Amore, Amari

by Jessica Dukes
Antoinette Bruno, Shannon Sturgis, and Jessica Dukes
August 2011

Amaro Cocktails

Fernet Sling: Fernet Branca, Carpano Antica Vermouth, Demerera Syrup, Lemon, Orange Twist, and Soda
Maksym Pazuniak of Maison Premiere – Brooklyn, NY

Refreshing flavors of menthol and bitter bark unite in this original, látte-hued drink; the addition of soda lifts the vermouth and Fernet to the frothy top of a Collins glass.

Bitter Spring: Flor de Cana 4-Year Rum, Peychaud's Bitters, Fernet Branca, Ginger Syrup, Toasted Hazelnut Orgeat, and Lemon Juice
Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo – New York, NY

The toasted hazelnut orgeat imparts a nutty flavor that pairs well the bitter herbal cut from the Fernet—a growl from the ginger syrup and bright lemon seal the deal.

MIXOLOGIST NOTES: In San Francisco, where Teague and the San Francisco Chronicle contend that more Fernet is drunk per capita than anywhere else in the country, Fernet with a ginger beer chaser is de rigueur. Teague’s days as a chef inspired him to prepare potent ginger syrup to mirror this old SF custom in the Bitter Spring. When Teague helmed the bar at Rye in Williamsburg, with its 80 seats and a bustling kitchen, building layers of flavor through swizzling was too time costly. So a determined Teague added the drink straight from the shaker and scooped a domed lid of crushed ice on top. Finished with Peychaud’s, the drink fans a waft of cinnamon at the lucky partaker with every sip.

Summer Hemingway: White Rum, Luxardo, Fernet Branca, Lime, and Grapefruit
Jeremy Strawn of Mulberry Project – New York, NY

Clean and refreshing. For Papa lovers (though ironically, he was reported to have had a strong aversion to Fernet Branca.): the Fernet float recalls For Whom the Bell Tolls while the white rum is a quaffable dog-eared copy of Old Man and the Sea.

MIXOLOGIST NOTES: “I was noticing that we sell a lot of Fernet but are not using it in cocktails, so I began going through drinks in my mind that would work well with Fernet. I drink Fernet and grapefruit juice straight up and think it is amazing because of the heavy amounts of chamomile, cardamom, saffron, and quinine.  All of these flavors work amazingly well with gin and so bang: this lovely new version of a Hemingway was born.” 

Giralamo Sour: Luxardo Amaro Abano, Luxardo Bitters, Lemon Juice, and Simple Syrup
Stephen Cole, formerly of Violet Hour – Chicago, IL

A creamy, dimpled-cheeked drink, whose baby-fat is cut with a nice bitter finish, aided by the egg white.

MIXOLOGIST NOTES: “This is pretty much a daily choice that somebody asked for a few years ago. I was making classic sours with amaros. Amaro is a full, complete flavor in itself, and I just thought that Luxardo bitters would make it on its own.”

Cryptic Memo: Rye Whiskey, Ramazzotti Amaro, and Campari
Kelley Swenson of June – Portland, OR

Simple, clean, and elegant.

MIXOLOGIST NOTES: This is truly an aperitif cocktail—equal parts amari to whisky; it is more about the amari, about the interplay between two distinct Italian bitters, Campari with its bright and bitter orange flavors on one end and the dark and rich Ramazzotti with its rich, cola-like flavors on the other—the whisky is just for good measure.

Scorched Earth: Olmeca Altos Reposado Tequila, Del Maguey "Chichicapa" Mezcal, Amaro Santa Maria al Monte, Lime Juice, and Agave Nectar
Benjamin Schiller of Boka– Chicago, IL

The smokiness of this drink, aided by the oak chips and the mezcal, is enhanced by the sturdy, herbal amaro. This is a drink that changes over time, thanks to the smoked ice cube.

Torino Julep: Carpano Antica , Smith and Cross Rum, Fernet Branca, Mint, and Maldon Salt
Natasha David of Maison Premiere– Brooklyn, NY

Smooth, cool, and complex, with a touch of salt that integrates with the pungent licorice of the Fernet Branca. At oyster den Maison Premiere, it makes the perfect second act to a platter of dainty Beausoleils.

Maybe the reason why so many bartenders love amari so much is because half of us are sick in the head,” Mixologist Stephen Cole, formerly of Violet Hour – Chicago, IL

Sweden has its Jeppson’s Mälort, Spain its Aguardiente de Orujo—heck, Austria even has its Jägermeister. For centuries, they’ve been served neat at the end of a meal (or in Jägermeister’s case, at frat parties). In any tiny town, in any lonesome old man’s bar in Europe, you can probably find a locally produced bottle in the same vein. But walk into one of these bars and request a whisky cocktail prepared with schnapps or a licor de hierbas, and the barman will be waving people over just to look at you, you crazy person.

Amaro Santa Maria al Monte

Amaro Santa Maria al Monte

Bitter spirits have buttressed cocktails since the first Negroni was reportedly strained in a Florentine café in 1919. But lately we’ve noticed more mixologists featuring Campari’s after-dinner cousin amaro in their recipes. And in many cases, amaro drives the drink. It’s like when The Band stepped out from behind Bob Dylan. Two ounces of Fernet Branca as the primary in a cocktail? Yeah.

Suddenly, vermouth, whisky, rum, gin, tequila and even mezcal are ceding a little extra stage to these heavy-duty (personified, most of them would almost certainly be moustachioed) spirits.

Scorched Earth from Benjamin Schiller in Chicago features tequila, mezcal, and amaro

Scorched Earth from Benjamin Schiller in Chicago features tequila, mezcal, and amaro

“If you want to get on your bartender’s good side, order a shot of Fernet,” – Jeremy Strawn of The Mulberry Project – New York, NY

The ornately-labeled bottles of bitter spirits, amari to the Italian, cast a visual allure— recalling hideaway villages and promising jealously guarded proprietary recipes. From slapped-cheek red to prehistoric amber and dark sticky tobacco, each portends some secret and exotic flavor profile. 
Ace mixologist Kelley Swenson of June in Portland, Oregon, sees a mission in a dusky bottle whose ingredients “on their own can be bitter and ultimately unpalatable.” To Swenson, “The end result of well-crafted amari is a totally balanced presentation of wild barks and botanicals. In many ways an amaro recipe has the same inherent mission as a cocktail recipe: take something unusually strong and exotic and make it balanced, palatable, and delicious.” 

Monk’s Tonic

Oil-slick dark, 90 proof, and with a menthol bite, Fernet Branca isn’t just the bartender’s handshake—it’s an amaro digestivo. Salerno monks studying medicine in the 12th century sought to stretch the value of precious cargo from the spice trade and impart its mystery to ease queasiness and other piteous medieval ailments. They macerated the spices with a locally foraged potpourri of roots, herbs, citrus rinds, and wildflowers in a neutral spirit. Aged in bottles or barrels, the resulting shelf-stable herbal liquor had a bitter, medicinal edge and an intricate, aromatic nose. Apothecaries carried on the technique in the 19th century, eventually leading to commercialization, Campari, and other palate-opening aperitivos the likes of spritz-friendly Aperol.

Amaro or What?

Naturally, modern-day mixologists with a witchy bent are helplessly smitten before the myriad slew of bitter brews on offer. Concoctions of the Italian variety lead the pack in availability in the United States and tradition of craftsmanship, from Sicily’s sunny and warming Averna to Liguria’s thorny, herbaceous Santa Maria al Monte.

Apple-cheeked examples (like the jester-loving Campari brand) are lighter in body and lower in alcohol content than their darker siblings, and are often better suited to just before a meal. But Campari, Aperol and even goldilocks, artichoke-based Cynar (technically an aperitivo at 17.5% alcohol by volume) differ from subtly bitter aperitíf wines.

Cocchi Americano and Vergano Americano are popular examples of chinato, an Italian vermouth that features quinine (bark from the cinchona tree)—the better to pucker with. There are plenty of examples of bitter-ish vermouths in Europe (think France’s Bonal Quinquina). But fortified wines, unlike amari, are volatile (and are best stored in the fridge). So they’re different, but beyond chemistry, it’s dealer’s choice. Chicago drinks-encyclopedia Paul McGee of The Whistler wields both chinati and amari in his drinks, basing decisions on viscosity, level of bitterness, alcohol content, and principle: “If I make a Manhattan, I‘ll stick with a wine-based spirit, just to stay in the same tradition of vermouths.”

The Full Package

The Torino Julep from Natasha David in Brooklyn

The Torino Julep from Natasha David in Brooklyn

“Using amari as a base spirit allows you to explore the boundaries of classic cocktail frameworks, and challenges you to work with complex flavors,” Maks Pazuniak, co-author of rogue cocktails and beta cocktails, and bartender at Maison Premiere - Brooklyn, NY

As with love, as with booze: it’s the complexity that draws some in. Sensuous flavor profiles range from pithy citrus to chamomile and saffron, heady cardamom to cottony yellow gentian, to vegetal flavors of rhubarb and beet molasses, and on and on. The variety of flavor profiles and textures on offer lends itself to cross-seasonality, both as a refreshing antidote to the last hot days of summer or a warming dram on a crisp fall evening. Throw in your own witty banter and a little smooch-y amore for Roman Holiday in a Collins glass.

“Amaros are kind of the full package; they’ve got some sweet, bitter, acidity—plus they’re all totally different,” waxes Cole. A dozen unknown ingredients distilled in a sip become a patter of feet echoing behind crumbling ancient walls. Or, conversely, feels like "getting punched squarely in the nose while sucking on a mentholated cough drop."

Is it possible to be both romantic … and tough? Actually, it sounds like the ideal frontman.