The bitter liqueurs known as amari have become an increasingly popular weapon in a bartender's arsenal in the last few years, with more amaro-based drinks featuring prominently on cocktail menus. Where once you might only have found a Negroni, there's now a Boulevardier and an Old Pal.
Bitter cocktails can be uncharted territory. Suggest trading a savory Manhattan or an icy-smooth vodka martini for a drink that's lip-puckeringly bitter and some drinkers might wonder why you'd want to put such a thing in your mouth. Those people are the target audience for the new cocktail list at the H Street NE lounge and dumpling bar Copycat Co.
Copycat's new Bitters Menu features 18 classic and original drinks, all of which are ranked on a scale of bitterness. At one end is Hell and High Waters, which is just sweet vermouth with a dash of bitters. The other extreme is a shot of pure Angostura, which is like being smacked in the mouth with a fist of particularly pungent bark and herbs.
The scale itself, sketched on the large chalkboard behind the bar by owner Devin Gong, is a work of art. It's also an incredibly useful roadmap, no matter your level of experience with bitter cocktails. All ingredients are listed on the board, so it makes for an easy cheat sheet: If you love rye whiskey, you'll know right away which drinks contain your favorite spirit.
Anyone comfortable with the level of sharpness in a Campari-led Negroni can jump right in and order one of the piquant 3 Bitters cocktails. The #1 is strongest, with the menthol-led Fernet Branca, pungent artichoke-based Cynar and the well-known bitter-orange flavor of Campari, topped with a few dashes of orange bitters. This is a spiky drink, one which makes your tongue and soft palate tingle as the bitterness washes towards your throat. It's bracing, and definitely not for everyone.
Located at almost the same bitterness level is the Trinidad Sour, a rich mix of rye whiskey, orgeat – more commonly found in tiki drinks – and lemon, with an entire ounce of Angostura bitters as its base. If you've accidentally used too many dashes of Angostura when making an Old Fashioned at home, you know how potent a little bit of the ingredient can be. This is a downright lashing for your taste buds.
Those who'd prefer something more gentle can slide to the left, towards the 3 Bitters #2, which uses the sweeter, orangey Aperol and the lightly floral Montenegro, and puts most of the bitterness in the finish. Even lighter is the aptly named Siesta, which adds Campari to white tequila, grapefruit and lime.
Since this is Copycat, all of the cocktails are $11 – that's one of my favorite touches about the dark and cozy second-floor lounge – and the drinks are expertly made by veterans of Barmini and the Columbia Room. If you're hungry, just remember to order your potstickers and skewers before getting too deep into the menu: the stronger drinks do not play well with steamed dumplings.
Copycat Co., 1110 H St. NE. 202-241-1952. www.copycatcompany.com. Open at 5 p.m. daily.