Amaro: A Bittersweet Obsession

The potent, bracing Italian digestif amaro isn't for everyone, but F&W's Ray Isle adores it. And now he's got a lot of company.

Everybody has their obsessions. Some people collect glass whimsies, some people watch trains (never understood that one). Me, I love amaro.

In fact, I've loved it for nearly a decade now. But lately, thanks to the growing number of amaro-crazed mixologists and sommeliers, I'm not alone in my passion for the bittersweet Italian digestif. In a way, it's a little annoying, like when your favorite under-the-radar restaurant gets discovered. But I can't really object to all these amaro arrivistes. I even envy them: They've got a lot to discover.

Every amaro is different, and there are hundreds. Many are local and artisanal, though there are large brands, like Ramazzotti and Fernet Branca. Amaro is traditionally made by infusing grape brandy with a (usually secret) mix of herbs, flowers, aromatic bark, citrus peel and spices—a blend that can include anything from cardamom to elderberry flowers. Then it's sweetened with sugar syrup and aged, sometimes for years. It's silky, like a liqueur; bitter and sweet in varying degrees; aromatically complex; and, as far as I'm concerned, both delicious and fascinating.

Apparently, a lot of cocktail experts and sommeliers agree. Impressive amaro selections are appearing at ambitious new bars like Canon in Seattle, as well as restaurants like Sable in Chicago. At Sotto in Los Angeles, head bartender Julian Cox oversees a list of nearly 20 amari, something that would've been impossible five years ago (unless you smuggled the bottles in a suitcase). "There's a ton of interest in amaro," he says, "especially as people get accustomed to drinks that are on the bitter side." One of Cox's signature cocktails is an amaro daiquiri that includes rum, lime juice, Averna (a popular amaro) and allspice.

Chaim Dauermann, the head mixologist at New York City's 'Inoteca Vino, Cucina e Liquori Bar, is also caught up in the amaro trend. "There's a misconception that amaro is like bitters, to be used in a very small quantity. But I use amari as a base in a lot of cocktails. Why not? There are so many different kinds, with so many flavors; such infinite variety." His Howick Hall cocktail, made with Ramazzotti amaro, gin, maraschino liqueur, lemon juice and orange bitters, is one of the best cocktails I've had all year. The complexity of the amaro adds layers to the drink without dominating.

Even so, I'm still a fan of the classic approach: amaro straight, maybe with ice. That's how people drink it in Italy, where it was first sold as a health tonic in the 1800s. Jeremy Parzen, who runs the Do Bianchi wine blog (and also has a PhD in Italian literature), says, "It's fascinating that these Italian digestifs are now a thriving part of America's cocktail culture. A Neapolitan-American friend of mine, who's in his mid-fifties, fondly remembers how his mother used to serve him an espresso with Fernet Branca and an egg yolk every morning before he went off to elementary school."

So I welcome new members to the amaro club. But I should also issue a warning: Once in a while, passion can lead to problems, particularly when two amaristi find themselves looking at the same bottle. That happened to me not long ago in a wine store in Soave, Italy. I was there with a friend, who was talking to the owner up at the front of the shop. I drifted around, checking out the wine selection, and there, on a shelf, was a single bottle of Braulio, a strongly aromatic concoction from Valtellina that's been made by the same family since 1875; it's still, for who knows what ridiculous reason, not imported to the USA. And it wasn't just any Braulio: It was the family's even more elusive Riserva Speciale. It glowed like a lodestar, next to some anonymous bags of artisanal pasta. I reached out to take it—and a hand appeared, out of nowhere, reaching for the same bottle. It belonged to my friend.

"I believe I saw that first," I pointed out.

"But I'd noticed it earlier. I just didn't mention it."

"That seems very unlikely," I said.

"Unlikely or not," said my friend, "it is the case."

We considered one another. We were friends, of course, but would a true friend really try to hijack someone's bottle of Braulio? Well. That's a fine moral question. And once in a while I ponder it, at home, at night, glass in hand, as I drink my Braulio Riserva Speciale over ice.

Amaro, from Easy to Intense

The amari below are listed in order of increasing bitterness. Some, like Ramazzotti, are easy to find; others take a bit more hunting.

Amaro Montenegro ($29)

One of the lightest and gentlest amari, with orange and rosewater notes, Montenegro was named to commemorate the marriage of Princess Helen of Montenegro to Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III in 1896.

Amaro Nonino Quintessentia ($39)

The Nonino family is mostly known for its acclaimed grappas, but they also produce this silky, liqueur-like amaro. It's flavored with herbs from the mountains of Friuli.

Amaro Ramazzotti ($20)

First produced in Milan in 1815, Ramazzotti is one of the most popular amari in the US today. Mahogany-hued and fairly sweet, it has hints of root beer and vanilla.

Luxardo Amaro Abano ($22)

A little fresh mint, a little grapefruit, a touch of anise and some pine—that's the flavor of this fragrant amaro created on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, back when the region belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

S. Maria Al Monte Amaro ($40)

Definitely on the bitter side (though not quite as much as Fernet Branca), Santa Maria has spice notes of jasmine and ginseng, along with a distinctive, menthol-like finish.

Varnelli Amaro Sibilla ($55)

Varnelli handcrafts its amari, even grinding all the dry spices and herbs with a mortar and pestle. This complex, nutty, quite bitter amaro gets a bit of sweetness from wild mountain honey.

After-Dinner Drinks & Cooking with Spirits

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