On New Year's Eve, we planned a decadent home-cooked meal with friends that started with caviar pie, gougeres and pate, moved on to homemade pasta with carbonara sauce and ended with pumpkin cheesecake. This kind of gluttony is best capped off with a digestif--a high-proof, aromatic spirit that settles the stomach after a rich meal. Digestifs include spirits such as brandy, grappa and even whiskey. In Europe, ouzo and limoncello are great digestifs, but it's amari from Italy that dominates the category
Amaro means bitter in Italian (amari is the plural of the word), and these liqueurs are known for...well, being an acquired taste. While amari are typically associated with Italy--there are over 50 kinds produced there--there are similar liqueurs from around Europe, such as Gammel Dansk from Denmark, Becherovka from the Czech Republic, Unicum from Hungary, and Jaegermeister from Germany.
Most amari are flavored with a variety of herbs, berries and roots (also found in many bitters). Strong and distinctive flavors come from cinchona bark gentian and angelica roots. Herbal notes are present thanks to everything from sage and thyme to juniper and anise. And floral and citrus aromas may be present from the addition of lemon verbena to mint and citrus peels. A selection of these flavorings, maybe a dozen or more (most brands keep their recipes under lock and key) are macerated with neutral spirits and aged in casks or bottles. The resulting liqueurs range from 30-70 proof.
Amari are typically served neat, in small cordial glasses or high balls. In cafes throughout Italy, shelves are lined with dozens of varieties and it's not surprising to see people order them in the morning, alongside their espresso, since they also work well as hair of the dog. Fernet Branca is a favorite, and the practice of having a shot to revitalize you after a night of drinking has been popular among cocktail enthusiasts for years. Fernet, and its cousin Jaegermeister are on the minty, herbal side. For something a little spicier, there is Averna and Ramazzotti. And for a something mildly sweet, Amaro Nonino is a good place to start.
Much like a dash of bitters, amaro can benefit cocktails a great deal. To this end, Maggie Savarino says in her book, The Seasonal Cocktail Companion, " In cocktails, it shines, countering sour and sweet and pulling everything together like a perfect bass line." In an Autumn Sweater cocktail, from Brad Thomas Parsons' book Bitters, the recipe includes both Averna and Amaro Nonino, to balance out the rich flavor of rye whiskey and sweetness of maple syrup. The recipe is below, but a slight variation of the drink is also currently on the menu at Palace Kitchen. And even though it's the dead of winter, an Autumn Sweater will still warm you up.
1 ounce rye
½ ounce Averna
½ ounce Amaro Nonino
½ ounce maple syrup
1 dash Urban Moonshine bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Garnish: thick clove-studded strip of orange zest
Combine all the ingredients except the garnish in a mixing glass filled with ice and stir until chilled. Add a large sphere of ice to a chilled double old-fashioned and strain the drink into the glass. For the garnish, use a paring knife to slice a thick strip of zest from an orange. Twist it over the drink to release the essential oils and rub along the rim of the glass. Stud the orange zest with two whole cloves and drape it over the ice sphere.
From Bitters, by Brad Thomas Parsons. © 2011 Ten Speed Press