Amaro is Bitter and Mysterious: Here’s What You Need to Know
Amaro: The Bitter Beauty
Over the holidays, a good friend (and better chef) turned me onto an amazing book that chronicles the rise and fall (and rise again) of the ambiguous category of alcoholic beverages we know today as Amaro.
Simply titled “Amaro,” this book by Brad Thomas Parsons helps (and hopes) to shed some light on the misunderstood (and rarely indulged by mainstream America) category of booze unceremoniously called Amaro. Literally translated as “bitter” in Italian, Amaro can mean a lot of things as far as the products that fall under this charming and lust-worthy range of beverages. When it comes to the production, appreciation, and consumption of Amaro, we’re led more by tradition than by hard fast rules of categorization and classification.
Generally, an Amaro refers to the collective class of Italian-made aromatic, herbal, bittersweet liqueurs traditionally served as a digestif after a meal. Amari are created by macerating barks, herbs, spices, seeds, citrus peels, flowers, or other aromatics in a neutral spirit or wine that is then sweetened with sugar or a sugar syrup. Cinchona bark, wormwood, gentian root, angelica root, cardamom, rhubarb, fennel, artichoke, clove, saffron, anise, and sage are some examples of common items used in, many times, secretive family recipes dating back hundreds of years. The rub is that there’s no rules about when you drink them! Aperol, Campari, Cappelletti, and Contratto are all considered Aperitifs, but still Amaro! The one thing most people agree on is that the color dictates at what part of the meal an Amaro should be consumed during. Red/Pink: before a meal; Brown: during a meal; Black: after a heavy meal (think Fernet Branca).
Bitter and bittersweet herbal liqueurs have been produced across Western Europe for centuries (Underberg and Jägermeister from Germany, Gammel Dansk from Denmark, Unicum from Hungary, Becherovka from the Czech Republic), but the classic Italian examples are the ones that have sparked a fire in my soul!
Humans are born with a genetic predisposition to avoid bitter. Years of evolution have us hardwired to treat anything that tastes bitter as potentially toxic-so when your brain senses bitterness, it kick-starts the digestive system, activating the opening acts of saliva and gastric juices in an attempt to expel what you’ve just ingested. Bu this autocratic response also leads to the sense of relief you get when you have an Amaro after a heavy meal.
Jason Tesauro, author of The Modern Gentleman, summed it up perfectly. “After a decadent meal, amaro is like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. It’s the cleaner that wipes away any evidence that you over-did it.”
As much as one can appreciate a bitter, hoppy beer or a good cup of coffee or tea, Amaro can present the same level of satisfaction and appreciation. After all there are plenty out there to try..