Digestifs worth knowing about
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December 27, 2011 By Amanda Schuster
Tags: holidays, digestif, Amari, winenshine
My family has a word for that feeling one gets when they’ve over-consumed during a meal, bluch. We’ve all been there, and it’s especially common this time of year when everything is so delicious. And plentiful. You just keep eating and drinking because hey, it only happens once a year, right? What’s a little more of this or that? Then before you know it, bluch.
The Italians know a thing or two about indulgences and living life to the fullest, which is why they figured out a way around this problem centuries ago and created the digestivo called Amaro. Amaro, meaning “bitter,” is a concoction of herbs, citrus rinds, botanicals and spices, all infused in alcohol or wine and finished with a bit of sweet syrup to make it all go down. The alcohol content may fall anywhere between 16% and 35%, and these are often aged for several months to a few years before release.
Amari (in plural form) were originally procured from your local Medieval pharmacist, but things have gotten easier, more palatable, and thankfully less leachy since then. The recipes vary regionally and the exact ingredients are often considered protective property, like KFC’s “secret herbs and spices” but with healthier intentions.
It can take some palate conditioning to get used to Amari’s bitter finishes, but it so rewarding when you get the hang of them. They really do help calm the stomach and aid digestion too.
It has become more common as of late for restaurants, bars and retailers to keep a good selection in stock. Amor y Amargo in New York City is a bar completely devoted to Amari, as well as their bitter cousins from around the world. More people have gotten keen on them not only as a digestif, but also for their cocktail possibilities. Here is a list of some favorites old and new and some ways to enjoy them even if you haven’t accidentally eaten ten Latkes.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia: This is the perfect way to ease into the world of Amaro and sip something soothing and familiar. It’s made with bitter orange, gentian, tamarind, rhubarb, saffron, caramelized sugar and other botanicals. As it comes from a major grappa producer in Friuli, there is some grappa incorporated into it along with grain alcohol, which make it less viscous than others. The bitter, medicinal and sweet flavors are well balanced, with the caramel playing off the fruit like an orange brulée. Serve it neat with a slight chill.
Mirto Tremontis: Mirto is a traditional Sardinian version of Amaro. The red version, such as this one, is made with an infusion of myrtle berries with herbs and aromatic spices. Interestingly, the ancient Sardinians believed mirto could only grow if a woman planted it, hence the illustration on the label. The bright berry flavors and sweetness have a clean, slightly bitter, Christmas-spicy finish. This is terrific on its own when chilled. I like to use it instead of sweet vermouth in stirred cocktails such as Manhattans and Negronis.
Rabarbaro Zucca: Hailing from Milan, this was first created by Ettore Zucca in 1845. The star ingredient here is rabarbaro (rhubarb), with the addition of some smokey herbs and zesty spices. This is one of the deeper, more concentrated varieties of digestif. The Milanese like to enjoy this one with equal parts soda water and crushed ice, preferably while watching the world go by at an outdoor piazza cafe.
Cardamaro: This wine-based Amaro is from Piemonte. From the name, you would think the main ingredient would be cardamom, but it is actually cardoon, a leafy cousin to artichoke. It also has some blessed thistle and other botanicals. The bright herbal and aromatic flavors finish with an oxidative sweetness akin to fortified wines like Madeira or Tawny Port. This one is also great neat and used as extra depth in cocktails.
Varnelli Sibilia: This one from the Sibillini mountains in the Marche smells deceptively sweet and Christmas pudding-like (dried fruits, pie spices). On the palate however, it has quite a medicinal, tannic bite that lets you know it means business. In its home region, it is traditionally consumed warm with some lemon peel. This makes the sharper flavors more soothing as it holds you in its arms and goes to work on whatever ails you.
Varnelli Dell’Erborista: Another from the Marche distillery, which has been in operation since 1868. This natural, cloudy spirit is a big winner among seasoned Amari fans, especially those of Fernet Branca. It might be a bit intense for a novice bitters drinker if consumed neat because there is only a scant sweetness to it. There are flavors of rhubarb, sandalwood, orange peel, cloves, chamomile and tart, dried plums. It’s the most acidic of the bunch, with a bone dry finish.
Averna: Centuries ago, this was produced as a curative at the Saint Spirito Abbey in Caltanissetta, Sicily. In 1868, Salvatore Averna began producing it commercially. This one is very easy-going, with warm, sweet spices and flavors of prunes and dates, ending with a slight coffee bitterness. It’s lovely neat with a slight chill, but also makes a worthy cocktail ingredient as it doesn’t overpower.
Read on for Amaro in cocktails.