Mixology Monday XXXIX: Amaro
Ah yes, here we are again, staring down the loaded barrel of our favorite cocktail shaker. What shall it be loaded with this time? As host of this month’s Mixology Monday, local Los Angeles fellow and bon vivant Chuck Taggart (of the weblog Looka! found within his website The Gumbo Pages) has chosen Amaro to be stirred, shaken, whipped and consumed.
Amari (plural of amaro) are generally considered bitter drinking liqueurs from Italy consisting of a multitude of herbs, spices, and sugars. Medicinal in character, amari have long been considered to be wonderful digestivos, primed and ready to help you tackle the task of breaking down that 5 course meal you just jovially consumed. Think Fernet Branca, Averna, Cynar (made with artichokes. Artichokes!) and the like. Those seem somewhat common to me at this point, but the more I gaze into the looking glass of amari, the longer the list becomes of handcrafted, secret family recipe liqueurs from all over the world. This wonderful spirit is by no means locked down to Italy. Europeans seem to love their bitter potables in many forms. Whether it be Amaro, Amer, or Amergo, many cultures have long since known that quaffing the bitter stuff has numerous health benefits as well as providing a wonderful, warming buzz. I like to think of a delicious Amaro as the thinking man’s Jagermeister
My first encounter with drinking amari was back in ’06 while bartending at Fonda San Miguel in Austin, TX. The then head bartender turned me on to chilled Fernet shots with a ginger ale back as a pre shift ritual. My first shot had my palate turning somersaults in confusion. ”What the hell was that?” I thought to myself. It was like getting punched in the mouth with a flying fist of herbs and mint. For a while I liked the way the ginger ale tasted after the shot more than the shot itself. As with anything though, the more exposure you have to it, the more you start to like it. Needless to say, I now love it. Fernet is a pretty hardcore amaro to begin with. Much like loving Lagavulin before any other scotch. (guilty as charged) I guess if I’m going to love something for what it is, just give me the full flavored stuff and then I’ll branch out from there.
For this month’s exercise I’ve decided to put the wonderful Amaro Nonino to the test. Amaro Nonino starts as a handcrafted grappa made with great care by Italy’s Nonino family. The grapes and herbs used for this distillate come from the semi-mountainous region of Friuli, also known as Carnia. Caramelized sugar, bitter orange, cinchona, gentian, quassia wood, licorice, rhubarb, saffron, sweet orange, and tamarind are just some of the herbs and spices used by Nonino. This amaro is then aged for 5 years in oak barrels and is a bit less viscous than many other amari. The bitterness has been tamed somewhat and is an absolutely amazing, delicious, and approachable amaro. Having sipped it on many occasions, it’s layered fragrance and flavor, in my mind, makes it perfect for cocktails. Let’s have some fun shall we?
First, I have the Friuli Fizz. I was really happy with the way this one turned out as I got it to balance on the first try. The Nonino is present, offering up a subtle solo to the rest of the ingredients backing.
Start by muddling verbena simple and ginger very well. Next, add remainder of ingredients minus soda and dry shake (no ice) hard to whip. Strain into collins glass over four large cubes of ice. (I make my own cubes at the house using reverse osmosis filtered water and a special silicon ice tray) Finally, top with soda and garnish with crystallized ginger wrapped in a Meyer lemon twist. Enjoy!
Next up, the Nonino Sour. I know, I know, I did a sour last time, but I can’t help it! I’m a sucker for luxuriously silky cocktails. What can I say? The chamomile here was a natural fit with the grappa base of this spirit.
Combine all ingredients and dry shake vigorously to emulsify egg white. Add ice and shake again enough to chill properly. Strain into sour glass and garnish by grating fresh orange zest onto surface of drink.
Finally, we have the Marmalady. With this one I wanted to step out of the comfort zone a bit and I’m sure glad that I did. Amaro and smoky scotch? Indeed, and the results were delicious. Decide for yourself and make one if you dare.
Start by lightly muddling marmalade and juices enough to incorporate. Next add Nonino and Lagavulin followed by ice and shake HARD for a good 10 – 15 seconds. Strain into chilled coupe and garnish by expressing oils from long swath of orange peel and gently resting on edge of glass.
As you might be able to tell, I had a lot of fun with this month’s Mixology Monday. I loved experimenting with such a versatile yet complex spirit. I know this spirit is great in aromatic stirred cocktails but had never seen it soured or fizzed. Big thanks again to Chuck Taggart for a challenging yet extremely satisfying exercise in cocktail craft. I hope you take the time to try this wonderful amaro.