We Italians have the most wonderful way to finish a meal, especially a big meal. Amari, (singular, amaro), are an essential part of the Italian gustatory experience. Sadly these eupeptics have yet to catch on in America. although that is beginning to change due to pioneering work from some very forward thinking mixologists.
But as a finish to a meal, amari still seem quite “old world” to some. Amaro means bitter, and is not to be confused with Amaretto, the “little bitter almond liqueur,” nor with Amarone, the magnificent red wine from Italy’s Veneto region. No, amari are in a class by themselves. A large class of liquor numbering in the hundreds, there are even subsets divided by style.
Amaro’s origins date back to at least 300 B.C. Originally tonics or elixirs, by medieval times they were integral to alchemists in their attempts to produce gold. It was a no go for the gold, but the elixirs, with their restorative nature and curative powers remain with us. The recipes are always secret, proprietary and closely held by the Italian producers. As digestivi they are traditionally served neat (undiluted, at room temperature), or gently heated on occasion, in the cold winter months. They are also mixed with seltzer or often ginger ale and served as aperitivi, These complex libations stimulate the appetite and promote the production of digestive acids and enzymes; as the Italians say, they “open up the stomach”.
Amari are distilled from neutral spirits or wine, even grappa, and macerated on an array of ingredients – everything from citrus peel, to the roots of Alpine Yellow Gentian and the bark of the Cinchona tree. Also used are herbs, such as lemon balm and rosemary, spices such as cinnamon and cardamom and even artichokes. These are full-bodied creations with flavor nuances that would make a wine nerd wax poetic.
Most range in price from about twenty to thirty dollars, although some such as Amaro Nonino command even higher prices. Many of the bottles and labels are works of art themselves, sleek creations with beautiful gilt script and colorful design.
From Basilicata comes Amaro Lucano. The brightly festive label features a pacchiana in traditional dress with her basket of herbs and the motto “lavoro e onesta” (work and honesty). Made from 37 herbs, in the tasting are notes of ginger, licorice and cinnamon. Drink this neat or with seltzer as an aperitivo. Try it over ice cream.
Amaro Montenegro is the sweetest of the three shown here with its spice and notes of citrus peel, clove, tea and herbs. Its name honors Italy’s second Queen, Helena of Montenegro. Developed in Bologna in 1885 and popular ever since, it is one of Italy’s best selling amari. Drink it neat as a digestivo, or mixed with sparkling water or ginger ale for a delightful aperitivo.
Amaro Abano, another favorite, is made with herbs that grow wild in the volcanic hills south of Padova. This is one complex creation – initially sweet, followed by the warmth of cinnamon and black pepper, filling your mouth with cardamom, bitter orange peel and the most remarkable tobacco finish. And as with Amaro Montenegro, mixed with seltzer or ginger ale, this makes a fine aperitivo.
Somehow, when consumed neat on the novitiate’s empty stomach, the bitterness of these elixirs predominates, diminishing the drinking experience. I suggest you first taste them on a full stomach. Additionally, their alcoholic content ranges from 16% to 40% and higher, and is nothing to sneeze at. As a beginning taster, with your first sip you may discern only bitter, or distinctly separate bitter and sweet. Sip again and begin to taste the multiple part harmony of spice, herbs and fruit. The bitterness will remain a constant, taking its part as a pedal point.
When next you entertain guests with a grand and leisurely meal, consider a selection of amari to close your evening. Bring a few bottles to the table, and sip slowly to savor the delights within. Chances are it will be a new experience for many of your guests, and perhaps you will make a few converts. Bring a bottle of seltzer along, or a pot of warm water, just in case your guests wish to ease the transition from newbie to convert. Watch as after just a bit, they push the water aside. Slowly sipping these complex libations will quickly become a treasured part of your meals – a time to sit back, reflect on the joy around you and count your blessings while enjoying the good will of your company.
Next time you need a bit of the hair of the dog that bit you, try this instead of a Bloody Mary.
1 ounce Amaro Montenegro
2 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice
orange slice for garnish
Pour Amaro Montenegro over crushed ice. Add orange juice and stir with a bar spoon. Garnish with an orange slice. Serve.