The popularity of the digestif Fernet Branca, which Eater has mentioned several times this week, has brought new attention to the group of Italian liqueurs known as amari (singular: amaro). To get the scoop on amaro, Eater spoke with Jeff Faile, who has had plenty of experience with the liqueurs as Bar Manager at Italian restaurants Fiola and Casa Luca where he stocks 15-20 varieties at each bar.
While amaro literally translates to "bitter", Faile prefers to describe the flavor as "herbaceous." He elaborates on amaro's bad reputation: "People often call it bitter, but I think that does it a little disservice. There's always a little bit more if you get past that herbaceous bit of it. There's more layers to it that just straightforward bitter, anything from orange, cinnamon, citrus, mint, and gentian."
"I wish people would get past the bitter connotation to it. It's the same thing like whenever we tasted our first sip of alcohol, and we made a face. You just have have to get your palate to accept that different flavor profile that's coming in. If you get past that dry aspect of it, and start thinking about it you can get quite a bit of other flavors whether it's mint, orange, gentian, honey. There are certain enjoyable flavors if you don't think about how different it is from what you've tasted in the past. Bartenders aren't that big of masochists." And for those willing to venture trying one, he recommends Averna or the orange-noted Amaro Nonino. As he explains, the Nonino has been barrel aged, which may make it more familiar to the palate and softens the bitterness. (Averna happens to be one of Faile's favorite for mixing, and Nonino happens to be his favorite for sipping.)
He also recommends a new amaro to D.C.: Dell'erborista. "It's an unfiltered one. Really heavy on the gentian, a little bit of honey in there. It comes out this cloudy, pale brown yellow color. It's not for the beginner. I absolutely love that one. If I wanted to put out my amaro-waving flag that flavor profile would be the one people think of when they think of amaro. It's on the drier, not bitter, side of life."
But these are just three among the many different varieties and styles of amari. In Faile's own words:
Fernet: The most popular style is Fernet. It's at the forefront, and it's been out there forever. Other producers are coming out with them now. It's heavy, heavy mint.
Zucca: That one's funny. It's a little heavier, and it kind of throws me off because zucca means pumpkin, but it's rhubarb. It has, not Islay scotch or mezcal smokiness, but it does have a little bit of a smoky quality to it. I just put it in a cocktail at Casa Luca.
Nonino: It's grappa based. So it's a little different from most. It doesn't have that burn, which scares most people away from grappa. It's got a little saffron and orange peel to it. It's aged in oak, so it's rounded out. But it really is a nice, mellow digestif that works wonders.
Cardamaro: This one is wine-based, so it has a little bit of that soft characteristic that vermouth has. Cardoon is one of the main ingredients. There are hints of thistle. But it's not as herbaceous as some of the other ones.
Cynar: It's an artichoke amaro. That sat on my back bar at Palena forever. It might have been the first amaro I tasted. It was hard for me to push it because I didn't appreciate it at the time. When you taste it for the first time, it lulls your tastebuds into this false sense of security because it has this nice little sweet note on it at the very beginning and it just does at 180 and smacks your tongue around. Sucker!
He notes that an amaro's flavor profile is largely influenced by geography and local ingredients. "Depending where on the boot of Italy you're from, the northern part seems to be a little bit more winter time-oriented in the flavor profile — rosemary, clove. The south seems a bit more citrusy."
As for the Fernet trend? "I love it. I don't necessarily do shots of it. After dinner if you've overindulged, which I often do, that's the reason I drink it. Strictly for medicinal purposes. I have no idea why they're going crazy for it. It's delicious, but so are a lot of things." And as for being known as "the bitter guy"? "No, I'm not I'm really happy! I have a good life. I'm not bitter. In a roundabout way I'm associated with it quite a bit. But it always strikes me as funny. Says the guy with the Campari phone case."
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