Ah, the perfect Thanksgiving celebration is underway. A fire crackles in the fireplace. The gentle hum of convivial conversation is occasionally accented by a clink of glassware or a trill of laughter. The Thanksgiving table is laid with rich, savory delicacies: juicy slices of ham and turkey, creamy heaps of mashed potatoes, and piping hot rolls. What this scene needs, I say, is a splash of bitter cocktail.
(A record scratches) ‘Wait . . . you must be mistaken,’ you’re thinking. ‘This is the time we adorn slices of pecan and pumpkin pie with whipped cream and muscle through a delicious – though slightly uncomfortable – third or fourth plate of food.’
Ok, ok. Hear me out. I enjoy traditional Thanksgiving fare as much as the next person, but I feel distended and lethargic by the end of the meal. I need something to counteract those rich, heavy foods. Why not turn to a bittersweet liqueur that has been used for millennia to help with just such problems?
The word amaro means “bitter” in Italian. It is a term that loosely describes bittersweet Italian liqueurs – though this category has broadened to encompass bittersweet, herbal liqueurs from all over the world. Sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet, and usually a combination of the two, these restoratives are often used as apéritifs (to stimulate the appetite) and digestifs (to aid in digestion).
What does that mean, exactly?
“When your brain senses bitterness, it kickstarts the digestive system,” explains James Beard Award-winning author Brad Thomas Parsons in the book Amaro. “While your doctor won’t likely endorse the prescriptive merits of a glass of Fernet-Branca to help you feel less bloated and distressed after a gut-busting meal, it is hard to deny the restoring effect of bittering agents and herbs as they course through your body.”
There is no spirits category steeped in as much complexity and confusion as amari (plural form of amaro). There are no standard production practices or ingredients. Many are made according to secret family recipes using neutral spirits, brandy or wine with a dizzying array of herbs, spices, flowers and other botanicals.
Despite – or maybe because of – such ambiguity and lawlessness, bittersweet liqueurs are back en vogue. They are bold, adventurous, and exotic. “Amaro is a unique liqueur,” says Nick Gartelos, Spirits Specialist at Tulsa Hills Wine Cellar. “I think people should give it a try. Either for an after-dinner drink or as part of a cocktail.”
For the amaro novice, we’ve included a short list of some of the most popular ones and recipes for classic-yet-simple cocktails that feature them.
This bright red aperitif from Milan is the most well-known bittersweet liqueur in the U.S. It flaunts a strong bitter flavor punctuated with orange peel, making it a go-to mixer behind the bar.
Often referred to as Campari’s little sister, it is sweeter, milder, and more floral, making it a good starter amaro. With less alcoholic content, it is a frequent choice for Italy’s happy hour crowd.
- 3 oz. Prosecco
- 2 oz. Aperol (or Campari)
- 1 oz. Club soda
- orange slice for garnish
- Fill a wine glass with ice.
- Add prosecco, Aperol and club soda.
- Garnish with an orange slice.
An after-work spritz is a long-standing tradition in northern Italy. The refreshing, palate-whetting flavor and low alcohol content of an Aperol Spritz make it a winning pre-dinner drink. Three simple ingredients are required for this surprisingly easy-to-make cocktail.
Since prosecco – Italian sparkling wine – can be found in a range of sweetness levels, this drink is customizable to the bitter-sweet balance you prefer. Those looking for a bolder, more bitter version may opt for Campari, which has a higher ABV and is more bitter than sweet.
This widely beloved liqueur boasts 40 botanicals from four different continents. Try it in an Old Fashioned to bring out those baking spices!
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia
This herbaceous and citrusy grappa-based amaro is considered a good starting point due to its lighter body and sweetness. As Maggie Hoffman of Serious Eats encourages, “think of it as a sippable, orange-laced caramel sauce for your apple pie. Vanilla and nutmeg notes are a natural complement to the cinnamon-spiced fruit and buttery crust.”
Pronounced CHEE-nar, this amaro is less sweet than Aperol and less bitter than Campari. Though it is made with artichokes along with a secret blend of herbs and spices, it doesn’t actually taste like artichokes. Earthy and herbal, it is used as both an aperitif and digestif.
This bitter drink is made from numerous herbs and spices which vary according to the brand. Add a shot to your after-dinner coffee to make the bitterness more palatable.
Leopold Brothers Aperitivo
The only non-Italian on our list is the first American take on the classic bitter made in the traditional Italian style. The spirit centers around major flavor components: bitterness from gentian root and sweetness from cane sugar.
- 1¼ oz. bourbon
- 1 oz. bittersweet liqueur
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- orange twist for garnish
- Mix bourbon, bittersweet liqueur and sweet vermouth in a glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
- Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
- Garnish with an orange twist.
This whiskey-based cocktail is a take on the popular gin-based Negroni. Rich and warming, it is perfect for a chilly night.
While most recipes call for bourbon as the whiskey of choice to balance out the bitter and herbal flavors of the other ingredients, some choose to substitute it with a spicier rye whiskey for a drink with more bite. Nick recommends the bourbon or rye version of Bulleit or Elijah Craig.
The author, Andrea Gardner, is General Manager of Tulsa Hills Wine Cellar and Tulsa Hills Cigar Cellar & Market at 7420 S Olympia Ave.