My Rouses Everyday, March | April 2018
Amaro is the most furtive of spirits — it hides in the shadows of bars and liquor stores, and seems uncomfortable being front and center.
This is wholly appropriate, since it’s a drink that actually tastes like shadows.
Amari — which is the proper plural — are Italian herbal liqueur spirits that have been around for nearly two centuries, although they’re seldom found at home. While they vary in taste, the shared element in their flavor profile is bitterness — amaro is, after all, Italian for bitter — and their origins go back to their use as a medicinal, which is not surprising if you know about the history of liquor. These bitter beverages evolved in the 19th century from medicine to digestif — something sipped after dinner to help the digestive juices get flowing and ease the saggy feeling of overfed discomfort. The theory was straightforward: Bitterness can be an indicator of poison, and our bodies evolved such that when the taste buds detect it, our bodies automatically speed up digestion to give the toxins the bum’s rush.
This all makes perfect sense. It also appears to be perfect folklore. “You put anything in your mouth and it increases the production of saliva and gastric acid,” one gastroenterologist explained to me. Which also makes sense.
Still, bitter drinks have long been popular in Europe — vermouth was originally made with a bitter plant called wormwood (vermut is German for wormwood), and other bitters in production for a century or more include Campari, Jägermeister, Aperol and Amer Picon. (These are generally called “potable bitters,” which differ from “aromatic bitters” that are more concentrated and dispensed by the dash, and include Peychaud’s and Angostura.)
Americans were evidently less averse to potable bitters in the 19th century, when vast numbers of Italians immigrated to America, bringing their fondness for bitters with them. But then came Prohibition, which irrevocably altered America’s habits of drink. Potable bitters never really bounced back afterwards. At the same time, Americans gravitated toward the unchallenging when it came to things that went in their mouths: “U.S. Taste Buds Want It Bland” read a 1951 headline in Business Week. Assertive bitters did not fit that profile.
Much was lost by the mass shunning of the bitter — after all, our palates are capable of discerning a mere five tastes, and to write off one of them is to toss out 20 percent of the paints in our culinary paint set.
But with the return of more adventurous palates over the past decade or two, a renewed appreciation for bitter has returned — not only in drinks, but also in the return of bitter greens like radicchio, chicory, arugula and others. Liquor shelves and backbars are blooming with labels featuring names like Lucano, Montenegro and Ramazzotti. Bartenders are now more comfortable adding Amari to their mixology repertoire.
One popular gateway cocktail is the Negroni, a forgotten classic that’s lately become a rediscovered classic; in the past few years it has returned to its rightful role as a standard in many bars and restaurants — in part because it’s so easy to concoct: It’s made with equal parts Campari, gin and sweet vermouth.
If you’re a fan of the Manhattan cocktail, you’re in luck — Amaro works well as a supplement or substitute for traditional vermouth when mixed with bourbon or rye. Among may favorite variations is the Bywater, a rum-based cocktail made with Amaro Averna and green Chartreuse (another bittersweet herbal liqueur), and created by Chris Hannah, the James Beard-award-winning barman at Arnaud’s French 75 in the French Quarter.
New Orleans remains your best bet when in search of Amari in South Louisiana — perhaps not surprisingly, given the city’s fondness for drink and its forward role in the recent cocktail revival. Domenica restaurant at the Roosevelt Hotel has a fine representative selection, along with cocktails featuring Amaro, including the impeccably named Tepache Mode, made with gin, Montenegro Amaro and spiced pineapple with a touch of chile pepper. Cure, the pioneering uptown cocktail bar, also has a good selection, which co-owner Neal Bodenheimer attributes in part to a stint in New York, where he worked with a bar manager insistent on offering the best selection of Amari in the city — a goal that was drilled into him deep enough that it carried over when he returned south to his hometown.
Outlaw Pizza in the Warehouse District also has a surprising selection of Amari — the owners assumed it made sense to serve Italian liqueur with Italian-based food. Customers here skew toward the college crowd, however, and they haven’t entirely embraced this. “They don’t want to order something that sounds unfamiliar,” the bartender explained. When I stopped by they were reducing the Amari stock on the shelf by offering double shots for $6. Get it while you can.
But the best destination in New Orleans for a serious sampling of Amari these days is La Boca, the Argentine steakhouse on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Warehouse District. The connection between Argentina and Italy isn’t as far-fetched as geography suggests: The South American country has historically served as home to a host of Italian immigrants. In fact, Argentina is the only place outside Milan where Fernet Branca — a style of Amaro so potent it’s famed as a double-dare-you bitter digestif — is made. The menu offers more than a dozen Amari by the glass, ranging from Meletti, a sweeter and more floral Amaro that serves as a good gateway, to the more belligerent and feisty Cynar 70, an artichoke-based liqueur bottled at a higher proof than is usual.
For those just beginning an exploration, the restaurant also offers an appealing Amaro flight — several pours selected by the bartender. I got a flight of five Amari, each less than an ounce, and each offering a quick trip in geography, history and taste. It’s the most efficient education in Amaro you can get — a quick lesson in learning they’re not all the same, and that they vary substantially in their profiles.
As an added bonus, they go splendidly with steak.
An aperitif is a beverage served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. It’s usually dry and has a low alcohol content.
This bitter liqueur’s exact recipe is a secret, but we know it contains hints of bitter orange and both gentian and cinchona flower, among other ingredients. Aperol has a very low alcohol content of only 11 percent. Drink over ice or in a spritzer with seltzer or club soda.
Campari has a higher alcohol content and more prominent flavor than Aperol. Its recipe, like Aperol’s, is shrouded in mystery. It has hints of rhubarb and berries, and a floral bouquet of various herbs and plants. Campari is featured in the Negroni, the most famous Italian cocktail in the world.
This bitter aperitif is made by steeping 13 herbs in a neutral spirit. But its predominant ingredient is the artichoke (Cynara scolymus), from which the drink derives its name. Cynar can be drunk as either an aperitif (usually on the rocks) or in a cocktail.
Dessert is often accompanied by a dessert wine or liqueur.
This almond-flavored liqueur is commonly paired with a coffee liqueur or mixed with coffee.
This hazelnut liqueur is produced in Piedmont. Its origins date back more than 300 years to the presence of early Christian monks living in the area. Its bottle — shaped like a monk’s habit, with a traditional rope belt around its waist — is an immediate reminder of its distinctive history. Serve at room temperature or on the rocks.
This colorless, anise-flavored liqueur is commonly served neat, with some coffee beans (known as con la mosca, or “with the fly”) floating in the glass. The beans represent health, happiness and prosperity.
Digestifs contain herbs and spices that have stomach-settling properties. A digestif normally has a higher alcohol content than its before-dinner counterpart.
This infusion of various herbs, roots and vegetables in alcohol is renowned for its alleged powers at countering the effects of overindulging at the dinner table. Flavors range from earthy and bitter to sickly sweet. It may be served at room temperature or on the rocks.
- 2 ounces Canadian whiskey
- 1/4 ounce Fernet Branca
- 1/4 ounce simple syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Orange peel, for garnish
- Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir well and strain into a chilled glass. Twist orange peel over the drink and use as garnish.
- 1 ounce London dry gin
- 1 ounce Campari
- 1 ounce Vermouth Rosso
- Slice of orange, for garnish
- Pour all of the ingredients directly into a glass filled with ice. Stir. Garnish with a slice of orange.