Words of Wit, Wisdom and Wonder on Wine & Spirits

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sweet on Bitters

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the word amore sounds awfully close to amaro. After all, enthusiasts who know their bitters by and large confess to a large scale love affair with amaro, the Italian “digestivo” hugely popular in Italy but scarcely known stateside.

When it comes to bitters, most Americans may be vaguely familiar with Angostura, a ghastly dark and insanely bitter concoction sometimes added in droplets to a Bloody Mary. Those a bit more in the know might recognize Compari and Fernet Branca, two of the most widely distributed digestives on both sides of the Atlantic. But amaro, in this writer’s view, is in another class altogether.

Amaro is a bitter, sometimes bittersweet eau de vie comprised of herbs and spices steeped in either grape brandy (grappa) or pure grain alcohol, originally developed in the 1700’s by monks in abbes and monasteries ostensibly as a medicine meant to cure all ills. Given the high alcohol content of these early elixirs, they may not have cured any ailments yet after a glass or two it undoubtedly felt like it did. A century later, so popular did bitters such as amaro become that the beverage began to be marketed commercially. Today, amari (plural of amaro) are produced in virtually every region of Italy, under as many brand names, with some never sold outside the local towns and villages where they originated. In the US, we’ve come to know just a few: Fernet Branca (Milan) and to a lesser degree, Averna (Sicily).

 Classic amari range in color from golden amber to dark maple

Some of the best brand names of amari that are available of late in better wine and spirits stores in the US include Amaro Lucarno (Basilicata), Ramazzotti (Milan), Amaro Montenegro (Bologna) and Amaro Nonino (Friuli), the latter created by the internationally renown grappa makers. Needless to say, the individual recipes for these so-called “magic” elixirs are closely guarded secrets held by families for generations. A typical amaro, amazingly enough, may contain a blend of as many as forty rare and exotic herbs, fruits, and spices. Because the recipes vary from maker to maker, there is always a disparity in taste, aroma, color, weight and alcoholic kick of the various amari.

At first sip, the taste of amaro may send a bit of a jolt to the senses, culminating in a shiver and a look of shock and dismay. To be sure, amaro is an acquired taste. But once initiated to the marvelous subtleties and complex flavors of a fine amaro, which can run from sage, nutmeg and burnt orange to toasted nuts, cardamom and bittersweet chocolate, there is no other libation that can compare, especially after a huge meal, which is when this digestive is best imbibed. Italians drink their favorite amaro straight, either in a shot or liqueur glass or poured into the remaining coffee and sugar in the bottom of their espresso cup. Some prefer it mixed with soda and a wedge of lemon or line as a tasty summer refresher.

If American marketers have their way, we will no doubt soon be seeing amaro as the primary ingredient in the latest cocktail craze, which is fine by me. Before that inevitability occurs we should keep in mind that amaro, as a digestive, was originally designed to soothe a sour stomach left in the wake of an indulgent repast. But no matter how bitter it may be, I’ll take amaro over Maalox any day of the week.

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