If you read articles on cocktails and drinking trends, the word “bitter” will inevitably come up. If get serious about cocktails, you will inevitably go through a “bitter, brown and stirred” phase. The Italian word for bitter is amaro.
Amaro: The Spirited World Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons is a primer and guide to every widely available amaro on the market. Parsons takes the reader through the various styles: apertivos like Campari and Aperol; Italian classics like Averna, Cynar, Meletti; aromatized wines like vermouth, quinquina and barolo chinato; American made bitters like Art in the Age Root, Calisaya and the much maligned Jeppson’s Mälort (tasting notes: Urinelike hue. Intensely bitter. Astringent and aggressive. Rocket fuel kick.) Think you’ve never had amaro? If you’ve had Jägermeister, you’ve had amaro.
While you may find a few amari on dessert menus listed with cognac and port, you’ll find them more often in cocktails. The Negroni and Boulevardier (gin or bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari) are two of my favorite apertif cocktails. Substitute Averna for vermouth in a Manhattan and it becomes a Black Manhattan. Amaro chronicles these and many more amaro cocktails, from classic to contemporary. Beyond cocktails, there are food and milkshake recipes and instructions for making your own seasonal amari. There’s also a 50-50 shot section of shots, my favorite of which is the Hard Start: equal parts Fernet-Branca and Branca Menta.
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You can say what you will about Fernet-Branca. Call it a bartender’s handshake or hipster mouthwash. Me, I drink Fernet. Mostly as a digestif, but occasionally in cocktails. On my old cocktail blog, my most popular post was about Fernet cocktails. It’s a big bully of an ingredient, and thus is used sparingly. There are two major cocktails using Fernet-Branca: The Hanky Panky (equal parts gin and sweet vermouth, two dashes Fernet) and the Toronto.
- 2 oz Canadian whisky or rye (I used Old Overholt)
- ¼ oz Fernet-Branca
- ¼ oz Demerara syrup (equal parts Demerara sugar and water)
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Combine all the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir until chilled and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
Most histories seem to say it was a variation of the Manhattan with Fernet in place of vermouth. I see it as more an Old Fashioned-style drink with Fernet as extra bitters. As such, I think it works equally well served on a large chunk of ice. The Toronto was originally made with Canadian whisky (hence the name), but I don’t normally stock that stuff in my liquor cabinet. Instead, I turned to an 80-proof rye to maintain the lightness of Canadian whisky.
Give amari a shot. Drink curious.