U IS FOR UNDERBERG
By Matthew Latkiewicz
U is for Underberg and other non potable bitters like Angostura and Peycheuds. Underberg, if you’ve never had the pleasure, is a German digestif that comes in this delightful Alice in Wonderland drink me bottle.
Digestifs are essentially liqueurs (see letter L) intended for those times when you feel too full to keep drinking, but want to keep drinking. Unlike most liqueurs, digestifs tend to trade sweetness for raw bitterness and a punch of herbs to the face. There’s a whole category of Italian bitter liqueurs called amaro dedicated to this experience, including Fernet and Cynar, which is made from artichokes, the last thing you’d think to make a drink out of.
Unsurprisingly, these drinking bitters are an evolution from medieval herbalism, when monks found that drinking high grain alcohol that had been steeping with bitter plants like caraway, star anise, and fennel could offer physiological benefits and help the digestive process along.
While most of these drinking bitters fall in the 15 – 30% abv range, Underberg, the closely guarded recipe for which includes 43 different herbs, comes in at a whopping 44% or 88 proof, which means that herbal punch in the face really lands.
Technically, Underberg is a non-potable bitter, which technically means non-drinkable, but which in reality means it classified as food stuff rather than drink stuff and this means it can be sold pretty much anywhere. The grocery store in Turners Falls, MA where I used to live carried it. I’ve seen them in a CVS, wonderfully incongruous, this old world medicine, sold right next US weekly and a bunch of shit with flavor crystals in it.
Who needs flavor crystals when I am getting 44 different herbs and high proof alcohol to the face?
Other non-potable bitters include Angostura and Peychauds and every other thing we call bitters. I’ve heard bitters called the salt and pepper of the cocktail world. When a drink tastes a little dull to you, add some bitters. This is why at the fanciest of cocktail places, you’ll see multiple bitters, some made in house, all flavored by different herbs, spices, and fruits. Each cocktail calls for a different seasoning.
But when you are facing a fullness that requires rescuing from, it’s best to just down the seasoning itself. If you aren’t used to bitter liqueurs, drinking non potable bitters straight can make your face do funny things. It’s potent to say the least, but no more so than Fernet (which clocks in at 39% ABV), and once you’ve acquired the taste, oddly refreshing. I once did a shot of Angostura bitters with a bartender in San Francisco and though it looked tough, I realized I’d been drinking the same caliber of stuff for years as Underberg.
So: whether you take it straight from the bottle; in a glass like a gentleman; or in a beer as a hangover helper- remember friends: it’s important to take your bitters.
U is for Underberg and other non potable, but still totally potable bitters.