Amaro's Hipness Soars

 
 
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Amaro’s Hipness Soars

How and Why the Liqueur is Popping Up in Cocktails, and All Over Upscale Bars

 

Amaro, an herbal, bittersweet Italian liqueur, finds its origins in medieval health care. Obsessed with the restorative powers of alchemy and natural botanicals, medieval monks and friars in abbeys across Italy often experimented with mixing and matching liquor and wine with herbs. The monks stuck mostly to ingredients that could be found nearby, ensuring that over the centuries different amari (the plural form of the drink) began taking on regional peculiarities. Bitter orange in Sicily. Rhubarb in Alto Adige. Artichoke in Milan.

The backwoods elixir was used to aid digestion and stimulate the appetite. Because sugar was a high-priced commodity, most varieties were quite bitter. It wasn’t until the 19th century that amari began to edge into commercial production. Some of the bigger brands today were formed around this time: Fernet-Branca (1845), Amaro Lucano (1894), and Campari (1904). Now, two centuries later, amaro is having its moment. From London to Tokyo, mixologists are employing amari in their cocktails and in-the-know consumers are ordering the stuff after dinner.

What Is It?

Amaro, which means “bitter” in Italian, consists of an herb or botanical distilled in a neutral liquor or wine. The more well-known players are Campari, a bright citrus infusion often used in cocktails such as the Negroni (gin, Campari, sweet red vermouth), and Fernet, some mixture of myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron in a grape-based spirit, often served as a digestif.

But there are many others, ranging from lighter-tasting varieties (Montenegro, Nonino, and Vecchio Amaro del Capo) to sugary (Averna, Meletti, Ramazzotti) or piney (Bràulio) to bold and smoky (Zucca Rabarbaro, Sfumato Rabarbaro). Prices per bottle range from US$20 or so to hundreds of dollars for the vintage stuff.

Why Now?

“The craft cocktail craze has really brought some beautiful spirits to the forefront of people’s minds,” says Michael Johns, bar manager at Maple & Ash in Chicago. “I see people ordering Aperol spritz to start quite often now.”

Stephen Kurpinsky, head bartender at 100 Proof, a cocktail bar in San Diego, attributes much of amaro’s popularity to the palate-expanding consequences of America’s culinary revival over the past decade, as well as its craft-beer craze. Whereas the American palate used to stick mostly to sugar or salt, “people are enjoying more bitter things now,” Kurpinsky says. After all, it isn’t that big of a transition from a hoppy IPA to a bitter Fernet. Nowadays, he adds, “Any good-quality cocktail bar should have 10 to 20 different amari in stock.”

Maximiliano Vallée Valletta, head bartender at Montreal’s Brasserie Les Enfants Terribles, has also seen an uptick in amari orders. Most customers, he says, consume it in cocktails rather than taking it neat—as he likes it, with a twist of orange and mint leaf. Raised with an Italian father, he recalls the family dinner ritual when, each Sunday, after eating, all at the table would take a shot of amaro “to celebrate life.” It is popular nowadays, he adds, for bartenders to substitute amaro for vermouth. “Any decent cocktail bar now has its own amaro twist that is worth checking out.”

Swapping in amaro for traditionally used liquors is something of a trend. At 100 Proof, Kurpinsky likes substituting Montenegro amaro for rum in coladas. “It completely changes cocktails,” he says. “Even just swapping out different amari.” He also makes a mean Bitter Giuseppe, equal parts Cynar amaro and sweet vermouth with a hint of lemon and salt. He adds, “It’s rad to see more people come to the bar and say, ‘Hey, make me something with Cynar,’ or, ‘What’s that amaro? I haven’t had that one yet.’ ”