Julka Villa

The bitter taste of success

20 July, 2022

Italian bitters are enjoying something of a golden era as consumers’ tastes evolve.

Following a steady ascent in the past few years, Italian bitters is one of the hottest beverage categories when it comes to production, distribution and sales. Led by the omnipresent Campari Group, whose portfolio includes the namesake red bitter and Aperol, this once niche section is living a new youth, mostly thanks to the use that modern mixology is making of it.

“The research that bartenders dove into allowed us to understand how bitters can perfectly work as modifi ers in modern cocktails,” says Matteo Zed, bar manager at The Court in Rome and among major experts on the topic.

“They are largely playing the same role once held by liqueurs, thus lowering the sugar content, and granting concoctions with more depth.”

Zed, author of the cornerstone tome The Big Book of Amaro, points out how, ironically, this new wave of Italian products originated from the other side of the ocean: “We are bringing bitters and amari back where they belong, but the initial push to this rediscovery came from the United States. In the past 15 or 20 years, Italianism gained increasing appreciation overseas and the drinks category followed suit, buoyed by many important factors. Believe it or not, The Sopranos featured numerous scenes with the characters drinking bitters; and many comedians had monologues describing their vacations in Italy and their amaro experiences. That played a major role.”

Consumer behaviour is key to the recent bitters trend, as Campari Group head of marketing Julka Villa explains: “Slowly but steadily, drinkers’ palates are shift ing towards a more substantial preference for bitter taste. It’s a smallscale revolution to which Italian bitters are contributing, bringing back timeless classics such as Negroni or Americano. And it is boosted by the large and maybe unexpected diff usion, globally, of more complex fl avours and bitter foods, such as dark chocolate, coff ee, rocket salad and chicory. Consumers show an undoubtable interest for nonconventional savour and bitterness is the latest representation of this tendency.” 

Zed agrees on the importance that food has on supporting the bitters trend: “Restaurants, specifi cally, are grasping the moment. We are seeing a quite interesting number of new openings, with entire bar sections focusing on bitters and amari. It’s becoming more and more common to fi nd properly set bitters tasting fl ights and pairing menus: something you could only fi nd with wine or a few spirits in Italy up until very recently.”

The major credit, nevertheless, goes to bartenders, as Villa continues: “This whole trend was born thanks to the bar professionals who began experimenting with selected product categories, such as vermouth and amari. They used to be ignored outside of the Italian borders, almost like forgotten flavours, but they are establishing themselves now, and we believe the trend is going to last.”

ITALIAN FAVOURITES

Consumers desires’ right now point directly towards Italian-made bitters and the sales results are clear to see. Campari Group’s Italian bitters portfolio, which includes aperitivo brands like Campari and Aperol, and amari such as Averna, Braulio and Cynar, are consistently growing.

Villa explains: “Aside from 2020, which registered the impact of on-premise sales locations closures, we are witnessing a continuous rise: double digits for Aperol (up 33% in 2021; up 21% in 2019; up 28% in 2018), and the same for Campari last year (up 30% in 2021; up 4.6% in FY 2019; up 5.1% in 2018). 

It’s not a coincidence, Drinks International’s report on The World’s Best-Selling Classic Cocktails includes four of our owned drinks [Negroni in first place, Aperol Spritz sixth; Boulevardier 12th; Americano 16th]. Italian amari are in great shape too, considering how heavy the impact of lockdown has been on the category, since its main consumption time bracket is after dinner (up 21% in 2021 vs 2020; up 1.5% vs 2019).”

Away from the mega brands, Italy is experiencing a rebirth of bitters production, something that roots deeply into the country’s history and traditions. A substantial and increasing number of craft bitters brands are beginning to hit the shelves, initially in the main markets and eventually targeting exports – quite a delicate subject for local brands after almost doubling their foreign sales between 2014 and 2019 (from €50m to €90m, ISTAT data), before suffering heavily over the past couple of years from the Boeing-Airbus taxes dispute and, of course, the pandemic.

Craft production can be tricky, as Zed eagerly points out: “Bitters are a regional treasure. Wherever you go in Italy you find a different one that might easily be completely unheard of in a neighbouring region. Each of them is enriched by local, very geographically defined ingredients. For example, Amaro Eroico, from Calabria, has bergamot; and Bitter Borbone Pigmento Rosso, from Procida island, only has local herbs and spices. The only way to properly find a path towards extending the bitters and amaro horizon, is through education. It’s good we have so much variety, but it’s very important bartenders and producers research and study to better develop their projects and the opportunity to implement them at the bar.” 

Meanwhile, terroir and tradition are also essential in building the category, according to Villa: “We encourage this new bitter trend with our portfolio, and we do it with brands that are linked to century-old recipes, tightly intertwined with their original birthplace. The true key to the success of bitters and amari is to be found in the combination of quality, history and territory that Italy is drenched in.”

With the markets reopening after lockdowns and restrictions, and the average consumer becoming progressively more aware of highprofile products, it is to be asked: where is the booming Italian bitters category going? Which are the major challenges to keep expanding and spread the traditional sipping culture?

“The level of quality must stay high,” insists Zed. “Producers must stay true to the authenticity that bitters have within themselves: it’s OK to experiment, to look for peculiar botanicals, and create somewhat of innovative recipes. But there must be a limit, we can’t sacrifice quality and history, only for the sake of presenting something new. Tastes and flavours should always be priorities. The product should have a soul, and most importantly, it must taste bitter. As weird as it sounds, it’s easy to bump into so-called amari that contain a whopping high sugar content.”

Italian bitters are undeniably going through a golden era, and it will be interesting to understand how the category will face the next challenges. Quality, loyalty and planning: “It’s a trend,” Villa concludes, “and as for all of them, you’ll find players willing to ride it at any cost, pushing for new releases or acquiring new brands that answer to this particular moment’s request. However, a solid reputation is not built overnight. A brand needs passion, time, investment and a longterm vision."





Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.

Comment

Tess Posthumus

Staffing crisis could open opportunities

The pandemic has thrown many challenges at bar owners over the past couple of years and the ones that survived the various lockdowns and restrictions deserve a pat on the back. However, while revenues are returning and bars are beginning to recruit once more, we’ve come up against a whole new set of problems, one of which is a global starring crisis.

Instagram

Facebook