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Taste Bitter, Know Sweet: Why I Love Amaro

“The stuff is wretched. Not even the Italians are willing to drink it. It’s just cheap swill that they try to pawn off on gullible Americans.”

The speaker, a British gentleman, was at my fully-sat bar loudly proclaiming his convictions about amaro just after I had spent the better part of 5 minutes trying to convince a wary guest of its virtues. Although I have yet to meet any Italians who have been able to confirm this man’s account, his words did capture a negative sentiment held both by drinkers at large and by many bartenders: That amaro is difficult to work with, difficult to drink and difficult to love. But this could not be farther from the truth.

Perhaps only gin is more maligned by the modern drinker than is amaro. Which is fitting, because the two do have some similarities which, once discovered, are difficult to ignore and easy to appreciate. But I will talk more about that later.

What is amaro? Amaro (or, the plural amari) Italian for “bitter,” is a concentrated infusion of bitter herbs and roots in alcohol (often a neutral beet or grain spirit), which is often aged in oak casks and is generally sweetened. It is traditionally taken as a “digestif” to settle the stomach after a meal, and historically has had other medicinal properties associated with it. Although the word amaro refers to such concoctions produced in Italy, the style of digestif is popular throughout much of Europe and Eastern Europe. A lot of people I serve inquire about what amaro is, but many of them don’t realize they are already familiar with it. Jaegermeister is, for example, a popular representation of the very style of bitter herbal digestif of which the Italians are so fond.

Amaro tastes like medicine. This is the number one complaint that I hear from people who either won’t drink the stuff, or swear they will never drink it again. As if medicine, something intended to make us well, is something to be shunned. In fact, amaro began as medicine. Medicine itself began with herbs and roots. Distillation of alcohol was first embarked on in order to produce medicines thought to cure practically every ailment. The marriage of herbal medicine and alcohol was an obvious one, and amaro began as herbal elixirs sold in pharmacies. The alcoholic content was thought to enhance the medicinal benefits of the ingredients. The elixirs were sweetened in order to mask the bitterness of the ingredients.

This quality of “bitter masked by sweet” is what we identify as “medicinal.” Modern medicines — cough syrup, for example — are based on the same principal. Syrupy synthetic cherry flavor is dumped into cough syrup to mask the bitterness of the medicinal components. The science behind medicine has changed over the centuries, but the science of taste has not. Amaro may not cure our every physical ailments, but it can raise the spirits and settle the stomach. And, beyond that, it can help to make a fabulous cocktail. Yes, although I enjoy amaro after a meal, or, admittedly, in the afternoon over a newspaper, my true love for amaro was discovered once I started using it in cocktails.

My first introduction to amaro was through another bartender, who told me that one must be very careful when using it in cocktails, as it will quickly overwhelm everything else in the drink. That seemed reasonable to me at the time. But, in fact, I wasn’t particularly appreciative of amari in the first place. Aside from a brief fling with Averna, and a few shy, curious evenings spent with Fernet Branca, I mostly steered clear of the stuff, content to slake my thirst with more conventional brown liquors. It wasn’t that I disliked it. I just hadn’t discovered its worth.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started imbibing amaro and using it in cocktails regularly. Although not every amaro is a great cocktail ingredient, I’ve found that the vast majority of them are. All present a dense, tight concentration of flavor which, when diluted and embellished, unfurl and display great complexity and surprising, unexpected characteristics. (Not unlike the aforementioned gin.) Simply by taking some amaro and cutting it with a neutral spirit, or even with water, can bring out surprising flavors that would otherwise be masked by others.

I hosted a “Stories From Behind The Bar” event last year for Manhattan Cocktail Classic, at ‘inoteca liquori bar, and put together an entire presentation based on using amaro in cocktails. Our sponsor was Ramazzotti, and during my preparations for the event I spent a lot of time playing around with the amaro and teasing flavors out of it. Try this:

2 parts Ramazzotti
2 parts vodka
1 part light rum

Stir it with ice until chilled, then strain and enjoy. But try it at room temperature for maximum effect. This mixture brings out tremendously fruity characteristics in this particular amaro, and it led me down different avenues than I might have explored otherwise.

Amaro brings more flavor to cocktails than nearly any other bottle behind the bar. But, unlike most syrupy flavored liqueurs, and when judiciously mixed, it will enhance the flavors in a cocktail, and can shed new light on familiar concepts.

Here’s one I serve at ‘inoteca liquori bar:

AVERNA CRUSTA

1 1/2oz Averna
1/2oz Kirschwasser
1/4oz Cointreau
1/2oz Orange Juice
1/4oz Lemon Juice

Shake with ice and strain into a sugar-rimmed glass (a small brandy snifter, or a large sherry glass will work nicely)

Garnish with a long orange peel curled around the inside of the glass.

Both of these recipes expose some of the potential that amaro holds as a cocktail ingredient. But the appeal of amaro extends far beyond this. It is both a historical curiosity, and a unique, modern-day delicacy. It has yet to be packaged in frosted glass bottles and endorsed by glamorous hollywood stars. It doesn’t need to be.

Amaro is, for better or worse, fiercely itself. And, like medicine in your cabinet, I think it’s a necessity on any bar.