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Join The Ancient And Bitter Cult Of Underberg

By Melissa McEwen in Food on Mar 5, 2015 5:00PM

The Influence by Tyler Fry with superhero Underberg

Underberg comes in diminutive green-capped bottles wrapped in a rustic brown paper. If you are feeling a bit whimsical, you can fold the paper into a cape or arms or whatever strikes your fancy to make the bottle become a superhero or wear a cute little suit. As long as you don’t throw away the cap.

A green booklet adorned by fairies that comes in most packs informs you that you can trade the caps for a tiny truck or china plates festooned with some of the herbs the little potion contains.

Some of them, since most of them are a secret, carefully guarded within the family that has crafted the drink for over a century. A few are patently obvious: licorice, wormwood and camomile dominate, but beyond that it’s fuzzier. The label claims the plants come from 43 different countries, but doesn’t tell you how many there are. They taste like the woodland greens that an ancient Germanic medicine woman would gather.

And indeed the company markets its major use as an herbal medicine, to be taken after a rich meal to settle the stomach. Legally it is a non-potable bitter, which have such strong flavors that they are generally added to drinks rather than sipped on their own like amaro.

For many years Chicagoans who knew of it encountered it as a remedy at Merz Apothecary. That’s where Violet Hour bartender Tyler Fry discovered it. He’d seen it before, but never tasted it until then.

Soon enough he found himself a member of the Underberg cult, faithfully collecting bottle caps and wearing the belt that soon became the Chicago sect’s trademark, especially when worn cross-body like a bandolier.

But Fry’s usage of Underberg differs from the typical suggestion. He uses it in cocktails, and he uses entire bottles in single cocktails. It’s in the vein of the cult cocktail book Beta Cocktails (previously titled The Rogue Cocktail Book), rule-breaking recipes from bartenders across the country that featured some drinks with massive amounts of Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, which are non-potable bitters like Underberg.

It’s actually the revival of a long tradition (the 1939 The Gentleman’s Companion contains a recipe with Angostura as the “base spirit”), but while Underberg has a popular following in Chicago, Fry and other bartenders are just beginning to use the German bitters in this way.

Featuring Underberg Bitters as the base in a cocktail, rather than as a modifier, allows you to highlight the beautiful herbal profile of the bitters, just as an Old Fashioned highlights its base whiskey. In his Underberg cocktails, the whiskey becomes the modifier. High proof rye provides backbone, proof and spice to the cocktail while focusing on the nuanced floral elements in the bitters. He says “It makes you think of meadows rather than a spice cabinet” compared to other bitters.

These days the trendiest bitters tend to be Italian. But there is a world of Germanic bitters (Kräuterlikör) that Underberg is part of that tends to be very anise-dominant. “Imagine if Jagermeister didn’t suck” is how Fry describes Underberg.

The licorice undertones can make it challenging to balance. Though it has no added sugar, licorice reads as sweet in the human palate.

Jeff Donahue and Tyler Fry

When Fry noticed that Jeff Donahue of Sportman’s Club was also a proud owner of the Underberg belt, the two collaborated on a takeover event to launch Underberg’s cocktail debut. The cocktails were all very classic and minimal: an Underberg Old Fashioned, Underberg Sour, etc. Since that time, fancier Underberg cocktails have appeared on the menu at the Violet Hour, Sportsman’s Club and other Chicago bars.

As enthusiasm for the bitters continues to grow among bartenders in Chicago, more Underberg events are in the works. On Monday March 30, the Violet Hour is hosting a new Underberg Night at the bar co-hosted by the new distributor Windy City Distributing. Open to the public from 6 p.m. to close, expect $10 Underberg drinks, new cocktail debuts and shots that Fry hints may or may not involve Jell-O.

Here is a sampling of some of the Violet Hour’s Underberg concoctions, old and new:

Kräuter Sauer (photo by Tyler Fry)

Kräuter Sauer (Tyler Fry)

1 btl Underberg Bitters
2.0 oz Dolin Blanc Vermouth
.75 oz Lemon Juice
.75 oz Simple Syrup

Shake. Strain. Serve up in a coupe with sidecar.
Garnish with a lemon peel, expressed over the cocktail and discarded.
Serve with the empty Underberg bottle inverted in the sidecar.

Corrections (photo by Tyler Fry)

Corrections (Toby Maloney)

1 btl Underberg Bitters
1.0 oz Unicum
1.0 oz Cynar
.50 oz Fernet Branca

Stir. Strain. Serve over a large rock.
Garnish with a lemon peel, expressed and inserted.

The Influence (Tyler Fry)

1 btl Underberg Bitters
1.0 oz Wild Turkey 101 Rye
+.125 oz Demerara Syrup
9 drops Angostura Bitters
9 drops Orange Bitters

Stir. Strain. Serve over a large rock.
Garnish with an orange peel, expressed and inserted.