Amaro 103: Advanced Amari
Amaro 103: Advanced Amari
Amaro 103: Advanced Amari
As bartenders and spirits enthusiasts continue their exploration of the cocktail pantheon, one category of drinks has exhibited real staying power: bitter. Maybe it’s our world view?
Whatever the reason, bitter drinks are a lot of fun to concoct and imbibe, and in this article I’ll introduce you to some of the lesser-known bitter liqueurs, which the Italians call “amari”. For some background, please go back and read Amaro 101 and Amaro 102, in which I covered fifteen other amari.
In contrast to Amaro 101 and 102, Amaro 103 looks at bitter liqueurs made both inside and outside Italy. Let’s get started!
Bigallet Viriana China-China Amer
Bigallet’s Viriana China-China Amer began popping up on California shelves in the Fall of 2013, but the brand has been around since 1872. “China” in this case has nothing to do with the country; rather it is a reference to the bittering agent “cinchona”—a source of quinine native to Peru and neighboring countries.
Situated in the Rhone Alps region of France, the company makes a variety of liqueurs and non-alcoholic syrups, but their bitter liqueur was among the first products they produced. It’s macerated in a neutral beet distillate, then redistilled, re-flavored, and sweetened.
Bigallet China is very smooth despite its relatively high alcohol percentage of 40, and leads with bitter orange and cherry notes. Bigallet has a medium bitterness, and works well in cocktails—many use it as a substitute for Amer Picon in traditional cocktail recipes such as the Brooklyn.
|Virieu-sur-Bourbe, France||40||Sweet orange peel, bitter orange peel||Whole oranges, cherries, gentian, anise, hint of clove and cinnamon||$38|
Paul Manzelli via Frederick Yarm
2 oz Old Overholt Rye
1 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
1/2 oz Bigallet Viriana China China Liqueur
1/4 oz Maraschino Liqueur
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a Marasca cherry.
Jim Romdall (Vessel) via Mutineer Magazine
1 oz Nikka 12yr Pure Malt
3/4 oz Luxardo apricot
3/4 oz Christian Drouin Calvados
1/4 oz Bigallet China-China Amer
Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Created in the 1960s as a response to Italians’ penchant for mixing their Fernet Branca with mint syrup, Branca Menta bears many similarities with its more popular older brother. Bottled at 35% alcohol, it is noticeably sweeter and less bitter than the 40% Fernet. Mint oil provides the prominent flavor, backed by menthol and a bit of cocoa and eucalyptus. The chocolate and mint together remind me of a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie. Branca Menta is traditionally consumed over ice or as a chilled shot but can be worked into highballs and cocktails.
|Milan, Italy||35||Mint oil||Very minty, followed by cocoa and a bit of menthol, then a minor floral note||$20|
Branca Menta Cocktails
1 oz Brancamenta
Lime juice to taste
1 teaspoon demerara sugar
Put a few mint leaves, sugar and the juice from ¼ lime into a rocks glass. Muddle, then fill the glass with ice, pour 1 oz Brancamenta and add tonic water to fill. Stir gently and garnish with a mint sprig.
Ian Carrico via The Boys Club
2 oz Bourbon
3/4 oz Benedictine
3/4 oz Branca Menta
Mint sprig, for garnish
Pour Bourbon, Benedictine, and Branca Menta over crushed ice in a tumbler or julep cup. Garnish with mint sprig.
Here in San Francisco, Fernet Branca has attained cult status as the go-to drink for bartenders, industry insiders and other in-the-know imbibers. But as we learned in Amaro 101, despite persistent references to Fernet Branca simply as “Fernet”, that is a category, not a brand.
Based on the popularity of Fernet Branca, we are now seeing more fernet-sytle amari appear on our store shelves and back bars. One of the more recent entries to the US Fernet market is Fernet-Vallet. Fernet-Vallet’s appearance stateside represents the work of Jake Lustig of local import house Haas Brothers. He so enjoyed the Mexican Fernet while in Mexico, that he convinced his bosses to import it.
Other tasting notes I’ve read on Fernet-Vallet are very different from my own. I find it to be very thin, tannic, and not sweet at all. It has a fairly high bitterness and presents with fennel, cinnamon, clove and anise.
|Hidalgo, Mexico||35||Orange peel, rhubarb, wormwood, gentian, cinnamon, clove, cassia bark, cardamom||Fennel, cinnamon, clove, gentian, anise||$25|
Nick Ramsdell (Double Dragon) via Esquire
1 oz Vida Mezcal
1 oz Fernet Vallet
1 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz rich Demerara syrup
1 large pinch of salt
Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and pour over ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with a lime.
1 ounce Fernet -Vallet
1 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1 ounce King’s Ginger liqueur
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce ginger beer
Combine the Fernet, vermouth, ginger liqueur and lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice; shake 15-20 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass with fresh ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with the lime wheel.
Gran Classico Bitter
Sticking with bitters having a Northern California connection, we move to Gran Classico Bitter, which is made in Switzerland, but imported by Tempus Fugit Spirits in Petaluma, California. Gran Classico was introduced in 2010. It is allegedly based on an 1864 amaro recipe called “Biter of Turin” but I have yet to find any evidence of this beyond Tempus Fugit’s own marketing materials. To be fair, they probably aren’t eager to share the recipe. They also claim the recipe is the basis for Campari’s eponymous bitter, which is perhaps the reason some use Gran Classico in drinks that call for Campari.
For me Gran Classico is more complex, but less bitter than Campari. I also perceive it to be sweeter, although that may be a perception based on the decreased bitterness. There is a notable roasted rhubarb note along with fennel/anise flavors, so for me it doesn’t work as a Campari replacement at all—certainly not in a Negroni. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its own merits as a bitter liqueur; I just bristle at the Campari replacement notion because I find them to be so different from one another.
|Switzerland||28||Wormwood, gentian, bitter orange peel, rhubarb, and hyssop||Roasted rhubarb, orange peel, gentian, anise, clove, fennel||$35|
Gran Classico Cocktails
2 oz Rye
3/4 oz Dolin Blanc
1/2 oz Gran Classico Bitter
1 barspoon Luxardo Maraschino
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel over glass and drop in.
Dan Chadwick via Kindred Cocktails
3⁄4 oz Gin
3⁄4 oz Green Chartreuse
3⁄4 oz Gran Classico
3⁄4 oz Lime juice
Shake, strain, rocks, lowball, or up/cocktail glass.
Amaro Lucano is a favorite among Southern Italians. It was created in 1894 by Cavalier Pasquale Vena in Pisticci, a small town located in the Lucania region of Matera. A baker by trade, Pasquale’s first batches of amari were created in the back room of his cookie bakery. Production ramped up in the early 20th century, but like most Italian distilleries, things ground to a halt during World War II. In the late fifties, Pasquale’s sons Leonardo and Giuseppe built out the distillery and ramped up production considerably. The company moved to its current location in 1965. Still a family-owned company, Lucano is today helmed by Pasquale’s grandson who is also named (wait for it) Pasquale. Their web site is available in English, and contains a wealth of information about the ingredients and the process—a welcome break from the secrecy that abounds in the industry.
Lucano is fairly bitter, yet easy drinking. Its primary flavors are bitter orange and grapefruit, flowed by anise and chocolate. It works really well in cocktails.
|Matera, Italy||30||Wormwood, sage, musk yarrow, holy thistle, sweet orange, gentian, angelica, sambucus elderberry, ruta, aloe||Bitter orange, grapefruit, hint of fennel, cinnamon, cocoa||$29|
Amaro Lucano Cocktails
via Mutineer Magazine
1 oz Amaro Lucano
3/4 oz Raspberry Liqueur
3 oz Pinot Noir
1/4 oz Lemon Juice
Roll ingredients with ice. Strain over fresh ice into a wine glass. Garnish with fresh pineapple pieces and a kaffir lime leaf.
Dan Long via Kindred Cocktails
1 1⁄2 oz Gin
1⁄2 oz Carpano Antica
3⁄4 oz Amaro Lucano
1⁄4 oz Fernet Branca
Stir, strain, Serve up. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.
Luxardo Amaro Abano
Luxardo’s US distributor is fond of using the line “Luxardo: more than maraschino” in their marketing materials, and it’s with good reason. Luxardo is synonymous with Maraschino liqueur here, but the company actually has a large line of bitter liqueurs and other products that are essentially invisible to the general population. One such product is Luxardo’s Amaro Abano.
There is very little information about Amaro Abano online, but the town of Abano Terme is undoubtedly its namesake. Situated in Veneto within the northeast province of Padua, Abano is known for its hot springs and mud baths. This spa destination is also home to a variety of herbs and wildflowers, some of which are incorporated into the liqueur.
Amaro Abano is mildly bitter, and has a pleasant mix of spice and herbal notes including licorice and cinnamon.
|Veneto, Italy||30||Cardamom, bitter orange, cinnamon, cinchona
|Anise, clove, cinchona, orange peel, fennel , cinnamon||$23|
Amaro Abano Cocktails
Mott & Mullberry
Leo Robitschek via Serious Eats
1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce Amaro Abano
3/4 ounce unfiltered apple cider
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce Demarara simple syrup
Add rye, Amaro, apple cider, lemon juice, and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake until well chilled, about 15 seconds. Fill a rocks glass with ice. Strain cocktail into serving glass and serve immediately.
Breakfast in Bed
Owen Schmidt via Rock & Rye
3 oz Oatmeal stout
1 1/2 oz Amaro Abano
1 whole egg
Dash orange bitters
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and dry shake. Fill with ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. No garnish.
Amaro Sibilla was created in 1868 by Girolamo Varnelli, an herbalist from Pievebovigliana in the Macerata province of Italy. The recipe, which is comprised of roots and herbs originally gathered from nearby Mount Sibillini is a closely guarded family secret (the firm is still run by his heirs—all of whom are women). We do know that the botanicals are roasted prior to maceration, which yields a host of rich and smoky vegetal flavors.
Things I’ve heard people say about Amaro Sibilla include the following:
1) What a beautiful bottle!
2) Yikes, look at the price!
3) Oh dear, it smells like cat pee!
The first two are undeniable. It really is a beautiful design, and it is in fact nearly twice as expensive as other amari. The cat pee thing is debatable. In any event, this is not an amaro for those just getting started in the bitter arts, but worth exploring nonetheless.
|Macerata, Italy||34||Honey, cinchona, gentian||Honey, gentian, hint of smoky oak, dried chamomile flowers, cinnamon, pepper, juniper||$59|
Amaro Sibilla Cocktails
Honey & Thistle
Matthew Schrage via Frederick Yarm
1 1/2 oz Cardamaro
3/4 oz Cocchi Americano
1/4 oz Amaro Sibilla
2 oz Tonic Water
Build in a Highball glass filled with ice. Top with the tonic water, garnish with an orange twist, and add a straw.
The End is Nigh
Cure via Details
11/2 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz Bonal
1/4 oz Varnelli Amaro Sibilla
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir 40 revolutions and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.
Suze was created in 1885 by Fernand Moureaux, a French distillery owner. The distillery was purchased by Pernod in 1965. Today Suze is the fifth most popular aperitif in France, and recently entered the US market. According to Pernod’s marleting materials, the name “Suze” either came from Moureaux’s sister-in-law Suzanne (she loved the stuff) or from a Swiss river of the same name.
Suze is famous for its “necktie” bottle, which was featured abstractly in a painting by Pablo Picasso (that’s one way to get your name out there).
Suze’s flavors are of gentian (it’s 50% gentian after all) wildflowers,bitter orange and fennel. Given its pale yellow color, Suze is often used by bartenders who want a bitter component, but not the brown or red color that accompanies it. The White Negroni is a prime example (recipe below).
|Thuir, France||20||Yellow gentian,||Dried wildflowers, gentian, bitter orange peel, fennel||$32|
Wayne Collins via PDT
2 oz Plymouth Gin
3/4 oz Lillet Blanc
1/2 oz Suze
Jim Meehan, PDT
2 oz Dickel 12
¾ oz Lillet Blanc
½ oz Suze
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Hailing from Udine region in Italy’s northeast corner, Amaro Tosolini is the creation of Bepi Tosolini, who invented it in 1918. The fifteen herbs and botanicals are combined with liquor in ash barrels where they macerate for four months prior to filtration and proofing.
Tosolini is a mildly bitter amaro that is on the herbal/vegetal side. Wild fennel and roasted rhubarb lead the flavors, followed by bitter orange and cinnamon. I find it to be pretty delightful, and easy to work into cocktails.
|Povoletto, Udine, Italy||28||Curcuma, Angelica, Bitter Orange, Calamus, Eugenia Caryophyllata, Gentian, Artemisia, Rosemary, Star anise, levisticum||Fresh fennel, roasted rhubarb, bitter orange, cinchona, cinnamon||$35|
Amaro Tosolini Cocktails
Giorgio, Yo Mommy
Josh Miller, Inu A Kena
2 oz St. George Single Malt
¾ oz Amaro Tosolini
¾ oz Carpano Antica
Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry.
Josh Miller, Inu A Kena
2 oz Pierre Ferrand Cognac Ambre
3/4 oz Amaro Tosolini
1/2 oz Maurin Quina
Stir, strain, garnish with orange twist
Now that I have a couple dozen different amari in the bar, you’d think I might be done exploring the world of bitter liqueurs, but you’d be wrong. Although there are many similarities among the amari I’ve tasted, each one represents something unique. The herbs, spices and botanicals give me a sense of place—I often imagine someone picking flowers from a hillside in the Italian Alps when I drink certain amari like Braulio, for example.
The good news is that we are now seeing more and more amari being imported from Europe, so I imagine there will continue to be new ones to try for years to come. In the meantime, I think I’ll try my hand at making my own amaro—it’s not unlike making cocktail bitters after all. Well, off to the herb shop!