Published on October 15th, 2012 | by Dipsology0
Do You Speak Amari?
Amari – which literally means “bitters” – are a class of Italian liqueurs that can be consumed in anything from shots, to digestifs, to aperitivos, to classic (and not so classic) cocktails. The world of amari can be intimidating, firstly because people tend to shy away the minute you mention “bitter”, and then there are also a plethora of different kinds with complicated names. We’ve been expanding our palettes and our knowledge – with lots of help from Amor y Amargo – over the past months, and decided to check out a seminar on the subject as part of our trip to the Boston Cocktail Summit earlier this month.
The session was led by Francesco Lafranconi – an Italian native who is also in charge of the education arm of Southern Wine & Spirits, and showed up sporting the colors of the Italian flag in a white dinner jacket, green silk pocket square and red cravatte. After taking us through a map of all the different amari regions of his country, we began our tasting. Here are some highlights:
- Rabarbaro Zucca: Zucca means squash in Italian, but the main ingredient here is rhubarb. Go figure. It was on the lighter, sweeter side (which is why we started with it), and is classically served with seltzer as an aperitivo. For the full authentic experience, you should drink one at Zucca’s Bar in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan.
- Cynar (pronounced chee-nar): the key ingredient is …. artichoke leaves. For real. And there is a strong green tea note on the nose.
- Cardamaro: the flavor of Cardamaro is similar to Barolo Chinato – a local drink from Piedmont in the north of Italy, which is basically fortified wine flavored with various herbs and spices.
- Amaro Meletti: an amaro not so commonly found in the US, the recipe for Meletti is a closely guarded family secret, which they’ve been protecting since 1870. We got notes of lychee, rosewater and warm sweet spice.
- Amaro Nonino: Nonino is a newer amaro, as these things go, started in the 1940s, and produced from ÙE, a grape distillate, aged five years in small oak barrels. Francesco described it as the “European Pisco”.
- Amaro d’Abano: one of the ingredients here is chinchona bark – the classic ingredient of tonic water, and, our favorite, Tomr’s Tonic – and we got tons of it on the nose.
- Affogato: not an amaro, but a dessert. At the end of the tasting, we were each given a bowl of vanilla ice cream to make an affogato with our amari. We tried almost every single one by pouring small amounts into our spoons. New favorite dessert idea ever.
And then of course there was Fernet Branca, because what would an amari tasting be without Fernet? Doing shots of Fernet Branca is a sort of bartender’s handshake. It’s a pretty stringent drink, an acquired taste if you will, but once you get into it, it becomes a habit that’s hard to shake, if only because everybody else is doing it. But where did this tradition come from? Francesco didn’t know, but we got the skinny from Kyle Ford – Cointreau’s mixologist extraordinaire and half of Ford Mixology Lab (the other half is his wife, Rachel Ford). Apparently, the Fernet craze got started in San Francisco, by the Italian community there. The bars would stock it, but no one ever ordered the stuff, so the bottles never got inventoried. Ever the shrewd drinkers, bartenders started drinking it themselves, et voilà.
Where to go to drink amari in NYC:
Should you want to learn about the wonderful world of amari as well, we recommend you pop down to Amor y Amargo, where they boast a WIDE selection and their expert bartenders – including Sother Teague (@creativedrunk), Chris Lowder (@getlowdernow) and Aaron Polsky (@ontopofthebar) – will be glad to induct you.
You can also check out Maks Pazuniak (@maks_p) at The Counting Room in Williamsburg on Monday nights for “Something Like This”, a weekly session where Maks showcases a number of original drinks, many with bitter flavor profiles.