Deconstructing Amaro

House-made amaro: The latest trend in DIY cocktail ingredients?

Like most bartenders from the recent past, my sordid introduction to amari came in the form of a courageous pour of Fernet Branca. Menacingly bitter and bracingly medicinal, it attacks not just your palate, but also your entire nervous system, with a fierce one-two punch. 

This was about five years ago, at a time when many bartenders were being retrained in their craft through the help of friends and colleagues who had become immersed in unearthing the golden age of the classic cocktail. Back then, the person who acquainted you with the dusty bottles of Fernet and Chartreuse waiting unassumingly on the back bar seemed to possess some long-forgotten esoteric knowledge. These liqueurs were the antithesis of the tepid, almost neutral, flavor profile of vodka — the spirit that ruled the market with an iron fist (and largely still does). They, instead, are full-bodied, complex creatures layered like wine — some of those layers scream in your ear while others linger subtly on the back of your tongue, barely hinting at their presence.

It wasn't until after the boisterous rite of passage of downing then-obscure Italian potable bitters that I actually started to appreciate the nuances of these digestifs, slowly sipping them after they'd been slightly chilled and diluted. My affair was cemented after I had my first experience with an amaro-based cocktail. After a long night of eating and drinking with a few other bartenders I had just met for an event in town, we ended up at Milk & Honey, comfortably packed in a small booth, anxiously trying to keep our ship sailing. One person asked for something not too alcoholic, but still robust and refreshing. A straightforward amaro sour was presented and the clock on the wall stopped for a couple minutes. The versatility that amaro as a whole offers in cocktail applications is abundant and can galvanize a cocktail as a base or a slight modifier. 

Over the past few years, it has become the norm to list your selection of amari alongside your arsenal of whiskey, gin, rum, and the like. In fact, they are so fully embedded in the mainstream woodwork that you can now walk into your favorite corner bar and find a common happy-hour special: a cheap beer and a shot of Fernet, which is a wonderful thing. To think that the rise of amaro from the left-behind wallflower to the center stage has all happened in just a matter of years is a testament to an industry where trends spread like wildfire. Over the past year, my seasonal lists have included barrel-aged, carbonated, fat-washed, and salted cocktails — it's hard keeping up to date, but I'd put my money on amaro as being the next craze in house-made ephemera to hit the scene.

So when my boss (for whom I can honestly say I have the pleasure to work for) asked me if I'd be interested in writing a recipe for his new Italian restaurant set to open late-summer, the choice seemed obvious.

The process for developing a well-balanced, easy-to-replicate recipe was not so evident. For one, most of the producers in the business for 100-plus years guard their recipes like Fort Knox, and rightly so. Homemade amaro recipes aren't (at least to my knowledge) available in most of the well-known classic cocktail books or cookbooks. Supertasters have fortunately been able to distinguish a number of key ingredients, and since many towns and regions in Italy each produce their own home-style versions in a non-commercial setting, some starter recipes can be found in a basic online search.  Much of the work that went into this project was based on whatever research I was able to pull together, but a great deal was also bent on speculative intuition. After all, where's the fun in challenging yourself to reverse engineer a clandestine liqueur if you can't take a few risks?

The easy part is ingredient selection — the world is your oyster in that department.  There are different classifications of amari dependent on dominant ingredients and ABV percentage. They range from the low-alcohol, artichoke-heavy carciofo to thehigh-test fernet, and most recipes are a blend of dozens of herbs, roots, spices, and flowers that are steeped in neutral grain spirits for a week or so. The greatest hurdles to jump were extraction times and temperatures, spirit blends, and ingredient ratios that could only be honed in on through laborious trial and error. Fortunately, I have some experience in bitters production and manufacturing, and the processes mirror each other quite nicely. Ultimately, I made the decision to split the recipe into three main components:

 

   

1. Bitter Base: This maintains the bulk volume of spirits and herbs. The base is mostly brandy, amplified with neutral grain spirits for more efficient extraction time — only three days — which will be diluted with water after it's strained to take it down to a palatable concentration. The herbs and spices included are the heartier, rootsy variety such as gentian, cinchona, angelica root, galangal root, rhubarb root, and oddballs like myrrh gum resin and zedoary root.

2. Floral Base: This is comprised of the more delicate flavors that need a faster steeping time in a lower-proof setting. Aloe-infused brandy serves as the steeping solution, with lighter botanicals like chamomile, lavender, heather, peppermint, and lemon balm. Only a one-day extraction time here (refrigerated), and the resulting mixture tastes remarkably similar to a strong tea.

3. Sweet Vermouth: House-made as well (Italian style). Think grapes: cognac, moscat grappa, and pinot gris serve as the base for a heavy dose of citrus, baking spices, wormwood, and juniper. This component is also split into two parts, where the bittering agents swim in the room-temperature grappa and cognac for only 45 minutes, while the wine is sweetened and heated with fresh citrus peels and other botanicals to just under a boil, then refrigerated for about 20 hours and strained.

After each respective "base" is done steeping and they've been double-strained and diluted, they're blended together and the process has essentially run its course.  Except for one last part: aging. For this integral step, I recently got ahold of a used 5-gallon whiskey barrel from Tuthilltown (and gorgeously crafted from the folks at Black Swan Cooperage). Although the unaged amaro is balanced and certainly drinkable on its own, resting in oak should mellow it down a bit and round out some of the flavors.

And that's where we are at this point in the game — waiting to see what happens.  I'll be taking weekly samples over the next couple months to find the "Goldilocks" point, as I've come to refer to these kinds of situations. Before I filled the barrel and sealed it up for the wood to work its magic, I kept some aside for tasting notes and to share with some folks and get some feedback. A good friend of mine at work tried some and remarked, "... holy sh*t that's intense — it tastes like the inside of a tree." And believe it or not, that made my day.

 

This is the first section of a two-part story, the second of which will appear after the amaro has been emptied from the barrel, bottled, and tasted. Dan Carlson works at Saul in Boerum Hill and loves a good-spirited challenge.

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