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.