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