photo by Amanda Schuster
The world is becoming a bitter place. This is not meant in the emotional sense (nor is it a reference to the US election), but in terms of taste and flavors. That’s a good thing, as more bitter spirits are finding their way into our glasses, and our hearts. The man who literally wrote the book on bitters, Brad Thomas Parsons, has now released Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs With Cocktail Recipes and Formulas (Ten Speed Press). Just in the nick of time.
Amaro, is a style of liqueur most traditionally and abundantly from Italy, though it’s produced in other countries. It’s characterized by the inclusion of bitter herbs and botanicals with a sweetening agent. The degree of sweetness varies, and some are acutely bitter while others are more cuddly. If one didn’t grow up in an amaro culture, they can be an acquired taste. After all, as Parsons points out, the human body is genetically hard wired to register bitter flavors as poison. It might take a few encounters with one spirit and/or trying different styles and recipes to become acclimated. However, once over that initial hurdle, amaro and all its varieties can be become somewhat of an obsession.
The first part of the book is an excellent introduction to this genre, providing well researched explanation of amaro history, ingredients and traditions. Most recipes have been around since at least the 19th century and were concocted for medicinal purposes. It later became a ritual to sip after meals as digestivo. Practically every region of Italy has its own amaro with a unique set of secret herbs and spices. In the states until recently, Italian restaurants might have had one or two amari on the back bar, and usually whichever ones are regionally specific to the cuisine (i.e. (Luxardo for the Veneto, Averna for Sicily, Ramazzotti for Piedmont, Cynar for Milan, etc.) for the one or two customers who might know what they are and order them. When the cocktail renaissance rose up in the late 1990s, and with it, an interest in these spirits, there was increasing demand for brands to be imported, finding their way into bars alongside the sweet and familiar. Parsons profiles three American bars and the head bartenders who have been on the cutting edge of the amaro cocktail scene – Amor y Amargo in New York City with Sother Teague, Billy Sunday in Chicago with Alex Bachman and Barnacle in Seattle with David Little.
There’s a fine line between bitter and amaro. Parsons does a comprehensive job of breaking down Italian amaro vs. fernet (why this bitter liqueur is its own category is tricky to define, though Parsons gives it a good whirl) vs. liqueurs which are not labeled as amaro but fall under the digestif category (i.e. Jägermeister, Underberg, Zwack, Becherovka, etc.) vs. amaro from other places outside of Italy. These are all accomplished in thorough A – Z lists of brands with some information about each one.
From there it’s onto the cocktail recipes, which are split into classics (here called “Essentials”) like the Negroni and Hanky Panky, and Modern Amaro cocktails. This is an especially entertaining section to read because not only are the recipes useful and inspiring, but most of them are accompanied by a personal reflection about the drink and the place where it was conceived. Here the book morphs into a sort of bar travelogue from New York City to Charleston to Chicago to Austin, Texas and many cities in between and beyond. Parsons even provides a few recipes of his own, like the Rickey Ramazzotti – “A Ramazzotti rickey is one thing, but Rickey Ramazzotti sounds like a decent guy from the neighborhood.”
As he did for readers of Bitters for its namesake topic, Parsons devotes a section to recipes for making DIY Amaro. Then the book ends on a sweet note, with recipes for incorporating bitter amaro flavors into desserts and sweet drinks. Bittersweet is really the tone of the whole book, filled with affable reverence and affection for the subject matter as we meet the people behind the bottle and the bar. It’s a friendly way to dive into the world of amaro, even if it’s dangerously tempting to try everything in its pages.
Here are some amari to try right now as you sip along. Lucky for me I happen to live in Brooklyn with proximity to bars that offer a wide selection, such as Grand Army (co-owner Damon Boelte is also a regular fixture in the book), The Long Island Bar, and La Rina Pastificio & Vino (one of the most innovative, yet authentic and homey Italian spots in the city with an impressive selection of bitter spirits and vermouth in their bar program):
Photo by Zak Newmarch, Callooh Callay, London
Braulio: It disappeared for a few years as it was changing importers, but now it’s back to thrill our bitter souls! The liqueur is named for the mountain in Lombardy where it was conceived in 1875 by pharmacist Francesco Peloni. This is one of the more medicinal tasting varieties – with a heavy dose of gentian, peppermint and juniper. It’s best neat, forget the rocks here, but it also happens to mix well with chocolatey flavors and in gin drinks.
Montenegró: It has been made for over 130 years in Bologna, named by its founder Stanislau Cobianchi as a boozy love note to Princess Elena of Montenegro. Many consider this one a sort of gateway amaro since the recipe of 40 herbs and spices is balanced with more approachable sweetness. It has a light texture and orangey, only slightly bitter finish that explains its cult following among bartenders for its versatility and refreshment.
Lucano Anniversario: This amaro was created to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the brand, which hails from the village of Pisticci in Basilicata. The literature boasts that over 30 herbs were used in the recipe, and this makes for an intense elixir – very heavily concentrated on the winter spice elements. However, put it in a rocks glass with a big ice cube and a wedge of orange peel and it makes for quite the after dinner treat. For cocktails, use it to add a warm, spicy tone.
Sibilia: For those who like it farther up the bitter scale, this is the one to reach for. It’s a classic that’s been produced by the Varnelli family since 1868 in the Marche, now overseen by Orietta Varnelli. The roots and herbs used in the recipe are roasted over a wood fire, and it’s sweetened with a touch of local honey. To further enhance its elegant fabric, the spirits is aged for a precise amount of time before bottling. The woodsy, walnut flavors and aromas evoke a walk through a dark forest. It’s delicious with a rock and a lemon peel, but if you really want a treat, add it to espresso and coffee cocktails.
Young Professor at La Rina Pastifficio & Vino: Amaro Lucano, Vermouth Rosso del Profossore, Prosecco Gazzosa, photo by Michael Tulipan
Brovo: Produced in Washington state, this distillery works with cocktail bartenders to create unique, limited edition expressions that have been a huge hit, considered collectors’ items. Project Amaro has so far represented Atlanta, New Orleans, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and its home town of Seattle (Brovo #14 Mike Ryan was a Double Gold medal winner in the 2013 NY International Spirits Competition). If you see these in the wild, by all means try – because great tastes went into making them.
Don Ciccio & Figli Delle Sirene: No roundup of modern amari should be complete without mentioning this distillery based in Washington, D.C. That’s a town known for its indie punk rock ways, and this operation fits into that aesthetic perfectly, while staying true to the traditions of its Italian homeland. “Sirene” is Italian for “sirens” in the mythical maritime sense, an homage to the Amalfi coast, where the wine barrels used to age it for two months hail from. It’s reminiscent of a licorice spice tea with a hint of orange, and makes an excellent compliment to citrusy cocktails.