I’ve experienced the moment a handful of times. The return from a stint in Italy, confounded by Brooklyn’s leather-aproned bartenders shooting back Fernet Branca. Spanish hipsters joyously sipping vermouth in Catalonian bodegas, alongside sun-dried old men in driving caps. My German friend’s parents erupting in laughter after I bought a round of Underbergs for the table. Even the brewer friend with a Lager-filled fridge and the habit of ordering Miller High Life at the bar.
In other words: In multiple bars, across numerous countries and beverage categories, I’ve observed the cachet that comes with drinking like an old person.
Since when did drinking like our grandparents become cool? Some might chalk it up to passing irony, or nostalgia, but I think it goes deeper than that. It could be a rightful backlash to a beverage world that feels short on genuine novelty and long on gimmick. Too often, contemporary beer functions like an arms race—guided by extreme hop profiles, baroque adjuncts, and childhood breakfast sentimentality—while those with simpler tastes get razzed for liking “dad beers.” (Take chef David Chang, who has taken heat for openly admitting that his favorite beer is Bud Light. He connects his love for “crappy beer” to memories of his grandfather fetching a cold one after mowing the lawn.)
It could also be a side effect of the increasing instability and uncertainty of contemporary life, against which tokens of the past offer greater comfort. Or maybe it’s just the natural order of things, the metronome of trendiness ticking backwards.
Whatever the reason, the drinks many of our grandparents would have cherished (and which many of our parents reviled), drinks with a dusty heritage—the bitter liqueurs, the fragrant vermouths, the potent amari, the classical Lagers—are more prominently stocked and served now than in many decades prior. And they feel more like a new forefront than novel relics.
My grandfather is a Latvian immigrant. Like many of his peers, he enjoys drinking Riga Black Balsam, a bitter liqueur that dates back to the Middle Ages. It’s a powerful elixir, which makes it rather polarizing and not particularly commercial. Yet whenever I see it behind a bar or slipped into a cocktail, I order it. For me, it’s a connection to the past. Something that I want to see survive. Besides, it’s just, well … cool.
But if Riga Black Balsam is something I’ve cultivated an affection for, my father never drank it. “I feel like that’s true of almost anything. You’re gonna rebel against your immediate predecessor, and then strangely as you mature you’re gonna think that the things their predecessor did were cool,” says Sother Teague, beverage director at Amor y Amargo. “You know, I don’t dress like my dad dressed, but man, I found my grandfather’s old jacket, and I’ll wear that shit all the time.”
Amor y Amargo, a specialist bar in New York’s East Village, has developed into one of the city’s premier institutions for fans of bracing and bitter liqueurs. Old-school penny tiles and an intentional lack of conventional spirits contribute to its mystique; a conversational bottle of Jägermeister stares guests in the eyes.
While there is a psychological element to the cyclical nature of taste and trends, there is also a taste-bud-altering, biological component that has ultimately led to a spike in amaro consumption. “We come out of the womb with that biological imperative to seek out sweetness,” says Teague. “If kids ran the world we wouldn’t have broccoli—it’s just too bitter for them.”
The word “amaro” means bitter in Italian. One of the many survival skills that we are born with as humans is the natural instinct to avoid bitterness—often a warning sign of toxic substances—and to seek out sweetness. But if a person can get over the hump that prevents children from enjoying a cup of coffee or Brussels sprouts, they’re rewarded with a world of nuanced flavors. Take it from the recently departed Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a notorious fan of Campari and sodas.
“The American palate has changed,” says Lindsay Matteson, bar manager of The Walrus and The Carpenter in Seattle. “People are no longer eating creamed corn for dinner; they’re eating raw kale. Bitterness has been embraced. Nobody in the ’80s would’ve drunk bitter cocktails. The palate just wasn’t right for it.”
Matteson credits much of her amaro knowledge to her time spent working under Teague at Amor y Amargo. While many of her guests were also newly infatuated with the world of bitter Italian liqueurs, she occasionally encountered customers who had conflicting associations.
One night, as Matteson recalls, she was working the service well when a customer leaned over the bar and pointed to a bottle of Vecchio Amaro del Capo—Matteson’s favorite amaro. They asked in befuddlement why such an amazing cocktail bar was carrying this bottle. Matteson was baffled. The customer protested, claiming that it wasn’t a delicious amaro, but rather something that his grandparents drank back in Calabria after dinner.
Matteson turned towards the wall of old-school-looking bottles wrapped in intricate labels and replied, “All of these drinks are what Italian grandparents drink after dinner.”
Context matters, clearly. While the resurgence of amari provides a proverbial nod to past generations, the category has taken on a distinctly new allure in the eyes of contemporary connoisseurs. Time-lost Italian monks wouldn’t exactly have wondered how their buzz-inducing digestive tinctures would fare in hip Seattle cocktail bars, yet niche venues like these get much of the credit for resurrecting and championing many of these small producers.
Distilleria Jannamico, a family-owned cordial producer in Lanciano, a small town within central Italy’s Abruzzo region, has taken notice. The distillery makes a strong, sweet, and viscous amaro called Super Punch. The drink is almost exclusively enjoyed by those within Lanciano and in Pittsburgh. Yes, you read that right—Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“Initially it was just ethnic Italians that drank it,” says John D’Andrea, owner of D’Andrea Wine & Liquor Imports in Pittsburgh and the exclusive importer of Super Punch Amaro. “If you were from central Italy you would drink it, and then it really evolved.”
The D’Andrea family, originally from Lanciano, had a desire to maintain their homeland connection to Distilleria Jannamico. As the niche drink’s Pittsburgh-Italian clientele began to age, less Super Punch was being sold in Western Pennsylvania, but then something happened—the cocktail industry picked it up.
“It’s fun to use. You can use it anywhere that calls for sweetness,” says JJ Rosemeyer, bar manager of Smoke Sandwich Shop (formerly known as Smoke Barbeque Taqueria). “For an Old Fashioned, you can use Super Punch instead of simple syrup or demerara. It gives you that little citrus and can kind of go undetected—but if you like Super Punch, which I have some regulars that really like it, they’ll detect it and love it.”
D’Andrea Wine & Liquor Imports once even considered dropping Super Punch from its catalogue, but was met with outrage both within Pittsburgh’s Italian community and the local cocktail scene. Today 80% of the product never leaves Western Pennsylvania, where the neon-flame-engulfed bottle is a regular fixture in everything from total dives to fashionable cocktail bars.
“With Italians, you know they’ll hand it down to the next generation, but how long will that last?” asks D’Andrea. “Will Super Punch be continued down through Italian families? I don’t know. I think the cocktail scene has really resurrected it.”
Reimagination is often the catalyst for the revitalization of cultural artifacts. In a globalized world, many are quick to grasp onto the traditions of other people’s grandparents in their ongoing search for “authenticity,” but even if there’s a questionable fetishism underlying such renewed interest, it can still save waning regional traditions. Just look at Catalonia’s vermouth scene, which up until recently was on the edge of extinction.
“Vermouth had always had a certain cultural role in that there is la hora del vermut [‘vermouth hour’] as a part of this long day of eating and drinking rituals that Spaniards cling to pretty tightly,” says Matt Goulding, author of Grape, Olive, Pig: Deep Travels Through Spain’s Food Culture and co-founder of Roads & Kingdoms. “While the idea of it was always out there and still kind of lingered on, it was something that the Spanish youth had given up on for years, and years, and years.”
Vermouth has been passed down through a forest of family trees, and has been consumed in Spain for about 300 years (or longer, depending on who you ask). In the last half-century, however, vermouth came to feel out of sync with the modern world. Vermouth culture was relegated to the cheap pours enjoyed by old-timers in neighborhood bodegas—that is, until bartenders and young drinkers got curious about it.
Vermouth producers began updating their branding and design, while new vermuterias began to spring up. Morro Fi is one such 21st-century temple of vermouth culture in Barcelona, which mixes youthful savviness with an old-fashioned feel. A midday visit will reward you with a glass of housemade sweet vermouth served on the rocks, neat, or with a spritz of soda water, and typically garnished with an orange peel and anchovy-stuffed olive. For food accompaniment, it’s the traditional Spanish salty snacks—tinned fish, or conservas, and potato chips.
Beyond providing a new space for the youth of Barcelona to spend a Sunday afternoon, this subtle reimagination has drawn attention to other institutions of the past.
“In a city like Barcelona there are still a number of neighborhoods that have had the same bodegas around for generations, and those bodegas are still run by old-timers with old-time clientele that happens to now be rubbing shoulders with people like myself,” explains Goulding. “These are the places that still charge €1.80 for a glass of vermouth, and you may or may not get an ice cube even if you ask nicely. But then of course you have the new places that have sprung up in the last 10 to 15 years, like Morro Fi, that have really fed the flames early on and helped create the escape velocity to really generate a cultural movement.”
The revival of handcrafted, artisanal goods and comestibles isn’t just about the products themselves—it’s also about restoring their associated traditions. With vermouth’s rebirth, there is an interest in pushing the needle forward, and in producing more nuanced and refined products. But there is also a desire to enjoy the no-frills, middle-of-the-day drinking that generations of the past had the pleasure to indulge in.
“Who’s to say if this is gonna be an emblematic part of Spanish culture for decades to come?” muses Goulding. “But all signs point to ‘yes’ from where I’m sitting and sipping right now.”
The plenitude of today’s drinks world—the ability to move from novel release to novel release without ever buying the same beer twice—is a recent phenomenon. It’s in direct contrast to prior decades: Many Americans who started drinking in the 1970s and ’80s developed a taste for their “one drink,” whether that be Miller Lite or a Cosmopolitan.
“There are just so many more options now, and these producers now have a market,” says Matteson. “You go to a steakhouse in the ’70s or ’80s and they’ve got a couple wines by the glass, and it’s always chardonnay, pinot grigio, probably a cab, and a merlot by the glass. If you lived in a world where there were only four or five options, of course you have your one.”
Today, most of us have far more than one—and we also have the desire to plumb traditions that arose prior to the mass industrialization of food and beverage, as well as the option of sampling niche products made by small producers. What our grandparents drank, in other words.
How long this access, and this interest, lasts remains to be seen. Either way, it’s safe to assume that the next generation, our children, will intentionally rebel—and that they may take notes from our own parents instead. We could soon become relics with cultural keys to our own sought-after, fading past. Before the dust settles, we may even be presented with the opportunity to clink glasses and reignite traditions with an emerging youth ourselves. Rather than a cycle, the journey might be more linear, like a bell curve: As middle-aged adults peak, ascending youth and descending elders temporarily meet at corresponding heights, passing along proverbial torches, stories of the past, and yes, many rounds of drinks.
In other words, don’t be surprised if the youth of today grow up fetishizing white tablecloths and dirty martinis—while their children toss that to the curb for the Hazy IPAs and White Claws of the future.