Big Hitter Bitters

The large-brand, big volume bitters are enjoying the fallout of the cocktail boom. Hamish Smith reports on their fortunes.


BITTERS, IN ITS BIG, 70cl form, is big business. Here we come across some genuinely large-volume players of the drinks world. As a market, it is chugging along – nothing spectacular, but growth is growth. As consumers in developed markets increasingly fall behind products that are less focused on sweet flavours, bitters are cashing in.

According to Euromonitor International (all figures) the five years from 2010-2014 saw growth of 15%, from 35m 9-litre cases to 39m cases. From 2013 to 2014, there was a respectable rise of 4%. The top markets in 2014 were Germany, where 9.3m cases of bitters were consumed, Argentina (6.9m), Italy (3.5m), Nigeria (2.2m), US (2m), France (2m), Poland (1.9m), Czech Republic (1.7m), Brazil (1.5m) and the UK (0.8m).

This is a category made up of players mainly from Europe, but the spread of bitters consumption takes us through five continents, with perhaps only Asia the notable omission.

But that’s 2014 data so let’s take a sneak peak at the big players’ most recent performances, with data gathered for June’s release of The Millionaires’ Club 2016, our annual list of the world’s largest spirits and liqueurs. The big four brands of bitters are Jägermeister, Fernet Branca, Campari and Aperol and here’s what they’ve been up to of late.

Mast-Jägermeister’s Jägermeister is a true German giant, selling 6.9m nine-litre cases in 2015, an increase of 1.4%. It managed to offset a decline of 5.6% in the US market (it’s hit competition from the spiced spirit drink market) with significant growth in the likes of Spain where the brand exceeded 3m bottles (approximately 230,000 cases) for the first time. Spain has consequently become the brand’s fourth largest market behind the US, Germany – which remained stable despite a price increase – and the UK. The bitters company told Drinks International Czech Republic, France and Hungry saw sales rise significantly too.

Mast-Jägermeister will be thankful it managed to arrest the decline of 2014 – which saw a 6% drop – in what has been otherwise an uninterrupted growth story over the past decade and more. The brand continues to push its frozen shot serve to 18 to 28-year-olds, but anecdotally we can say the Jägerbomb (which has never been pushed by Mast-Jägermeister) continues to detonate, even if it is more downmarket than it used to be and is often found in imitated form.

Fratelli Branca Distillerie’s Fernet Branca isn’t far behind its German bitters competitor, with sales at an impressive 5.27m cases in 2015, 2.3% up on the previous year. The brand continues to be a runaway success in Argentina (so much so it’s made there) and is most often found in the form of the Fernandito – Fernet and cola. Latin America is generally strong and elsewhere growth regions include the US, northern Europe, the UK, Germany and Australia. Which seems to tally with the markets in which bartending culture is at its most pronounced.

Bartenders may not be shooting the stuff quite so compulsively as a couple of years ago but the brand is increasingly finding its way into cocktails and this year was named a Top Trending Brand in the World’s 50 Best Bars Annual Report 2016.

In Germany, bitters’ HQ, Tina Ingwersen-Matthiesen, a board and family member of Borco, tells us why Fernet-Branca does good business. “While herbal spirits were in previous years usually only consumed as a digestif and always in connection with food, they are nowadays more and more uncoupled from the food traditions,” she says.

“As a part of the revival of classic cocktails and traditional bartending bitters becoming increasingly important and are actively used in long drinks or cocktails. Traditional and authentic brands such as Fernet-Branca are also increasingly perceived as an attractive alternative to the general increase in sugar content in consumer products.”


Campari, owned by Gruppo Campari, is the third to put on steady, if unspectacular growth, finishing the year 1.6% up at 3.2m cases. Campari declined in Brazil but is increasingly appealing to the bitter tastes of Argentinians with a 74% year-on-year rise in sales. Its stablemate Aperol, building on 2014’s 6% increase, grew 9.2% in 2015 to 2.95m cases. The brand is still benefiting from the popularity of the Aperol Spritz, which was polled as the 19th best selling classic cocktail in The World’s 50 Best Bars Annual Report 2016 and has much wider mainstream appeal.

Both brand performances were enhanced by double-digit growth in the US last year, but perhaps most pleasing for the Italian group would be the healthy growth domestically for its bitters brands. Italy makes up a quarter of the group’s sales so its bitters brands have symbolic importance – in Italy Campari was up 2.9% and Aperol 4.8%.

As is the case with Angostura (as referenced in the feature on cocktail bitters, page 23) Campari is a brand the on-trade cannot do without. It is the essential ingredient of the Negroni, which was polled as the second best-selling classic in The World’s 50 Best Bars, with more than two-thirds of responders saying it was a top-10 selling classic in their bar. As an easy three-ingredient serve, the cocktail looks to be making its way more and more into the mainstream. This can only be good news for Campari, which benefits too from the Negroni-without-gin serve, the Americano (39 in the classic cocktails poll). Classics aside, Campari offers a bitter component to all manner of cocktails and seems to be maintaining relevance in the traditional aperitif market too.

The Negroni’s renaissance hasn’t gone unnoticed, as brands such as Bitter Bianco enter the fray. “The idea of this product is to be able to create first a White Negroni and to give an opportunity to the bartenders who want to have the taste of the Campari but don’t want to have the red colour,” says Matteo Luxardo, export director of Luxardo.

“White Negroni is getting more and more popular and we are the first that have a product made for this cocktail. We are also launching the White Spritz.”

Elsewhere in bitters, Underberg AG says Underberg, a herbal digestif, has been performing well (though it hasn’t supplied data) with growth in Nordic markets, Italy and the US. Development in the home markets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland is stable. “Another very important market is travel retail,” says managing director Karin Trimmel. “The convenience offered by the portion 20cl bottle makes the brand the perfect travel choice, and offers incremental business to our partners in this channel.”

Underberg’s Brazilian brother Brasilberg is the market leader in its home market, according to Underberg AG, and has now rolled out to its first European markets with “a very positive response especially from bar staff”. The group’s Austrian market leader, Gurktaler, has also seen a positive development. While being stable in its home market the brand has started to shift well in Germany too.

Drunk by southern Europeans at aperitif hour, consumed by Argentinians with cola, imbibed by Germans, Swiss and Austrians in the Alps, shot by bar revellers or found in cocktails, bitters brands seem to have a multitude of consumption occasions and a multitude of consumers.

It’s no surprise, then, that this category remains big business.