A Bitter Experience, or Why We Should Calm the Heck Down about Amari

I like Liquor.com, despite the brand promotion that takes place within so many of its cocktail recipes, the frequent posts to my inbox, and the ads and links to other sites that Liquor.com notes as “From Our Friends.” Okay, it is tough to monetize websites.

Overall, though, the site is a pretty good one. The photography is often stellar, knowledgeable contributors write quite well, and the recipe search function performs as a kind of personalization engine, bringing reasonable “If you like this you’ll probably like that” associations that can be fun and rewarding to explore.

Still, Liqour.com has an appetite for content and a drive for the “new” that sometimes results in questionable or under-examined recipes. Of course, cocktails, like everything else we might slide down our gullets, is a matter of taste, and I do—at least theoretically—understand that one man’s “under-examined” cocktail recipe can be another man’s treasured drink.

A case in point could be the increased number of cocktails that use amari, often substituting for more traditional fortified wines and/or bitters. “Amaro” is an Italian traditional digestif, and presumably each small Italian village has its own, although amari (the plural form of amaro, for those of you wondering if you’re witnessing a typo) available on these shores number quite well under the number of Italian villages, which is probably a good thing.  Variety and hyper-localization are wonderful qualifiers, and if you find yourself traveling to different Italian villages, by all means please avail yourself of the local variants of digestif, but there are probably more important things to do than import each and every amaro stateside to figure out if there’s a cocktail to be made from those each and every ones. I mean, this can get silly, something akin to someone building a collection of left-footed dress socks from every right-handed MLB center field player: you could do it, but why the heck would you?

Before amari fans take out contracts on my life, let me confess to a certain interest in amari shown by my having tried about two dozen of these and their close cousins from other lands, such as Biggalet China China (pronounced “chin chin,” if you must know) from France, the same country of origin as Byrrh Grand Quinquina, which is another fortified wine-based bitter aperitif. I’m happy to tell you that there are many more, from many other countries, and some are thought of as vermouth, others otherwise, but every one of them share a bitter profile like the Italian digestif, although, like the Italian (and Swiss, and Montenegro, and Serbia…) digestifs, there are ranges in sweetness, fruit, and herbs and spices.

They are all fun to try.

What I’m less convinced of, however, is that they are worth using as substitutes in foundation cocktails, as is so frequently happening these days as bar after bar tries to differentiate itself with new cocktail variants and prove how cool they are. A case in point: Brooklyn, a storied Manhattan variant, being mucked about these days.

First, the Brooklyn story: Rye whiskey, dry vermouth, and Amer Picon, and maraschino liqueur, which is a “Perfect”-like Manhattan using Amer Picon (actually a French aperitif) instead of aromatic bitters such as Angostura, with the maraschino liqueur there, presumably, to balance the bitter.  David Wondrich, cocktail historian, has identified eight Brooklyn cocktail variants, the first from the late-nineteenth century, and the one forming the basis of the above described, which goes back to 1914. The Brooklyn is said to be a drier and more complex Manhattan variant, but with one big problem: Amer Picon has been lost in the mists of time, and no one really has a definitive sense of the flavor profile. The Italian amaro CioCiaro is commonly cited as closest, but I half-suspect that this is merely rumor, as CioCiaro has a very big sweet start before its bitter side emerges, and combined with the Maraschino liqueur this recipe is cloying, not dry. I’ve been trying Maraka Maraschino liqueur in lieu of Luxardo, and I’ve concluded that Luxardo is drier (and better), but any Maraschino liqueur is too much with CioCiaro.

Amari are a thing these days, which is good. Subbing an amaro for other cocktail ingredients isn’t a simple thing, however, if the goal is a good-tasting cocktail variant.

My best recipe for the Brooklyn cocktail is as follows:

Brooklyn

  • 2 oz. Rye
  • 1½ oz. dry vermouth
  • ¼ oz. CioCiaro, Nonnio, Montenegro, or other amaro

Stir ingredients with ice and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish: cherry and/or orange twist. Optional: add orange bitters. A higher proof Rye should be used, to stand up to the addition of amaro.

With CioCiaro having the sweet start, the Maraschino had to be dropped entirely, and the amount of CioCiaro reduced to barely a splash, which works because the amaro has a strong bitter element in its finish and the higher portion of dry vermouth blends the Rye spice with the digestif bitter in a softening way. I’m still not sure if the mix is right, but I’m ready to start field testing the recipe.

The larger take-away is that the current frenzy to substitute an amaro for the vermouth or other much better understood ingredients of that sort can lead to some pretty lousy variants. New is not always better, even if new can seem cooler. The flood of amari on these shores has become a flood of injudicious use of them in cocktails.

If you are interested in amari, that is great. But I suggest that you—and your bartenders!—get more familiar with them, before ruining, for instance, a perfectly good rye for the sake of hipness.  Order a new amaro on ice, perhaps with a lemon or orange twist, and get to know it. Try it, you’ll like it… or not.

Now, if only I can win that Ebay bid on Harry Hooper’s dress silk hose, left foot only.

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