Amari - the dark and mysterious side of Italian drinking
I wrote a piece in October about digestifs: the strong, often sweet drinks some countries produce for after-dinner drinking¹. Brandies and liqueurs are very well known, but it's worth exploring the Italian amari further, as they're so much less well-known. Until the last ten years or so, very few amari have been known outside Italy at all, but north American mixologists, ever on the look-out for an interesting edge, have started to use them more and more in bespoke cocktails.
The word amaro means bitter, and that's exactly what these drinks are. Be under no illusion: they are drinks for grown-ups. The level of bitterness will vary from one brand to the next, but they all carry that same trait. Originally, these drinks were herbal tinctures, tonics created by apothecaries and herbalists, but as access to medicine improved, people continued to drink them for their enjoyable flavours and reputed ability to settle the stomach after a decent meal. So there we have their principal features: high alcohol content, bitterness and herbaceous flavours. Sugar is added to make them palatable.
Because every brand has its own flavour profile, it's impossible to describe exactly what an amaro should taste like. Virtually every producer advertises that they follow a closely-guarded, secret recipe of only the best herbs and botanicals from their region. The most common of these botanicals are gentian, wormwood, thyme and citrus peels, but of course these are blended in different proportions and with many other ingredients to create unique experiences for the drinker. This uniqueness is exactly the thing the mixologists love: slight variations in flavour that can make a huge difference in a finished cocktail. Their use in cocktails is very recent, though. If you're going to drink like an Italian, you'll have to learn to take your amaro neat, on the rocks.
|A refreshing glass of Cynar & tonic, with lemon|
Finally, a word for my favourite amaro...
|Image courtesy of Amaro Amara|
The slopes of Mount Etna provide the perfect growing conditions for sharp, red, juicy blood oranges. These are used to brilliant effect in Amara, an orange-forward amaro from Sicily. If you like orange marmalade, you'll love the bitter-sweet aromatic balance of this delicious drink. Unfortunately, it's very hard to get hold of in the UK. I suspect the Brexit agreement hasn't created favourable conditions for importing small amounts of artisan drinks. I have one bottle: I shall continue my quest to find more.
Next time: winter pickles
I am indebted to Nolan from Lattitude Wine in Leeds, for his help and advice in choosing the amari for this post. Lattitude maintains an extensive list of spirits, wines liqueurs and cocktail ingredients, and delivers nationwide. You can contact them via their website: https://latitudewine.co.uk/