Frozen in time

Steeped in history, the bitters category is also steeped in confusion for many consumers – but history and authenticity are on its side. Angel Brown reports

THE CATEGORY OF HERBAL BITTERS is a sort of time capsule – a cache of history often imbued with religion and mythology. The recipes of these elixirs have generally been passed down through the generations and are still closely-guarded family or monastic secrets. With such heritage and authenticity, this is a category that can connect with consumers.

The Megatrend Analysis from market research provider Euromonitor International looks at how consumers are gravitating towards ‘authenticity’: “As consumers become more price conscious and mistrust brands and products more, there is a movement toward more ‘authentic’ products, complete with back-stories and workers/makers with faces, as well as to homegrown, homemade and other ‘root’ initiatives founded in tradition, trust, and nostalgia.

“There are also anti-big brand dynamics within this trend (eg anti-large-scale agriculture). Consumers are increasingly demanding local and personalised options that extend beyond the typical big brand offerings.”

History is a valuable asset in today’s consumer world. Look no further than the vintage or thrift trend in the US, which has been championed by millennials. These trends do not happen in isolation – the same consumer who buys vintage furniture and clothing is also likely to seek out alcohol brands with heritage. It is more probable that consumers will buy into something when nostalgia is used as an emotional hook. As the digital age becomes more impersonal, the modern consumer searches for individuality and optimism, looking to the past is a solid foundation for inspiration.

Having history is one thing, but presenting it in a way that connects to modern consumers is another. Kevin Shaw, founder and chief executive of branding experts Stranger & Stranger, deals with design requests from historic brands on a regular basis. “It’s great if a brand comes with some heritage, it makes our lives a lot easier, but quite often the task is more about actually uncovering the heritage.

“A lot of real heritage was painted over in the modernist latter part of the 20th century, so you end up going right back in order to go forward again in a more authentic direction. The trick is to keep digging until you discover something that feels real, something rooted in truth and history, and ideally unique.

“The founders of a brand, or the ones who made it what it is today, had the original vision and pioneering spirit and we think they should have our respect. We’re old-fashioned that way. We started doing this a long time ago but the heritage look became trendy in the past few years and now there’s a lot of ‘fake old’ out there – sometimes it even fools me. You have to look past all the filigree until you discover something like ‘EST 2002’.

“The trick really is to make the heritage brand current and relevant, not only with subtle updates but also modern twists on the old assets. You only have to look at great heritage brands such as Levi’s to see how nods to the past can be incorporated into contemporary communications.”


The bitters category grew 1.5% to 41m 9-litre cases in 2017, according to Euromonitor International, so there are reasons to be optimistic. But one challenge has always remained key to herbal bitters – how to explain what the category is. Historically these drinks contain aromatic herbs, bark, roots and/or fruit and are categorised variously as bitters, herbal bitters, liqueurs (especially by many producers) and sometimes as aperitifs and digestifs, depending on their origin and consumption culture. Throw in cocktail bitters and you have a recipe for consumer confusion.

Philippe Jouhaud, marketing director for Bénédictine, believes the way forward is to go back to basics: “The challenge lies with liqueurs that might have lost some relevance with consumers since a lot of them were traditionally drunk after dinner and there is today a lower demand for after-dinner drinks. Another challenge is probably the fact that a lot of consumers may not understand the taste profile. Liqueurs are complex so it is difficult to provide a simple product description.”


The key message for many liqueur producers is to leverage the essence of their brands, their history. Rudi Carraro, UK brand ambassador for Amaro Montenegro, says: “You really need to understand where you’re coming from to know where you’re going.”

So what do herbal bitters have to work with? Well, take Strega, reated in 1860 by Giuseppe Alberti in Benevento, Italy. He moved to the city when his father, a spice merchant, was imprisoned after a feud with a rival family. Alberti was keen to make use of the area’s railway links and began transporting local wines to France.

He started to make money, enough even to buy a small selection of bars in the area. When his father was released, they decided to make a herbal liqueur. The knowledge of spices Alberti’s father possessed helped with the ingredients.

Benevento was famous for its witches, so ‘Strega’ – ‘witch’ in Italian – was a fitting name for the liqueur. The real hook to the story is the unlikely yarn that, while Alberti and his father were searching for herbs, they came across a witch trapped under a collapsed tree branch. They saved the witch and were rewarded with a ‘secret’ recipe for their liqueur.

They were sworn to secrecy and vowed not to reveal to anyone the recipe, other than upon their death when they could impart it to family members, so the recipe would forever live on. Supposedly, to this day only two people know the recipe and only they are allowed to prepare the herbs for Strega.

Moving on to Bénédictine, Jouhaud tells DI about the rich history behind the brand: “We have an incredible heritage. The original recipe dates was created in 1510 by Benedictine monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli. It was then rediscovered by Alexandre Le Grand in 1863 when he built a distillery in a unique place that remains today, the Palais Bénédictine in Fécamp, Normandy.”

“The Palais Bénédictine is an incredible asset where our guests discover in detail the process for making Bénédictine.

“They get to know some of the 27 herbs that are used, and can see and smell the distillation of the ingredients in the same stills that have been used since the end of the 14th century.

“All visitors, especially bartenders who are welcomed on a regular basis, can follow every step of the process and can see all the ‘savoir-faire’ that is required to create Bénédictine.

“They see the complexity of the process, the fact that not much in it has changed since 1863 and all the craft that is require to keep the quality of the product at its highest.”

He adds: “Being able to see the authenticity of the process and all the history behind the brand, in a unique and beautiful place, are certainly things that are appealing to consumers and help us leverage our heritage.The team at the Palais works hard to communicate this through digital media.”

Then there is Chartreuse, the famous green brand which leverages its monastic past in its brand story. Jenny Griffiths, UK brand ambassador, says: “It is one of the world’s oldest liqueurs, created from different flowers, plants, herbs and spices.

“The recipe for the ‘elixir of life’ was gifted to the order of monks known as the Carthusians in 1605 by Maréchal d’Estrées on a manuscript.

“The Carthusian order created its interpretation of this ‘elixir’ in 1737 thanks to Brother Gérome Maubec, and created Chartreuse in 1764.

“Today only two monks know the recipe and are solely responsible for its production at the distillery in the foothill of the Chartreuse mountains.

“Chartreuse and the Carthusians have a symbiotic relationship – one could not exist without the other, especially in a post-industrial modern era.”

These are the kind of stories that some modern brands would kill for.


But often these are small brands without huge consumer marketing budgets. For many it’s a case of convince the bartender, convince the consumer. And what are bartenders? Millennials who prize heritage and authenticity.

Daniele Taccone, export manager for Strega, says: “We are focusing the attention to explain more about the quality of the ingredients we use, the production process and the importance of the details to produce a unique or particular product.

“One of the keys is the versatility of the herbal liqueurs and something that we promote. We feel it is one of the most appreciated elements in the mixability for the bartender.”

Chartreuse is keen to solidify its friendships among those in the industry who show a love and genuine passion for the liquid.

Griffiths says: “We want to do this by selecting a small group of people across the UK (beginning with London for the first year) who are singing the praises of our brand and truly being creative with Chartreuse in their venues – the Friends of Chartreuse.

“Chartreuse is a small company, but thanks to its long history has gained a cult status among bartenders. Those who are fans of the brand are extremely passionate, and we would like to thank these individuals for their ongoing support.

“By creating the Friends of Chartreuse we are thanking people on a more personable level, which I believe is more impactful than, say, a national competition with a cash prize at the end. It also gives us a great opportunity to have an open discussion about Chartreuse – its perception within the industry, its history and, importantly, where the brand is going in the future.”

Bartender-led programmes could make all the difference when it comes to consumers understanding and prizing the heritage herbal bitters possess.

Michael Eichel, corporate communications director of Mast-Jägermeister, says: “We notice that consumers also like experimenting with spirits within cocktails and long drinks.

“Therefore we use our global key programme Hubertus Circle, a bartender loyalty programme currently working in 17 markets, in order to highlight the versatility and premium characteristics of the brand.

“The Hubertus Circle is an international network of bartenders, initiated by Jägermeister.

“Since its foundation in 2011, it has grown into a strong community. Members from all over the world support each other, work together, and learn from one another.

“The Hubertus Circle currently has active communities in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, the US, the Netherlands, Spain, UK, France, Russia, Australia and Germany.”

For now it seems bartenders are really the key to unlocking the full potential this historic category has to offer.