Which really means, I love bitter.
But there is so much more than just bitter flavors to the gorgeous and magical elixir that is Amaro.
I am always searching for interesting and versatile ingredients for new cocktail recipes, and the more unusual and complex, the better. When I think of Amaro, I think of ancient magic. Ancient magical elixirs. I have heavily romanticized this spirit of course, but I think it’s well deserved. Before I get all crazy-crushylovey (editor please leave that in there, I really like it), let me just slow my roll.
Let's start at the beginning, with terms and definitions. Now, don't start yawning, I promise I'll make this section painless.
Amaro - means 'bitter' in Italian. Amari is plural for Amaro, (Americans tend to call all bitter liqueurs (potable bitters) and bitter tinctures (like Angostura) bitters Amari.)
Liqueur - A liqueur is an alcoholic beverage made from a distilled spirit that has been flavored with fruit, cream, herbs, spices, flowers, or nuts and bottled with added sugar or other sweeteners.
Aperitif/Aperitivo - aperitif (French), aperitivo (Italian) is an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite.
Digestif/Digestivo - French and Italian respectively, is an alcoholic beverage served after a meal, to aid in digestion.
Cordials - A cordial is any invigorating and stimulating preparation that is intended for medicinal purposes. This term is derived from an obsolete usage when various alcohol-based concoctions were formerly created that were believed to be beneficial to your health. The most accepted American definition of a cordial is 'a strong alcoholic drink with a sweet taste.’ Usually drunk after a meal.
Okay, so now we’ve gotten those pesky definitions out of the way, let's talk about my introduction to Amari and some of my favorite brands.
My love for Amari comes from my time in Europe many years ago. I have a distinct memory of being in Italy on a short cycling tour and being offered a Campari (an Italian Aperitivo) at the end of our day. I had heard of Campari previously but had never tried it, and it seemed to fit perfectly with my adopted philosophy to eat, drink and do whatever the locals did. So, I happily said, “Yes, please,” and I was served a glass of Campari on ice with a squirt of sparkling water and a lemon slice.
From my very first sip, I wasn't sure what I was tasting exactly, it was bitter and tart. The flavor was quite surprising. The bitter flavor wasn’t awful at all, that's the thing, it was flavorful with much more to it than bitterness. The Campari had a big finish with so many layers of flavors I couldn't identify. A few more sips and I was really interested. I was getting used to the bitterness, but I wasn't sold just yet. My host must have gleaned this from my hesitation for a second glass, so he said some magical words that changed my palate forever... "Let me make you an Americano.”
An Americano is a cocktail made of Campari, Soda Water, and Sweet Vermouth. Oh Lordy, I was hooked! What was supposed to be a wine centered trip quickly became a journey into drinking enough Campari to become an honorary Italian. Campari became my welcome bridge to undiscovered flavors, and once I began asking questions, an entirely new world opened up to me.
To simplify, moving forward, I will refer to everything I talk about as Amaro or Amari, as I’m sure you get it by now. These herbal and bitter liqueurs are so complex, and, I think so very crucial to cocktails making them a really amazing partner to whiskey. And, in my opinion, starting with cocktails is the best way to go, then you can try them neat or on ice and see what you think once you build up a palate for Amari.
And speaking of Campari, I do think Campari is a great starter Amaro, it's included in so many pre-prohibition cocktails and is really gentler (I think, who knows?) than some of the other popular Amari on the market. As with whiskey, in Amari there are many flavor varieties, there are so many different herbal notes, different bodies, bitterness levels, etc.
Let me tell you about a few of my favorite friends…
Campari: Italian, ABV ranges between 20.5 and 28.5% depending on the country it’s sold in and is made from an infusion of herbs (chinotto and cascarilla) and fruit. It is bright red in color. And speaking of the color, it was first developed in 1860 in Novara Italy and Campari was originally colored with carmine dye, which is derived from crushed cochineal insects. Yum. Lucky for us, they ceased using carmine in 2006. Oh Mama Mia, I just realized I was drinking this stuff way before 2006!
Aperol: Italian, ABV 11%. This Amaro is very similar to Campari, however, it’s much lower in ABV and the flavor is less bitter. Aperol is another great introduction to Amari.
Gran Classico Bitter: French, ABV 28% and follows the ‘Italian Bitter of Turin’ recipe dating from the 1860s. Gran Classico is made by soaking a mixture of 25 aromatic herbs and roots, including wormwood, gentian, bitter orange, rhubarb, and hyssop in an alcohol/water solution and then sweetened with sugar before bottling. It has a natural golden-amber color.
Cynar: Italian, ABV 16.5% and is made from 13 different herbs and plants, most predominantly artichoke (from which the drink derives its name). Cynar is dark in color and has a bittersweet flavor. This Amaro has a very different flavor than most, because of the artichoke notes. Don’t
be freaked out though, Cynar is incredible and I think absolutely essential to any home mixing bar.
Fernet: Italian, ABV 45%. You will probably find Fernet Branca most widely available in your local liquor stores. Fernet is made from a number of herbs and spices, often including myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, and cardamom, among others. Fernet is also made of grape distilled spirits as opposed to grain. Fernet has a dark rich color with an assertive bitter flavor. When using Fernet in cocktails, be very precise in your measurements, as Fernet can quickly overtake all other flavors in a cocktail. Much like a spicy high proof whiskey, Fernet is best enjoyed on its own, once you build up a palate for Amari.
Ramazzotti: Italian, ABV 30%, is made from a secret recipe of 33 herbs and roots - no artificial colors are used in Ramazzotti. It has a strong citrus aroma and has a very bitter-sweet balance with a dark brown color. As with Fernet, it’s a very assertive flavor and should be used carefully in cocktails.
Amaro Averna: Italian (Sicilian if I’m to be correct), this is a traditional drink on the island of Sicily. ABV 29% created in the tradition and style of Benedictine herbal elixirs, made from herbs, roots, and citrus rinds, where they are soaked in a liquor base before caramel is added. Taverna is sweet, thick in body, and has a more gentle bitterness. Another great starter bitter.
Montenegro: Italian (northern Italian) ABV 23% is named after Princess Elena of Montenegro. This Amaro is made using 40 different herbs, including orange peels and vanilla. The vanilla is very prominent in this Amaro’s flavor profile, along with dark red cherry flavors. I find Montenegro to be a very balanced Amaro.
So, those are just a few popular Amari that can be easily obtained, and I think, really having 2-3 of these on hand would be essential to your home bar giving you great mixing options.
As with trying new whiskey, for example, and collecting different brands, and learning the complex profiles in each brand, the same can be done with Amari. My hope is that you will grab a bottle or two of the ones that seem the most to your liking, and begin your journey into this gorgeous spirit.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite cocktail recipes to try using my favorite spirit whisk(e)y and a fantastic Amaro.
The Black Manhattan -
(A curated cocktail, originally created by Todd Smith)
2 ounces of your favorite whiskey (I used Uncle Nearest 1884 here)
1 ounce of Averna
2 dashes of aromatic bitters
1 dash of orange bitters
Stir all ingredients with ice in a mixing glass, strain into a well-chilled coupe or stemmed glass. Garnish with a lemon zest or a cocktail cherry!
And if you would like to know even more and taste these delicious concoctions, join us for our virtual Amari event; www.sailorguevara.com