sometimes like star anise.

TWILLEY: The Angostura was very Christmas-y, which was surprising. Then we tried Peychaud’s, which was much more citrussy, and then we had some celery bitters, which we loved.


MONCADA: Also great in a Bloody Mary.

GRABER: We also tried things like hibiscus, and hopped grapefruit, and a rose bitters. And then Jessica took out something she wouldn’t tell us what it was, she said we just had to taste it. It’s made in Japan.

BOTH: Whoa!

GRABER: It’s soy sauce?

TWILLEY: Oh! It’s like a, it’s like ramen broth. Yeah.

MONCADA: It’s the umami bitter.

TWILLEY: It was literally called umami bitters. We asked Jessica what on earth she would do with umami bitters. And she said it would be perfect in a savory cocktail called a Red Snapper.

MONCADA: It’s almost like a pared down… really simple Bloody Mary. But if you were making a martini, you could do this instead of olive juice.

GRABER: Jessica told us there are no rules for what can be in bitters—any flavor that can be extracted into alcohol, there’s probably someone creating bitters with it. In fact, bitters don’t even have to have any bitter notes!

TWILLEY: There are also no rules on how to use them. In a cocktail, Adam told us, bitters can be useful as kind of the glue, holding things together.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: You’ve got, for example, a, a Manhattan. And you’ve got your, your coffee chocolate rich whiskey. And then you’ve got this kind of fruity herbal vermouth. The bitters can act like a bridge between those flavors, and then also accentuate those flavors as well. At the same time as complimenting it.

GRABER: But all of our bitters experts also told us something that surprised us: that we should be using our bitters in cooking.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: Add them to a pot of chili. Add ’em to some curries, add ’em some, some soups. Add ’em to salad dressings. Just add ’em to absolutely everything. They’re amazing.

HINES: I always tell people whipped cream is one of the best things to use bitters for. Because,let’s say you’re making tiramisu. You could throw, you know, whipped cream on top and use the flavored bitters. I actually make a coffee bitters that my sister has used in the tiramisu.

ELAN-ELMEGIRAB: Yes. We’ve, so we’ve got a, an Aphrodite Bitters. It’s chocolate coffee, chili ginger and black pepper and allspice. And they’re amazing in like, cookie dough and like anything like things like donuts and stuff as well. Ice cream recipe, rum and raisin ice cream, for example, is incredible with some bitters through as well.

TWILLEY: This all sounds very delicious and I am now just left wondering two things. One, where am I going to store all these new little tinctures I apparently need? And also, I hate to say it, but I don’t think we’ve really got to the bottom of the difference between all these botanical aromatic alcoholic things!

MONCADA: We talk about this a lot as we categorize things on our website. I think I would sometimes call everything aromatized wine, although there’s lots of people that would disagree with that.

GRABER: We’ve now spent a lot of time talking about it too. Part of the problem is that there’s no legal definition of any of it, really, except for kind of vermouth—so like amaro has to be bitter, but there’s no specific amount of bitter it has to be, and it can be wine or spirit based or both.

TWILLEY: And which of these bitter drinks you drink before or after your meal seems to be mostly a matter of tradition more so than science. Matteo told us that to his mind, the only real difference is that most aperitifs in Italy are pink or orange-ish. So I guess if you want to color code your pre- and post-dinner drinking, be his guest.

GRABER: But of course vermouths are aperitifs and they’re a tawny red. It makes no sense. Plus, to add even more confusion, you can have aperitifs and digestifs that aren’t bitter at all, they’re just sweet liqueurs.

MONCADA: Yeah, I’m, I’m even rethinking like, how I would categorize some of the things now.

TWILLEY: There are just three things I now believe: one, vermouth is an amaro and an aperitif, but it could also be a digestif. And two, bitters are concentrated whereas bitter drinks are not. And three, don’t drink your perfume.

GRABER: Perfume aside, Matteo wrote a book called the Big Book of Amaro, and he agrees the difference between any of these drinks is kind of fuzzy.

ZED: Same process, same, kind of botanics. The only difference is the way they are drinking.

TWILLEY: So good news: there’s no wrong answers with this entire confusing category of drinks—there’s just what you like. So sip your vermouth neat, have a digestif before dinner, drink your soda water with a dash of bitters, and generally enjoy!


TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the many listeners who wrote in to share their bitter beverage confusion. And to Samantha Sheehan and Tim Colla of Mommenpop, Theresa Levitt, the author of Elixir, and Becky Sue Epstein, the author of Strong Sweet and Dry.

GRABER: Thanks also to Andy Quady of Vya Vermouth, Matteo Zed, author of the big book of amaro, Erin Hines of Bitter Girl Bitters, Adam Elan-Elmegirab of the house of botanicals, and Jessica Moncada of Alkali Rye. We have links to everyone’s books, beverages, and websites on our website,

TWILLEY: Thanks as always to our producer, Claudia Geib, and to all of you who support the show. Join the gang and get in on the Gastro-hang at

GRABER: We’ll be back in the New Year—enjoy the rest of 2023, ‘til then!