Amaro’s Bitter Bite

June 12 2012 - 11:38 PM

Humans are particularly sensitive to bitter tastes; it’s part of our evolution. Many of nature’s poisons are bitter, so those cavemen ancestors who winced and spit got to live another day. But rates of “accidental poisoning due to strange berry” are down these days, and we don’t have to be so averse. In fact, when packed into a drink, bitter flavors can be especially welcome.

Europeans enjoy some truly potent potables, but their most biting export is amaro. These Italian herbal liqueurs are often consumed after dinner as a digestivo and are distinct in their depth and complexity of flavor; whereas a typical cordial might be used to add one flavor to a cocktail, an amaro is a botanical garden in a glass. A pour of amaro can be taken straight to remove that stuffed tummy feeling after a feast, or lengthened with a bit of soda or sparkling water to make a casual sipper. Its sweetness and complexity can also make it a great substitute for those who might usually reach for a port or dessert sherry, and modern bartenders are learning to swap it in where a recipe calls for tamer vermouth.

What goes into an amaro? Each brand does something unique, but the differences in taste come from how each balances the sensations of bitter, herbal, citrus and sweet. Common ingredients include gentian root, quassia wood, and wormwood for bitterness; tamarind, cinchona bark, saffron, thyme, and licorice for aroma; peels and zest from bitter Curaçao laraha and sweet blood orange for the citrus; and caramel for coloring and sweetness.

An example of a very light amaro is Amaro Nonino. Clean, smooth and delicate, it has mild bitterness, but clear notes of mountain herbs and licorice. It is grappa based, so fruit flavors come out along with the sweetness and slight citrus. Nonino is also unusual in that it is aged in barrels which helps to meld the flavors and produce the cohesive subtleness that typifies this style.


Towards the middle of the bitter spectrum, there are several similar types. Averna, from Sicily, has flavors of spicy, burnt orange and dark chocolate with a velvety mouthfeel while Monetengro highlights far more sweet citrus. Deeper and woodier amari include Ramazzotti and Cynar. The former is quite sweet and creamy, coating the mouth with notes of cinnamon, root, and bark, and conjuring up hints of honey. The latter – which gets its prominent bitterness from artichokes – has a more pointed bitterness that cascades slowly into notes of sage, orange, vanilla and eventually mint.

Finally, on the tremendously bitter, tremendously pungent end, there is Fernet Branca. It delivers an intense minty flavor in a bracingly punch, followed by a mellow menthol cooling. Sometimes cheekily called the “Bartender’s Handshake” for its popularity amongst those behind the bar, most first time sippers prefer to think of it as “cough medicine.” The adventurous who come back for a second taste, however, are rewarded and pick up cola overtones and a light sweetness leading into a nice, long finish.

Intrigued yet? If you’re looking for just a sip, Balena and The Purple Pig both offer amaro-based cocktail menus, while Letizia’s Fiore in Logan Square has a mix-and-match amaro flight featuring several tough-to-find brands. Or, if you’re ready to dive in, pick up a whole bottle. Once you get accustomed to enjoying it straight, try mixing up Andrew Bohrer’s soothing Bitter Handshake or the bombastic Eeyore’s Requiem from Toby Maloney of The Violet Hour.

–David McCowan