Bitter, Beautiful and Strangely Alluring — That's Amaro
Matt Bostick, master of amari at Baldoria's bar
Literally translating to "bitter" in Italian, the word amaro is as much an adjective as it is a category of liqueur. For years, a vague understanding of the ingredients used to produce it relegated the spirit to little more than a set piece along the backbar. But modern bartenders launched a quest for savory and astringent ingredients to add complexity to their drinks, and amaro was ready for its star turn. Now that it's stepped confidently into the spotlight, a certain mystique still surrounds the liquid. At the risk of eroding some of that romance, here are a few basics on the many fine amari available across town —where to find them, what to mix them with and what they are, exactly.
Traditionally, though not necessarily, amaro is produced in Italy. For a fun and flavorful crash course in amari from that part of the world, get schooled by Matt Bostick, beverage director at Baldoria downtown: "My personal passion for amari started when I was living in Italy," he explains. Intrigued by homemade varieties from Southern Europe, where it is served exclusively as an after-dinner digestif, Bostick spent half a decade informing his palate about the drink and its wide range of expressions. "It's derived from a mix of steeped roots, herbs, spices and fruits. Each formula is usually regionally specific and a closely kept secret by the families producing them."
Behind the bar, Bostick features a dozen different formulas — and at least a handful more off-menu — including rare vintages dating as far back as the early 1960s. They're spiced with everything from cardamom to rhubarb, eucalyptus to cassia honey. The ornate bottles often look and smell as if they belong in an apothecary rather than a restaurant. That's not a coincidence; Italians have long regarded amaro highly for its supposed medicinal properties. A 50-year-old glass of Braulio, tingly on the tongue, with a backbone of pine needles and Alpine air, will surely cure whatever ails you.
In addition to serving them straight, Bostick works amari into several notable cocktail variations. "We have a Cuba Libre where we have replaced the Coca-Cola with Ramazotti," he says, of a sweeter brand of amaro that actually influenced the original recipe for the world's most popular soft drink. "We then house-carbonate that ourselves. It makes for a fun twist on a classic."
Brynn Smith of Sotto takes a similarly playful approach to her amari. "I work that bitter any way I can," she says. "I love to get inspired by the flavor of each amaro and then dissect each one and bring out different flavors. I then decide what style of cocktail would best feature that flavor and if it makes sense for the season. So many possibilities." Her current list, highlighting 14 warm-weather sippers, includes nine with assorted amari components. The Mint Chocolate Malt (#MCM) is an invigorating indicator of amaro's dynamic versatility. Built around the mentholated rush of Branca Menta, cream and chocolate, the drink is more like a light and refreshing milkshake than an adult beverage.
At newly opened Multiply, head bartender Ian Lockhart is using amaro in a mezcal drink to wondrous effect. “Amaro Nonino is great because of its lighter, more balanced profile as compared to some other amari," he says. "Its flavor profile works particularly well with [an aged] mezcal like Kimo Sabe because of its balance, long finish and spiced orange and caramel notes."
"Bitterness is a flavor that really rounds out a cocktail, being that it is the last thing you taste and the longest lasting," says Adam Stearns, mixologist at Terranea resort. "I think it's gaining more recognition because it provides an option to complete a cocktail with bitter flavors as well as add additional dark herbal/spice notes. It can carry other flavors for a more extended finish, and give a more complete mouthful." He uses yellow chartreuse — a French bitter, referred to as amer — in his Picante Rosé, garnished with a cucumber slice marinated in rosewater and olive oil. This fall at the property's high-end restaurant, Mar'Sel, Stearns will introduce a line of digestif cocktails built around amaro.
Whereas adaptability ingratiates amaro to the cocktail scene, its simpler side makes it an awesome addition to the home bar. Easy to drink neat or over crushed ice with a splash of tonic or soda, most amari require little preparation to shine. They are also affordable, typically priced below $30 a bottle. To locate many examples, check out Bar Keeper in Silver Lake or Wally's in Beverly Hills.
"Something that’s potentially as obscure as amaro, given its traditional roots as a sipping digestive, it's pretty exceptional to see how far it's come," says Tad Carducci, spirits author and beverage consultant. "And to see how it's translating to the home consumer. It’s firmly cemented into the fabric of the cocktail culture. We’ve gone beyond the point of burgeoning trend, and we’ve got total saturation."
Bitters for beginners
Delving into the category is painless with familiar brands such as Campari or Aperol — although Carducci and many others qualify them as aperitifs because they contain bitter, orange-zest tonalities but lack the deep, dark, caramel-laden viscosity of traditional amari. It's the same story with Suze, a slightly syrupy French amer steeped with bitter gentian root. Cynar, a liqueur made from artichokes, is surprisingly accessible, if not singular in its approach. For a more by-the-book Italian take, Lucano, Averna, Sibilla and Luxardo Amaro Abano are all great examples, each capable of delivering an exclamation point at the end of a lively dinner party. The gamut of flavors exhibited in the Italian mainstays — fennel, menthol, cinnamon, spruce, clove — are echoed in many an homage produced stateside. Amaro delle Sirene out of D.C. and Amaro #04 from Brovo Spirits in Washington state are admirable renditions.
With its elevated prominence, the amaro category is revealing itself as many different things to many different people. But across the board, there is something oddly familiar and nostalgic to what amaro brings to the nose and palate.
"It's definitely something new for most people," Bostwick points out, "but the response is usually along the lines of, 'oh this reminds me of a candy when I was a kid' or, 'it smells like Christmas in a glass.' All in all it seems that once people try it, they can't get enough of it." Not so long ago, bottles of amaro sat behind the bar gathering dust. All along, they were just patiently waiting to be understood.
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