The Varnish, 2011
I stopped by The Varnish in Downtown Los Angeles late one night, looking for a spot to kick back and enjoy just one more sip that wouldn’t put me over the edge. With nothing specific in mind, I asked general manager Chris Bostick for something “tall and low-proof” and he obliged with a snap of the fingers, producing this stunning, friendly, and balanced delight.
It specifies Gran Clasico, made by Tempus Fugit Spirits up in Novato, north of San Francisco. It’s a bitter liqueur in the style of the great Italian amari like Montenegro and Ramazzotti. Track that down and the rest is probably already on hand: lime, orange, simple syrup, and the bubbles of your choice – seltzer, soda, or mineral water.
Hardware: Shaker, Jigger, Barspoon, Straw (optional)
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Mixers & Liqueurs: Gran Clasico, Simple syrup, Seltzer or tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree) or sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Lime juice, Orange wedge
In a shaker about a third-full with ice cubes, add:
1 oz Gran Clasico
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz simple syrup
Shake well to blend and chill, then strain into a Collins glass filled most of the way up with cracked ice. Top with:
2 oz seltzer, tonic water, or sparkling mineral water
Squeeze in the juice from one orange wedge and stir lightly to blend, then garnish with the orange wedge. Optionally, serve with a straw.
Recently, I shared a taste of the amaro Ramazzotti with a friend. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh my God. What is this stuff and why didn’t I know about it?” There’ve been a lot of those reactions over the last few years as bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts fell in love with the sprawling world of amari, those rich, herbal liqueurs Italians have been enjoying since the early 1800s as health tonics and companions for food.
WHAT ARE AMARI?
For untold years before the rise of modern pharmaceuticals, people used plants as medicine through (sometimes fatal) trial-and-error experimentation. Simply put, amari (plural of amaro, Italian for “bitter”) are booze with sugar and a range of health-specific botanicals added, but always with a bitter component – usually Gentian. The root of the flowering Yellow Gentian was used as an anti-inflammatory stomach tonic to help stimulate appetite and ease digestion. Now, when you hear “bitter,” don’t think it’s going to be nasty and disgusting. If you like good chocolate or good coffee, your palate already understands how pleasant bitterness can be when combined with sweetness. It’s like life, you know – you take the good with the bad. The most common style of amaro production uses a neutral spirit base (typically vodka or grappa) loaded up with differing botanicals (roots, bark, herbs, flowers, spices), sugar, and (sometimes nowadays) caramel coloring. These are often family recipes passed down through the generations and they vary by region. Typical amari botanicals may include anise, chamomile, chinchona, ginger, lemon balm, licorice, mint, orange peel, rhubarb, saffron, sage, thyme – even artichoke at the weird end of things. Amari range in proof from 40 to 80 percent, so they can be a pleasant alternative beverage when you don’t want something too strong.
Vermouths (both the sweet Italian style and the dry French style) can be thought of similar to amari – they’re just made with a fortified wine base in place of the neutral spirit and wormwood as one of the bitter components (where allowed). Vermouth got its start in Asia around 1000 BC (wow) and later came to rise in Germany as a digestive tonic for the upper class, something they would take a sip of between each bite so they could keep gorging themselves, striving for the overweight appearance prized as a status symbol. But German vermouth had a reputation as ruthlessly efficient and equally unpleasant. It took tavern worker Antonio Carpano of Turin, Italy to bring his family’s recipe to his bosses, a finessing of the idea of vermouth for his German customers in 1786, that perfected it with a blend of sweetness and spice in a recipe that’s emulated with the Carpano Antica vermouth sold today.
Vermouths are typically enjoyed over ice with a lemon twist as “aperitifs,” a before-dinner kickstart, a reset button that marks the border between the workday and the evening. Amari are sipped after dinner as “digestifs,” neat (straight from the bottle at room temperature) to help settle the dinner down and prevent that two-hour dead zone of loginess.
Amari can be kept at room temperature – their sugar content helps keep them shelf-stable. Vermouths should always be refrigerated after opening and used within a couple weeks, if possible. It helps to buy vermouth in 375 mL bottles, or to share a larger 750 mL (or even 1 L in the case of Carpano Antica) with a friend and store it in smaller bottles or jars.
There are hundreds of amari produced across Europe, maybe a couple dozen that are available here in the U.S. It’s hard to segment them into rigid defining types as there’s much crossover, but the general agreement seems to be on these basic distinctions:
MEDIUM: The core of the class, these amari are rich and potent, but never overwhelming. Look for Amaro Montenegro as a great starting taste that represents amari at their best. Also worth tracking down are Ramazzotti and Averna.
FERNET: Always overwhelming (in a good way), these amari are prized for their curative properties – but their intense herbal menthol flavor is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Best known are Fernet-Branca and Luxardo Fernet.
CHINA: Pronouncedly bitter with sweetness diminished, these borderline amari are nearly always consumed mixed and served as aperitifs. Made with the medicinal chinchona calisaya bark, they’re just too intense on their own. Best known are Campari, Aperol, and Tempus Fugit’s nouveau-retro Gran Clasico. There’s a great new Calisaya liqueur made in Eugene, Oregon that revives this long-lost ingredient in many pre-prohibition cocktails.
OTHERS: From here, things get even deeper into niches. There’s Alpine types made with mountain herbs, Carciofo made with artichoke, Tartufo made with truffles, and more.
OTHERS: Stepping away from these two classic styles are a round of variations: white (also called bianco or blanc), amber, and rosé. Again, Dolin makes a heavenly blanc vermouth.
Now: even though these amari and vermouths are typically enjoyed on their own in Europe, that hasn’t stopped bartenders around the world from experimenting with their use in cocktails of all kinds. Vermouth’s popularity in New York City around 1870 gave birth to an all-new style of stirred cocktails including the Martinez, the Manhattan, and the Martini. One of my favorite new-school amari drinks is the “Vienna by Train,” a low-proof sipper by Chris Bostick while he was at The Varnish in Los Angeles.
By all means, enjoy these mixed (they are delicious in cocktails when done right)… but some traditions are worth exploring and maintaining. Try some vermouth before your next big meal and an amaro afterwards; You may agree there’s something special to this old-time medicine after all.
A giant vat of thanks to Mollie Casey of The Henry Wine Group for sharing her knowledge of and enthusiasm for amari.