Whoa! Now THAT’S bitter!

I’ve been making amari for the better part of a year now, and every day brings a new revelation in liqueur production. With the exception of Fernet Branca, none of the commercially available amari match the bitterness of the six amari recipes I’ve made. While these are very tasty (and have received very positive reviews from samplers), a side by side comparison has revealed a truth that has evaded this artisan for a while. On the scale of bitterness, these amaro recipes that I’ve produced have a bitterness of 12/10. They’re sweet, strong (alcohol flavor), and very, very bitter. Fernet Branca is a very bitter amaro, but it’s bitterness is in the finish. The bitterness from my amaro hits you like a hot blast from opening your front door in the heat of summer. The finish is where the relief comes. The sweetness softens the bitterness nicely. Followed by the subtle herbal flavors that linger on the tongue (along with the alcohol heat).

Reviewers of amari all seem to favor the same qualities in amaro. Fernet Branca always receives rave reviews, but so does Rammazzotti. Many people feel that Amaro Montenegro is too sweet and mild, but they’ll rave about Rammazzotti’s balanced bitterness. I agree that Montenegro is very mild, but so is Rammazzotti. It’s slightly more bitter, but it is a very mild amaro too. It does have a nice root beer quality to it.

My amaro is in an entirely different class than these. The predominant flavor is the bitter gentian root with orange peel, followed by the medicinal qualities of anise and peppermint.

Many of my samplers find that appealing. In tasting the different amari that brought me to this process in the first place, I realize that perhaps I’m overdoing the bitterness. So I’ve changed it up in this last batch. I’ll outline the changes in a later post, but the most significant change is in the infusion time. In the amari of the past, the infusion of bitter roots was done for approximately two weeks. The latest batch was infused for only 6 days. It is still deliciously bitter, but not overpowering. More on this later.


The Christmas Gift batch - I'm not above using bad puns for Christmas gifts - but only once!

The Christmas Gift batch – I’m not above using bad puns for Christmas gifts – but only once!


Amaro flavor detective

Often, when tasting amari, you’ll be presented with strong flavors that are reminiscent of smells or tastes you’ve encountered before, but you may have a difficult time identifying them. If you taste amari on occasion (I find that too frequent tasting spoils my connoisseur’s tongue) you’ll find flavors that seem to be common to many amari. And still, you may be stymied by their identity.

There are some flavors that are very pronounced in certain amari and I will try and identify the ones I’ve detected.

Amaro Averna: angelica root, juniper, gentian root, caramel, burnt caramel, bitterness: 5/10
Amaro Cio Ciaro: gentian root, angelica root, pine, sage, bitterness :2/10
Amaro Meletti: gentian root, vanilla, orange peel, rose water, saffron, bitterness :5/10
Amaro Montenegro: gentian root, juniper, saffron, bergamot, bitterness :3/10
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia: gentian root, vanilla, juniper, clove, orange peel, bitterness: 4/10
Campari: cinchona, orange peel, bitterness: 7/10
Cynar: gentian root, orange peel, what-I-don’t-taste: artichoke, bitterness: 6/10

Try this experiment – taste Cynar and Campari side by side… you’ll find that they are very nearly identical in flavor, with Cynar having a slightly more mellow bitterness. In fact, I sometimes use Cynar in a Negroni instead of Campari – it’s a slightly mellower Negroni, and doesn’t have that exotic red color.

Fernet Branca: gentian root, cinchona, peppermint (strong), slight anise, bitterness: 5/10 (more minty than bitter)
Rammazzotti: angelica root, anise, horehound root, orange peel, vanilla, bitterness: 2/10
And because I think this belongs here as well…
Underberg (German Kräuterlikör): gentian root, anise and more anise!, sage, peppermint bitterness: 7/10

…stay tuned for more…

My amaro ingredients

Base spirit: Everclear 190 or 151.

I generally dilute my Everclear 190 down to 151 with clear distilled water because of flavor extraction rates. If your base spirit is too strong, you will be extracting the full palate of flavor molecules, good and bad. I don’t know why it is that bad flavors are the ones that leech out from the substance later, but thank goodness they do!

A good quality vodka can also be used, but there is no real reason to bust your wallet with top rail stuff. I will say that a vodka infusion is generally a little more mellow out of the starting gate. If your infusions are too harsh every time, consider using high-quality vodka.

Primary bittering agents: gentian root, angelica root

Other bittering agents: orris root, cinchona bark (very bitter), orange peel, wormwood

Character flavors: star anise, dried juniper berries, new-growth fir sprouts, cinnamon stick, Madagascar vanilla bean, fresh garden-grown peppermint, rosemary, sage, orange and lemon peel, clove, allspice berries, ginger root, bay leaves, Earl Grey tea.

Mellowing agents: Toasted American or French oak – I prefer a lighter toast. Darker toasts will impart a very harsh smoky flavor (which isn’t a bad thing) that often build upon the bitter agents. If you prefer a bitter flavor that almost overpowers everything else, then the darker toast may be your thing.

Infusion times:

Bittering agents:  infuse in 190 or 151 proof neutral spirits for no more than 6 days

Character flavors: infuse in 190 or 151 proof neutral spirits for 1/2 day to 3 days.

Mellowing agents: infuse in 151 or 90 proof spirits for up to 6 months. Lower proof spirit will produce a much more mellow and rounded flavor.