Josh Fjelstad was frequenting a crop of Brooklyn hipster dives around 2014, when he started noticing that many of them sported the same, curious piece of decor on the back bar: a buckskin bullet belt lined with tiny, green-capped bottles. Said bottles turned out to be Underberg, the intriguing, bitter digestif born in Germany in 1846. (Said “belt” was in fact called a bandolier, as several Underberg loyalists would later inform me.)
“Some night I was deployed to get shots, and I said, ‘How about five of those Underbergs?’” Fjelstad recalls. “We put them back and were delighted. I’ve never been a Jägermeister person but the taste is like elevated Jäger — more bitter, less sweet. And so it was kind of a hit.”
Shortly thereafter, Fjelstad and some friends commenced a game of Dungeons & Dragons that endures to this day, adopting Underberg as their shot of choice to toast each successful completion of a quest. When fellow DnD adventurer and ‘Berg fan Jim Babb tipped off Fjelstad to Underberg’s rewards program — featuring all manner of branded collectibles, from trucks to dinnerware and bike bags — the group embarked on a different kind of side quest: amassing enough caps for a shared reward. A year and 336 caps later, Fjelstad traded them in for a mini Underberg truck whose vanity plate is inscribed with the group’s name, “The Cold Ones.”
Upon reflection, Fjelstad, whose background is in marketing and advertising, wonders how Underberg infiltrated his various interests simultaneously, like some genius guerilla marketing ploy. “Whatever led them to somehow targeting this distinct type of bar — twee and hipster but still kind of rugged — in a distinct area of Brooklyn is savvy and I recognize that,” he says.
Of course, this bitter digestif and its paper-wrapped bottle almost inherently rouses fascination: Botanicals from 43 countries flavor the contents of each 20-milliliter bottle in a recipe only known by five people. Smacking of Christmasy herbs and anise, Underberg self-describes as a medicinal digestive aid rather than booze. Indeed, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration labels it a food product in a similar category to vanilla extract, allowing it to be stocked at retailers that can’t sell alcohol.
Once I descended the rabbit hole of the cult of Underberg — which takes the forms of specified unwrapping and supping, obsessive rewards collecting, and the occasional tattoo, across scant, mostly large markets including San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Chicago — I didn’t unearth much in the way of conspiracies (well, save for one). Rather I found a community of bitters lovers and collectors who delight in the ritual of unwrapping and raising this strange little brew in unison.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to ferret for parallels. Have Underberg marketers somehow infiltrated the DnD subculture, for instance? Fjelstad hasn’t seen evidence. But some 800 miles away in Chicago, beverage consultant Seth Feldman indulges my scheming.
“I’ve heard of Dungeon Masters bringing it to games to use as the Potion of Healing, so maybe there’s something there,” he says. “But Underberg tends to overlap in areas and interests and communities that are independent of each other — like it’s got this culty feel.”
Underberg’s (One-Man) Invasion of Chicago
Feldman, who used to sell Underberg when he worked for specialty beverage importer Artisanal Imports, can vouch for one conspiracy: that a single ‘Berg evangelist named Adam Schulte is responsible for the bitter shot’s invasion of Chicago’s craft beer and cocktail scene in the mid-2010s.
Schulte, who sports an Underberg tattoo on his right bicep, was working for Artisanal in 2010 when he fell in love with Underberg as a shot and a stomach settler. At the time, he’d see it mostly in old-school German restaurants and bars like Laschet’s Inn and the Chicago Brauhaus. (Across much of Germany to this day, Underberg’s popularity is mostly limited to older generations.)
“Craft beer at the time was growing fast in Chicago. There was a shot culture among industry people — you know, the Malort thing,” Schulte says. “And I was like, ‘Underberg should be in every craft beer and cocktail bar in the city.’”
He convinced Underberg’s national sales director at the time to switch distributors to leading craft outfit Chicago Beverage Systems. Before long, Artisanal was doling out bottles and a choice reward or two to every bar account. Schulte indoctrinated bartenders into inane games like Flippyberg (just what it sounds like) and the various ways to unwrap bottles. His favorite — depicted in his tattoo — is the Superman, in which drinkers remove the cap, tear open the seam, and fold the paper back to look like a cape. He created a Facebook group for Underberg fanatics called the “Gold Cup Club,” rewarding each inductee with an engraved 18-carat-gold chalice.
Credit: Adega do Pimenta
Underberg’s popularity promptly shot up. Within that first year, Schulte went from selling 30 to 100 cases per month. He estimates sales increased by 300 percent by year two of relaunch before eventually evening out at 120 monthly cases.
European-style brewery Dovetail Brewing Co. in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood quickly became Underberg’s No. 1 account in the state by around 2018, a title it holds to this day. “I feel pretty strongly that the staff was consuming maybe half of what we sold,” laughs Shana Solarte, who tended bar at Dovetail from 2016 to 2021. “We were crazy on that stuff.”
They’d collectively down an Underberg at the end of each shift or after a particularly harrowing rush — an “end-of-chapter” (or quest, if you will) type of thing, she says. They dumped ‘Berg into root beer (surprisingly palatable) and poured it over whipped cream (“absolutely foul”). Co-founder Bill Wesselink even devised a nonverbal cue when he deemed it time for a round of ‘Bergs — repeatedly drawing a counter-clockwise circle on the bar with his index finger.
Within a year, Dovetail amassed enough caps to trade in for a truck and personalized chalice for everyone on staff. “We used them religiously for three days, and realized it was just an obstacle to Underberg,” Solarte says. “If you’re going to wait eight seconds to pour it out [because of the bottle’s pouring capsule], you might as well dump it straight in your face.”
The bar has since acquired almost everything in the catalog. (“So that’s why I always have to ask the bartenders for the caps when I order a round,” Fjelstad says.) For a long time, Solarte was sure Underberg was just a Dovetail thing. “It’s like a secret handshake,” she says. “If I go into a bar and see a bandolier full of Underbergs on the wall, I’m like, this place knows what’s up.”
A Cult of Bitterness … and Camaraderie
The rewards have indeed proven a savvy form of marketing — a hard won belt or truck, much like a tattoo, nods to the initiated and sparks curiosity among outsiders. Longtime New York bartender and author Sother Teague, who starts every morning by downing a bottle of Underberg, isn’t surprised that the brand doesn’t loudly tout the program beyond tucking little cards into every box. It is booze, after all.
“Human beings love to collect shit,” he adds simply. “All you have to do is give them an action — which in this case is just enjoying the ‘Berg.”
Should you find yourself bellied up at Teague’s bitters-dedicated bar Amor y Amargo in the East Village, consider challenging him to an Underberg shot race. His preferred approach is to grab the bottle in his teeth and throw his head back. During competition, he deploys a technique he calls “kissing the bottle” in which he puffs on it like a cigar. “I’ve never lost,” he says slyly.
Teague loves nothing more than indoctrinating drinkers into the cult of bitterness, which in many ways represents an extension of the cult of bar industry folk. He almost always steers first timers at the bar away from Underberg in favor of gentler entry points to the category.
“Bitters in general are acquired tastes,” he says. “Bitter is considered poison by the body and rejected at first. Generally, we have to taste bitter throughout our lives to become accustomed. Bartenders more than most are tasting something bitter (alcohol) a lot.”
Credit: Underberg America
The appeal among barfolk may also be explained by their oft-innate urge to flex via progressively weirder booze. Mike Elwood, former bartender at bygone Onderdonk in Queens, recalls a fellow industry pro handing him a bottle for the first time as a “tip on top of the tip” one night.
“He said, ‘It’s not for everyone, but I imagine you’ll like it if you’re into weird liqueurs.’ He’s right; I am into weird booze, and the taste of Underberg agreed with me,” Elwood says.
Beyond the booze and even the collecting — Elwood particularly likes those long-stemmed cordial glasses — he enjoyed the simple ritual of tearing through the paper and twisting off the top before shooting it straight. (He doesn’t drink anymore.)
“It hits different than taking a regular shot of whiskey, you know?” he says. “I think the fact that it comes in an attractive little bottle makes Underberg feel as if it’s somehow more special or noteworthy or something.”
Many of The Cold Ones have since scattered across the U.S., meaning they only gather quarterly for DnD — usually at Fjelstad’s apartment, as he’s the keeper of the truck and the ‘Bergs. And, sure, they’re eyeing the trailer hitch as their next reward. But more than anything they look forward to that moment when they unwrap those teensy bottles, twist the paper into a handle like a teacup — which is the way they like to drink it — and toast their extant game and continued friendship.
“I think Underberg is basically a way of enhancing the social experience,” says Fjelstad. “The camaraderie of Underberg feels genuine, starting with this funny thing of twisting the wrapper. I understand that maybe I got ‘got’ by the brand. But I also think the end result is an innocent thing of having a shared experience.”
The article Beyond Bitter: Unpacking the Cult Appeal of Underberg appeared first on VinePair.