My journey with amaro (plural: amari) or Italian bitters began in a bar where I had become a regular. I played in a classic rock band that had a practice studio in the more bohemian area of the Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle. After practice, we would walk a block to a bar on 11th Ave called The Barça. I had been previously introduced to the bar by a friend of mine who loved Belgian Beers. The Barça always had a few on tap, along with an inverted glass washer to make sure that the free yeast strains in the air didn’t interfere or “enhance” the Belgian beer.
Returning week after week to this bar, I got to know and appreciate the bartenders, all of whom take their mixology seriously.
Amari and I are introduced
After a year and a half of trying different beers and an occasional gin martini or single-malt scotch, one of the bartenders introduced me to Amaro Nonino – the handsome prince of amari – honey-sweet, herbal and with that warm woodsy flavor of grappa. He served it to me with a small dish of roasted hazelnuts which he said added to the flavor experience. For me, the aromatics and flavor notes brought out memories of a family cedar log cabin vacation cottage on the shores of Lake Huron in Michigan, the subtle celery flavor of Old Bay Seasoning and Maryland Blue Crabs in Annapolis where I grew up, and the thick syrupy texture that immediately ingratiated itself to my palate. It was wonderful and transcendental.
I purchased several bottles over the coming years and would bring out the cordials to friends after entertaining. It was my dessert liqueur and I savored it when the mood was right. The hazelnut pairing was something I haven’t revisited, but I may someday. After all, it was partially responsible for my favorable first impression.
Amaro Nonino isn’t cheap, so I’ve been more reserved with letting it out on too many ordinary occasions. Since my introduction to Nonino, I became more adventurous with my tastings and experimentation. The first time I tried an amaro called Fernet Branca, I couldn’t enjoy it. It tasted very harsh and medicinal. Its peppermint was too overpowering. I recall the bartender telling me it was his favorite, and upon further investigation, it seems to be a traditional token liqueur among food and liquor service employees. Maybe its harshness is trendy, I don’t know. Since I’ve introduced my palate to other flavors, herbal and bitter, I now find it a bit more appealing, though it may not be a liqueur that would make its way to my must-have list. (Not that I would turn it away, either.) When you get a full exposure to bitters and their nuanced flavors, the term “medicinal” seems to fade from your descriptive vocabulary.
Today, Fernet Branca and some of the other amari that are less sweet become an herbal experience, snapping the taste buds to attention with their subtle aromatics and herbal subtexts. Other herbal but absolutely unique and sublime liqueurs are the French Chartreuse (naturally green and its milder and sweeter yellow sibling), classics like Campari (and its sweeter, orangey and milder sibling, Aperol), the dark syrupy Averna, Cynar (made with artichokes), Liquore Strega, Galliano, and the ubiquitous German bitter, Jäegermeister. The next thing you know, you’re scoping out labels of exotic bottles on the bar shelf and requesting a shot of this or a taste of that.
And, for the longest time, Amaro Nonino was my sole exotic comfort bitter. But then….
Prior to 2012, Washington State used to regulate the liquor industry directly through its state retail liquor stores. After a referendum vote on Ref. 1183 in 2011, Washington voters decided (the second time around) that the state ought to be out of the liquor business. In June of 2012, the state divested itself of all liquor stores and sold them to private retailers and investors. The transition in early June was a little hard on the restaurant industry, who still needed to stock their bars with the liquors and spirits their patrons wanted.
It was that transition period that pushed me to my current endeavor: my wife and I had dinner in a wonderful restaurant in Seattle called The Tilikum Place Cafe in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. After a fantastic meal of halibut and beef strip loins, pea vines and an almond risotto, we perused the dessert wine list that contained several amari. I requested one I had never tried (which, sadly, I do not recall the name of). When the server returned with the amaro, she explained that the shot was short and on the house because the bottle was empty and that the transition over to private liquor sales made it difficult to keep everything in stock. It was then, after the optimistic feeling of a great meal with good company that I thought I would explore the idea of creating my own amaro, and if successful, being a supplier. Being the supplier is a dream of grandeur, but making my own amaro is not. I have created three (a fourth is on its way) and all of them are wonderful in their own ways. I wanted to create a journal of this experience and provide some notes for reference.
My first Amaro began with a DIY search on the Internet. The most surprising aspect of this inquiry was how few sites devoted to creating amari actually existed. I found one on the top of my search results at Serious Eats which became my starting point. Seeing comments about how delicious the results were helped support my desire to take the plunge into producing my own.
Here’s where I started: All recipes begin with the process of steeping herbs and flavors in grappa, brandy, vodka or grain alcohol. I purchased my herbs at Pike Place Market in Seattle, bought a fifth of 75%ABV Everclear grain alcohol and brought the whole lot home.
But wait! There’s more!
After looking into making my own amari and exploring the Tenzing Momo and Dandelion Botanical apothecaries here in Seattle, I was introduced to a book by Brad Thomas Parsons called “Bitters”, “A spirited history of a classic cure-all” which was on the bookshelf of both places. I purchased and read the book, and began investigating the origins of amaro. I discovered that there are true herbal uses for the ingredients in amaro. Armed with this knowledge, I set out to discover if digestifs and aperitifs are all they’re cracked up to be. From my firsthand experience, I’m pleased to discover, they are! After a heavy meal where you feel bloated, uncomfortable and want to loosen your belt, a belt of amaro can work its wonders in a few minutes. After about 30 minutes of consuming a shot of amaro, the herbal ingredients stimulate the digestive system, and an easing of gastrointestinal distress suddenly makes its impression on your awareness. You start to feel better.
How this happens, I’m not entirely sure, but most references indicate a stimulation of bile due to the bitter roots in the ingredients. The most common of these roots is gentian, from the gentian flower. It has long been an herbal remedy in aiding digestion, and while I’m not an herbalist by training, nature or interest, I have felt its effectiveness. It’s a traditional remedy, so there must be something there, right? As they say, “it works for me!”
Okay, on to the notes for making your own… Here is what I’ve discovered. Amaro begins with infusing neutral spirits with roots and herbs…
If you’re going to make tinctures, you can use any strength of grain alcohol you please. Higher proof alcohol extracts flavors more rapidly than lower proof. There are a couple of trade-offs, though. Your higher proof tinctures will impart less flavor by volume to a mixture because the flavor components will become more volatile. You will get a more fleeting sense to the palate because the alcohol will overpower the subtleties of the flavors being imparted. Secondly, if you’re intention is to dilute the tincture to reduce it to a more palatable strength, you will have extracted more oils in the process and your resulting solution will appear more cloudy when diluted with distilled water.
For straight infusions, I would strongly recommend using a neutral spirit of no more than 75% ABV (151 proof). If you’re able to purchase 95% ABV (190 proof) neutral spirits (in Washington State it’s readily available), you would do well to dilute it to 75% ABV prior to steeping herbs, roots and peels. Purchasing the higher proofs is slightly easier on the wallet, so plan on diluting when possible. You can do it through straight math, or purchase a hydrometer at your local homebrew store to measure specific gravity. Nice neutral vodka works very well for infusions, though it is not as economically advantageous.
Steeping oak chips – steep toasted oak chips in 75% or less grain alcohol. The higher concentrations (95% ABV or 190 Proof) tend to pull out the smokier, charred notes instead of vanilla notes. For this part of the process, vodka might be a better solvent.
Since most liqueurs are sweet, they’re usually sweetened with simple syrup (2 parts granulated sugar to 1 part water). Do not dilute your infusion with a straight volume of simple syrup. Your liqueur will be too sweet, syrupy, too “sticky” and difficult to adjust in flavor. Instead, begin using a syrup/water dilution of 1 part alcohol infusion to 1/2 part distilled water + 1/2 part simple syrup. This will allow you to play with the sweetness. If that doesn’t cut it, add more syrup and alcohol to achieve the desired flavor and sweetness.
Never use simple syrup to adjust the thickness or “mouthfeel” of your liqueur. It might seem like a natural way to thicken your liqueur, but it adds way too much sweetness for the desired texture. The viscosity or thickness should be accomplished through the addition of food grade USP glycerine instead.
3. Fining or refinishing.
If your oil extraction is too great, or upon dilution the liqueur becomes cloudy, you my have to resort to fining to get that clarity that is so appealing in liqueurs and spirits.
Fining is the common term for the process of chelation of your liqueur. You introduce a chelation agent that bonds to the impurities and settles out of solution. For winemaking, the chelation or fining agents that have been traditionally used are raw egg whites, ox blood (seriously!) or more recently bentonite – a gray clay sourced from Wyoming and found in most homebrew stores – that has an affinity for impurities. The impurities form a chemical bond with the fining agent and settle to the bottom of the container. You then rack your liqueur (siphon off the clear liqueur) into a separate container or bottle and when you’re sure you’ve collected enough liqueur with the clarity you desire, discard the cloudy bentonite and precipitates.
My experiences with fining have been a little mixed, though ultimately successful. I have used bentonite and egg white, but they were a little disappointing – they took very long to work UNTIL I used a combination of both together. Instructions for bentonite tell you to mix it up with very hot water (usually one teaspoon per cup of hot water) and let it sit for 24 hours. You then add a portion of it to your cloudy wine or liqueur (I usually add about a 1/4 cup per 750 ml) and wait. In the past, I waited for about 5 days with no noticeable change. It can take longer, but I was impatient. I decided to try adding egg whites (wondering if my particular impurities didn’t have an affinity for bentonite). Within a half hour, the liqueur began to stratify. Yes, as you may have guessed, I had tried the inverse as well – using only egg whites – same results – after a few days, very little effect until I added a little bentonite. How much egg white? Not much at all. Make yourself a fried egg and reserve some white in the eggshell. You only need about 3/4 teaspoon of egg white per 750ml of product. Shake or stir the egg white and bentonite so that it is thoroughly mixed in solution and wait a bit. You should see results in about 15 – 30 minutes. Set the liqueur in a dark place undisturbed for up to two weeks. When you notice that the stratification isn’t progressing any further, you may be finished.
Wait, I have to throw all that cloudy precipitate away??
What? No, of course not! At some point, the bentonite and egg white can only release so much clear liqueur to the solution. The specific gravity isn’t great enough to compress the sludge to a dense layer at the bottom. If you’re trying to preserve as much finished product you can now resort to secondary filtering with paper coffee filters. Be sure you’ve racked as much clear liqueur as possible or you’ll be wasting the effort. Because the impurities have bonded to make a denser more viscous solution, coffee filters are now surprisingly effective. You may have to use several, but they will filter out all of the remaining impurities and leave you with the clearest most transparent liqueur, allowing you to recover much liqueur from that huge cloudy layer of gunk.
Amaro number 1
I didn’t know where to begin, but this particular recipe showed the trail head. All amari contain at their base a bitter component. In most cases, that component is the root of the gentian flower, Gentiana Lutea, a yellow flower that grows in the mountainous regions of southern and central Europe. It is also the main ingredient in Angostura bitters. An online search found many suppliers of this root – mostly herbal and naturopathic apothecaries all over the country. Here in Seattle, we have two that have a very large assortment of roots, herbs and exotic flowers. They are Dandelion Botanicals on Ballard Ave in Ballard and Tenzing Momo in Pike Place Market. Pike Place Market is also the home of Market Spice which has a nice selection of spices and herbs for making different teas.
For my first amaro, I purchased my herbal supplies from what was available at Tenzing Momo. While they are a great supplier of herbs and roots, you will want to move your purchases into glass jars or other containers because the paper bags they give you all smell like patchouli and whatever incense they’re burning at the time.
I purchased 1 ounce of each of the dried roots (mostly in shredded form), juniper berries and seeds and brought them home in the small paper bags they were sold in. I took these bags and placed each one inside a ziplock bag for freshness. The entire herbal contingent cost no more than about $14.
I took teaspoons of these various herbs and steeped them in 2 cups of 151 proof grain alcohol for two weeks.