A bittersweet love affair between a cocktail and herbal liqueur
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amaro. When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine, that’s amaro.
OK, Dean Martin can sing about love his way. Cocktail enthusiasts can sing about what they love, their way.
The Italian amaro has captured an untold number of hearts on its own.
This famed 19th-century herbal liqueur has long been loved — or tastefully disliked — as an aperitif or, more commonly, as a digestif. But in the United States, the love affair didn’t catch fire until after the marriage of amaro and the afternoon cocktail was consummated some 10 years ago or less.
“To me, there are two major reasons to use amari in cocktails: bitterness and complexity,” said Pasha Morshedi, one of the owners of the ever-progressive Rosewater, 1606 Clear Lake City Blvd. in the Clear Lake area. “At this point, with the massive resurgence in the stripped-down Old Fashioned-style cocktail, which has reminded even casual drinkers of the importance of bitterness to balance certain drinks, the use of amari is starting to become more normalized. It’s impossible today to imagine an interesting bar program without at least some amari on the menu.”
In actuality, there are similar liqueurs all over Europe. Germany has its Kräuterlikör and Jägermeister. The French have Picon. The Danish sip on Gammel Dansk, and if in Hungary, one asks for a Zwack Unicum. Despite the similarities, however, all amari, the plural of amaro, are Italian.
Now, should one want to start an argument at an Italian bar full of amari students, ask which products should identify themselves as an amaro. One would be safer switching the subject to politics or religion.
Many Italians and most Americans accept the broader definition that includes both the aperitifs and the digestifs. Others, Morshedi among them, hold that it’s the richer, darker digestifs that are true amari.
“A lot of American liquor stores tend to group them together,” he said. “And while they’re certainly united in their underlying bitterness, which varies from brand to brand, the red family of aperitivi like Campari, Aperol, Martini Bitter and Meletti Bitter tend to be consumed as appetite stimulants before a meal, whereas amari are general consumed after a meal to stimulate digestion.”
To the novice, the similarities of both puts them all in the same family, and most articles and retail outlets don’t differentiate.
Each Italian maker takes great pride in holding and hiding a secret amari recipe that sets his or her amaro apart from the rest. There are more than 50 brands in Italy, and each one has its own particular personality. The liqueur, which had its beginnings in both monasteries and pharmacies as a medicinal drink, is made from herbs, roots, flowers, bark and citrus that are added to an alcohol or wine and then aged in casks.
Perusing the ingredients of various brands, one might not be far off calling each bottle a fermented garden with some orchard thrown in. Among the items tossed in by various makers are rhubarb, citrus peels, ginseng, Angostura, artichokes, cinnamon, myrrh, chamomile, aloe, saffron, star anise, Angelica root, rose petals and quinine.
The variations of what natural fauna were combined in the making is what makes each different and even somewhat specific to the region in which it originated.
Morshedi believes finding a favorite amari is the best part, he said.
“The diversity of available amaro is astounding, even if you focus only on those that are actually distributed in Texas,” he said. “At Rosewater, we currently have about 40 different amari and about 20 different apertivo.
“There is so much variability in the botanicals used, both the type of botanicals and how they vary seasonally and by region, by the way the botanicals are incorporated, either by maceration or distillation, whether the product is aged, how and to what degree the amaro is sweetened, the base spirit used, the level of bitterness — it’s really mind blowing. There is no other category of spirits on Earth that offers such a profound range of diverse flavors and aromas.”
So what do these intricate concoctions bring to the average cocktail?
For starters, amaro has been hanging around the cocktail glass for more than a century. In the late 1890s, the Americano Highball made its debut, being a mixture of vermouth, soda and Campari. Thirty years later, Count Camillo Negroni walked into a bar in Florence and ordered an Americano with an additional request. He wanted gin instead of the requisite soda. The very classic Negroni was born.
In colder months, when many are putting the gins and vodkas at the back of the liquor cabinet and moving the brown liquors forward, amari replaces the fruity, light cocktail additives with heartier, warming flavors that complement the liquors, including Scotch and rye.
“Take your whiskey sour, a delicious but simple drink on its own, and add a measure of amaro to it,” Morshedi said. “Now, you’ve got a completely new flavor profile. And because most amari tend to have fairly rich and dark with complex aromatic and flavor profiles, they complement winter cocktails perfectly, if not served as the actual base of a drink.”
One of the most popular cocktails at Rosewater is the Averna-accented Night Shift cocktail. It was on the menu when the doors first opened, and was put there with the idea of introducing people to the amari cocktail.
All amari can be generally described as bitter and sweet. The word amaro actually means “bitter” in English. Its pour varies as well, with some even tending to be a bit syrupy. And when “you dance down the street with a cloud at your feet,” you can blame it on the fact the alcohol content of amari can be as high as 40 percent and never lower than 16.
Two of the most familiar brands in the United States, if one accepts them as amari, are Campari and Aperol, but over the past 10 years or so, dozens of others have come on the market.
If asked to give a beginner’s course in amari, Amaro Nonino is one Morshedi would suggest for starters, as is Amaro Averna, which, Morshedi said, is the first one he ever tried and the one that made him fall in love with the liqueur. Others are Amaro Meletti, Cynar, Amaro Braulio and Fernet-Branca.
“No crash course in amaro would be complete without Fernet,” he said. “Fernet-Branca, which has become an icon of the style, has a specific medicinal mentholic note that can be a bit overwhelming for first-time drinkers, but it’s among the most popular in the world. Fernet and Coke is essentially the national drink of Argentina, for example.”
Introducing people to amari is a little tricky, but not as difficult as it would seem, Morshedi said.
Often, it’s as simple as letting someone try a drink to which it has been added.
“But then there are times that we’ll just throw people into the water and watch them swim,” he said. “More times than I can count, I’ve had a guest ask me for something to settle their stomach after a big meal, and I’ve offered them a shot of a more aggressive amaro like Sibilla or a Fernet, almost as much for my amusement as for their medicinal benefit. And the majority of the time they enjoy it. Or at least they pretend to.
“Sometimes, if you’re not used to intensely bitter or herbaceous flavors, they can be a bit overwhelming. But if you stick with it, you’ll develop a taste for them. And then an entire, magical world of flavors and textures opens up to you.”
This drink is was created at Rosewater in the Clear Lake area and was specifically designed for the amaro novice.
1.5 ounces Plantation Original Dark Rum
1 ounce cold brew coffee
½ ounce Amaro Averna
¼ ounce orgeat (an almond-flavored syrup available in most liquor stores)
POUR all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously and then strain over ice in a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.