Posted on | April 13, 2012 | Written by Crystal Edgar | No Comments
Amaro, not to be confused with Amaretto, is as much part of Italy’s culinary lineup as pasta, pizza, espresso and gelato. It’s long and almost mythical history has earned it a well-earned spot in just about every Italian bar, restaurant and home. Although Amaro’s identity is traditionally viewed to aid in digestion, the bitter truth is times and tastes are changing. This bitter drink is making its way in to more cocktail bars, kitchens and bakeries as chefs, baker and barmen find creative uses for this beverage in their establishments.
A natural tonic produced throughout Italy, Amaro (pronounced ah’maro meaning “bitter”) is typically made by macerating a variety of aromatics in neutral alcohol or wine, and then a sugar substance is mixed with the filtrate before the liquid spends time to mature in large wooden casks. These aromatic flavorings can consist of a wide range of ingredients: flowers, bark, citrus peel, lemon balm, juniper, anise, fennel, ginger, mint, thyme, sage, bay laurel, rhubarb, licorice, cardamom, wormwood, elderflower, pine sap, and the list goes on. These herbs and spices were intended to stimulate the secretion of gastric juices and thus speed digestion. Similar to Coca-Cola, exact recipes for these magic elixirs are closely guarded secrets and vary due to regional recipes, traditions and available ingredients.
The “bitter” roots of this beverage can be traced back to the tonics and elixirs formulated centuries ago in the monasteries and abbeys. Due to the influence of Italian merchants, several types of foods and spices were encountered and traded along the routes to and from the near and far east. During that time, herbalists and ancient monks were known for their talents in creating concoctions believed to have restorative or medicinal properties (many serving as protection agents against plagues and or evil spirits). Interestingly, the origins of Amaro closely resemble the Chinese approach to traditional or herbal medicine created to promote the balance of ‘yin and yang’ in the body. Originally sold in pharmacies to aid in digestion and other stomach ailments, Amaro, like its Chinese cousin, was never intended to taste good.
Today, thanks to creative expressions by mixologists and barmen, Amaro is proving far more popular, versatile and food friendly than those friars and monks could have ever imagined. Enjoyed in a variety of cocktails and aperitifs, poured neat or on the rocks, during or after a meal, Amaro is making its sweet way into the spotlight.
Below are a few of my favorite Amari to taste or revisit on your next digestive or cocktail quest:
Nonino Amaro Quintessentia – A lighter styled Amaro produced in Friuli
Montenegro Amaro – Rich herbal complexity, produced in Bologna (named in honor of Italian Queen Jelena Petrović-Njegoš of Montenegro)
Averna Amaro – Complex and compelling with distinct citrus notes, produced in Sicily
Amaro Lucano – Spicy with distinct bitter chocolate notes, produced in Basilicata
Fernet Branca – Intense, viscous and pungent, this is said by many to be the “benchmark” Amaro, produced in Milan