Until fairly recently, digestifs were the types of beverages drunk by old Italian men alongside a cup of espresso. In bars from Milan to Naples, or outside delis in Brooklyn or London, you would see dapper, gray-haired men sipping from tiny glasses, arguing about soccer ("football") or baseball and eyeing up the young ladies. But lately, these strongly flavored, highly alcoholic drinks—consumed after a meal to aid digestion (allegedly)—have been making a serious comeback. What was once considered a fusty beverage choice has become the drink of preference for the bright young things of London and New York.
Amaro in particular has had a recent resurgence. According to Liam Cotter, project manager of the drinks company Heads, Hearts & Tails, old brands like Fernet-Branca and Cynar have been reinventing themselves, putting out products that appeal to a whole new generation of drinker. Angostura launched an amaro last autumn based on its legendary bitters. New brands are popping up, too, and "boutique" amari are being made on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, Asterley Bros. started producing the Dispense small-batch amaro, and Stellacello has its London amaro. Then there is broVo in Seattle and Bittermens in New Orleans, both of which produce distinctly American takes on the drink. These handmade liqueurs are made from high-quality ingredients, and the results can be as complex as a good wine.
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Most people have a preconceived notion about when we should drink port: once a year, we dig out a dusty bottle from the bottom of the cupboard to drink at the end of Christmas lunch, with cheese.
Amaro means bitter in Italian, and Italians have a thing about bitterness. In addition to all the amaro variants (there's amaretto, a liqueur made from apricot stones, which means little bitter one; and the grape negroamaro, which means black and bitter), Italians drink a powerful wine called Amarone della Valpolicella. Made from raisined grapes, it has a remarkable dried fruit and bitter flavor. In Italy, wines that function as digestifs are known as vino da meditazione. These are wines so complex and strongly flavored that they are best drunk on their own, in quiet contemplation.