Earlier on this blog, I posted a “simple” recipe for amaro. I’ll admit that while it spelled out steps in simple terms, it wasn’t the most basic how-to recipe. What follows is a recipe and method that will have you creating a delicious, accessible and appealing amaro that you can imagine and it will be sought after by all those who sample it. The only real difficulty is a few algebraic calculations in setting your concentrations.
This recipe was originally designed to mimic Amaro Nonino – an amaro that is both complex and extremely versatile in its appeal and application. Amaro Nonino is one of the more expensive amari on the shelf, and it’s understandable. While it has some wonderful and easily identifiable orange notes, they are accompanied by so many other subtle flavors that it stands out as one of the best amari for introducing one to the world of Italian bitters and herbal concoctions. Fernet Branca is a favorite among bitters enthusiasts because of its unique and strong minty notes, but Nonino brings the whole experience up to the front door of palate exploration for the initiate. From Nonino, you will want to sample the warm familiar flavors of Cio Ciaro, Meletti, Averna and Amaro Montanegro. When you’ve tired of the familiar, you will venture out and seek the intensity and immersive experience of Fernet Branca or maybe another intense herbal flavor like the French liqueur Chartreuse.
As I started laying out the ingredients and steps, it dawned on me that there is no set recipe here. I can’t to do that to you because there are too many delicious variations to ignore and you may desire something completely different. Thus, what follows will not necessarily mimic Amaro Nonino. If Nonino is your desire and you do want to try and make this Amaro Valencia as the title implies, I’ve flagged the ingredients used with a double asterisk **. Ultimately, your taste will dictate the final results (of course!).
The timing is the most frustrating part of making amaro – you have to wait! The recipe that follows will have an immature, but tasty amaro (nearly a gallon’s worth) in about 4 weeks. The longer it mellows, the better the final result. This will create an amaro that is right around 60 proof (30% ABV). If you want something that warms the stomach as well as the palate, you can boost it to 35% or, if really adventurous, 40%. One note, however: a higher concentration of alcohol will result in slightly reduced yield of finished amaro per these starting quantities.
Let’s get started, shall we? I will begin much like a painter, and build a palate of flavors. First, we’ll assemble our supplies. Here’s what you’ll need:
- A 2.5 liter “growler” or a gallon jug with a lid.
- Several 4oz. tincture bottles– most herbal supply shops sell these. You are going to be creating some tinctures and these are perfect for storing them. Some come with small lids, others come with droppers. I like the ones with droppers for the stronger flavors.
- Coffee strainer with paper filters
- Some funnels of varying sizes.
- 3 – 6 feet of Aquarium air pump tubing for siphoning liquid
- Mason jars – these are for mixing quantities larger than what the small tincture bottles can hold.
Next we’ll assemble our ingredients…
- 750ml up to 2 liters of a neutral spirit at 75% ABV (alcohol by volume) or 151 proof. I strongly recommend Everclear Grain Alcohol (ethanol). If you cannot get Everclear, substitute a clean vodka at 40%ABV (or higher if available). If you’re able to get 95% Everclear (190 proof), that’s great because it’s the most economical. We will still want to add enough distilled water to dilute it to 75% ABV.
- 1 gallon of distilled water – or filtered tap water – as flavorless as possible.
- Dried herbs and roots. Get at least one ounce (by weight) of the following:
- Allspice berries
- **Angelica root (chopped or shredded) – bittering agent
- **Anise (star anise is very intense and available from the grocery store) or Fennel seed
- Cinnamon sticks
- Coriander seed (crushed)
- **Cardamom seeds (crushed)
- Cinchona Bark (extremely bitter – use with care!)
- **Gentian root – check a local botanical store or any number of online stores. This is a foundation for amaro and the most basic bittering component.
- **Galangal root (found in any place that sells ingredients for Asian or Indian food)
- **Juniper berries
- Lemon peel (take the peel from a lemon and slice it in such a way as to remove the white pith from the yellow peel (about 2mm thick). Take this and dry it on a baking sheet in the oven at 200 deg F for about 1-2 hours. The peel should curl and feel fairly hard once it’s dried.
- **Valencia orange peel – prepare as above for lemon peel. If you can get truly organic fruit, these are the best and have great flavor.
- Orris root – a strong bittering agent
- Fresh herbs (if possible)
- Wintergreen – fresh leaves only, or Wintergreen oil
- **Wormwood (another bittering agent – find fresh leaves if possible)
- **Vanilla bean
You can also add some of these more exotic and less available herbs…
- Balm of Gilead
- **Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Myrrh resin
** Used in Amaro Valencia
Then you will want some of these finishing ingredients…
- Oak chips (medium or dark toast)
- Raisins (dark or golden – I use dark for their color)
- Sugar, or for a slightly less sweet but milder flavor, honey.
- Glycerin (optional – used to thicken a liqueur to give it a heavy mouthfeel) – be sure to purchase food grade!
- Bentonite – a powdered clay for pulling out oils and other clouding agents in liqueur (and wine). You can find this at any homebrew supply shop.
- One egg white – used in conjunction with bentonite to pull impurities out of your mixure.
Tinctures – prep/finishing time: 2-3 weeks
Begin making tinctures. Take 1 teaspoon of each desired dried herb and place it in the tincture bottle. Fill the bottle to the neck with 75% alcohol.
For berries and clove, add one tablespoon of these in the tincture bottle and fill to the neck with 75% alcohol.
For lemon peel and orange peel, make sure the peel is dried and then place about 1-2 tablespoons in the tincture bottle and fill with 75% alcohol or 40% vodka. The lower spirit tends to extract flavors a little more faithfully.
For all other ingredients (star anise, cinnamon bark, vanilla bean) usually one to two of each in a tincture bottle are sufficient. Fill with 75% alcohol.
Tinctures will begin to develop their character after 2 weeks.
IMPORTANT NOTE: For fresh green herbs such as Sage, Rosemary, Peppermint, etc. : Remove the leaves from the tincture after 4 to 5 days. The tinctures will turn a beautiful deep green color that quickly turns a dusty brown if the leaves remain in alcohol too long. The flavor doesn’t degrade as much as the color, but having a tincture that remains a clean color seems more palatable in the final flavorings.
Base Spirit – prep time: 1 week
Fill a mason jar with 1 cup (8 oz.) of 75% alcohol. Add 1 tablespoon (each) of your desired bittering agent(s) – with the exception of orris root – add only ½ teaspoon or omit it completely. I recommend using gentian (always), angelica and wormwood. Cap the jar and store it in a dark cupboard for 4 to 7 days.
Take a second mason jar and add ½ cup of raisins. To this add 1 cup of 75% alcohol. Cap the jar and store in a dark cupboard for 4 to 7 days.
Simple syrup is made by dissolving 2 parts of granulated sugar into 1 part of clean water (distilled, or filtered water is best) in a saucepan over heat. Heat the water until the resulting solution is perfectly clear. Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature before pouring it into a bottle or other container.
Caramel coloring – use caution!
Caramel coloring is created by heating granulated sugar until it caramelizes, turns dark reddish brown and then adding boiling water to the resulting liquid to dilute it enough to be pourable. This is the only process in the making of amaro that requires a little bit of care. The caramelized sugar can produce a fair amount of smoke that might set off a kitchen smoke alarm, and if left on its own for a few moments, might create a hard tacky sludge that will stick to and ruin any cooking surface (including the saucepan).
- Place a pot or kettle of water to boil. When the water is boiling or near boiling…
- Take 1 cup of sugar and heat it in a saucepan over medium high heat.
The sugar will begin to liquefy and brown. Tilt the saucepan to keep the liquid together rather than letting it spread over the entire saucepan’s surface where it could boil dry.
- As the liquid browns, keep stirring to prevent it from sticking and burning. Keep stirring the sugar over heat until its color becomes a very dark brown, almost black. When it is sufficiently dark (and still liquid!), turn off the heat. Proceed to the next step quickly.
- Using a pot holder or other hand protection, CAREFULLY pour about ¼ cup of boiling water into the sugar liquid. It will violently steam, bubble and foam briefly. Begin stirring as soon as possible so that the viscous sugar liquid is even diluted with the water. Allow it to cool to room temperature and then pour it into a tincture bottle or other small container.
The more caramel coloring you can create, the darker your amaro can become.
Oak barrel aging or toasted oak chips.
One can get a 2-5 liter oak barrel for $75 up to $200. These allow your liqueur to age and develop smoothness and take on additional complex flavors that result in a truly special end result.
You can also purchase oak chips from a homebrew supply store for anywhere from $4 to $20 depending on the variety of oak, darkness of the toast, and quantity. I like using oak chips because they’re more economical and they impart the magic of toasted oak more quickly than barrel aging. The tradeoff is the quality of the oak flavors. Because a barrel breathes, tannins and other qualities are constantly being exchanged through the barrel walls with the liqueur, creating flavors that are more complex than what you get with oak chips.
Preparing oak chips (can be done in advance)
To prepare oak chips, take 2-3 tablespoons of toasted oak chips and cover them with a cup of water in a medium sized saucepan. Heat the water until boiling and then reduce the heat to a light boil (medium heat). Allow this mixture to simmer/boil for up to 1 hour, adding more water if necessary, until the water turns to a nice toasty brown color. Typically, you might end up with ¼ – ½ cup of liquid with oak chips. Double this liquid with alcohol at 40% – 80% and store in a cool dark place to age (at least one week).
Putting everything together
You should now have:
- several bottles of tinctures;
- 1 cup (8 oz.) of bitter alcohol containing your bittering agents;
- 1 cup (8 oz.) of faux brandy (raisin mixture)
- ½ cup of dark oak liqueur
- 2 cups (nearly) of simple syrup
- ¼ – ½ cup of caramel coloring
At this stage I would recommend having additional neutral spirit on hand to help adjust and expand your liqueur to the desired quantities and dilution.
- Pour the bitter alcohol and faux brandy through a coffee filter into your growler or gallon bottle. Pour each mixture separately so that you can keep the remaining solids in the mason jars separate. We’re not ready to dispose of them yet!
- Now, we want to sweeten our base, but we want to carefully control the alcohol concentration. If you add simple syrup by itself, you run the risk of diluting your base too soon, possibly constraining your ability to further craft the flavors. To get around that, we add alcohol to our simple syrup to make a mixture that’s both sweet, but also comes close to the desired alcohol content of our finished amaro. The formula for this is:
v = starting volume of non-alcoholic liquid (simple syrup)
n = amount of neutral spirit to add
e = current volume of ethanol (in the original solution) <–this is for increasing an existing concentration
%n = alcohol concentration (%ABV) of the neutral spirit
d% = desired alcohol concentration (%ABV) of finished mixture
(n x %n) + e = (v + n) x d%
Let’s say that you have:
- v = 2 cups (16 oz.) of simple syrup
- n = some amount of neutral spirit to add (what we’re computing)
- n% = 0.75 ABV (the percentage of neutral spirit we’re adding)
- d% = 30% ABV desired amaro concentration or 0.3:
Since our simple syrup contains no ethanol, we use zero 0 for e
0.75n + 0 = (16 oz. + n) x 0.3
0.75n = 4.8 + 0.3n
0.45n = 4.8
n = 10.6 oz. of neutral spirit to add, or roughly 3:2, i.e., 3 parts syrup to 2 parts alcohol
- Begin slowly adding your sugar/alcohol mixture to the base in the gallon bottle. Start with ½ – 1 cup, but keep track! You’re going to know exactly how much you’ve added in order to compute your amaro concentration later.
NOTE: Sugar is NOT soluble in alcohol. It needs water to stay in solution. If you add too much alcohol to your simple syrup and reduce the ratio of water too much, the sugar will begin to precipitate out of solution and form crystals at the bottom of your container. It isn’t that big a deal, but if you store this simple syrup/alcohol mixture for a length of time without using it up, sugar will most likely begin crystallizing at the bottom. It won’t be useful for sweetening other batches.
If your palate is immune to high alcoholic concentrations, you can take a teaspoon and sample the liqueur for sweetness. If you’re like me, that’s just a little too harsh to taste. Take 1/2 oz. of the mixture and add another 1/2 oz. of distilled water and taste it. Is it sweet enough? It’s going to have a kick because of the bitters and the alcohol, but if it goes down without a grimace, it’s probably pretty good.
If you added a whole cup of sweetener, your alcohol concentration is now:
16oz. @75% + 8oz. @30%
= (16 x 0.75) + (8 x 0.3)
16 + 8
= 14.4 / 24
= 0.6 or 60% ABV
- Add enough distilled water to your caramel coloring to dilute your base spirit to the desired concentration.
- Sample your base spirit. Is it still sweet enough? If not, add enough of the alcohol syrup mixture to satisfy your palate. Err on the less sweet for the time being. Keep track of what is added so that you know the total liquid volume!!
- Now, create your masterpiece! Begin by adding 1/4 – 1/2 oz. of the tinctures to your base spirit. I recommend the following order so that your palate doesn’t become too confused:
The bitter is done. Now, create and craft the herbal flavors!
Note!: Some flavors quickly overpower any other herb and should be added in small amounts. The strongest of these is cinnamon and cloves. Leave them out until the very end and add them only if your resulting flavor is too dull. The next strongest flavors are anise and peppermint. Anise will also overpower your mixture, but it will mellow a little with the addition of other flavors.
- Orange peel
- Allspice – be careful and add a little less
- Galangal root
- Anise – be careful, here!
Once you’ve added anise, mix the flavors and sample the result. Remember, this is not going to taste much like an amaro yet, because the flavors are too raw. But you want to get an idea of its complexity.
Here you can experiment with all of your tinctures and add them bit by bit until you taste their contribution. To pull your flavor profile out of the extreme column, adding more orange peel and vanilla often ease it back. Galangal is an interesting flavor because it hides behind other flavors and amplifies them a bit.
If you want some sharpness to your amaro, add peppermint. If you want it to be spicy, add the cinnamon – but carefully! Cinnamon is a rare instance of an ingredient that adds much more heat than flavor. You might have a hard time discerning cinnamon in your mixture, but you will most certainly feel it! I often leave cinnamon out of the party because I have a hard time pulling it back if it’s too strong.
A little bit of clove goes a long way and will also mask other more subtle flavors. Add clove if your amaro isn’t exotic enough, but just take it slow!
Keep adding dashes of tincture until you have your desired flavor.
- Sweetness – revisited. Now that you’ve crafted your flavor, you can readjust the sweetness if so desired. Just add the simple syrup and alcohol mixture at the same concentration to maintain your desired sweetness.
- The finishing touches
- More oak? Once you have created a flavor profile that you find promising, it’s time to put the mellow in. Take your oak liquid and slowly add it to the mixture (about 2 oz. at a time). Taste the result. Can you taste the oak? Can you taste the additional warm vanilla notes that the oak leaves behind? Can you taste the old wood paneled boardroom? No? Add another 2 oz. and taste again. When you get a hint of oak, stop there.
Well, what do you think? You’re probably getting pretty psyched about what you’re tasting. If you think your amaro is still too harsh, or doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi, you can take some additional toasted oak chips (no more than 1 teaspoon!) and float them in the bottle. They will take between 1 and 2 weeks to really have an effect. When the time is up, remove the oak chips.
- Sweetness? At this stage you want to make sure that you’ve gotten the sweetness to the desired level. Add your simple syrup mixture to adjust. Also, at this stage you can extend your amaro by adding a little water and alcohol to give a desired volume. Just make sure to keep your concentration consistent.
Color and clarity – make it look amazing!
Once your amaro is nice and mellow and seems like it’s coming along, let’s examine its clarity. Is it cloudy? Are there little gossamer threads floating around in there? Does it look like dust motes floating in sunbeams? If so, it’s time to get that stuff out of there!
- Fining your amaro – Bentonite and egg white:
Pour 1 cup of boiling water into a mason jar and add 1 teaspoon of bentonite clay powder. Using a pot holder, shake this mixture up until it becomes a cloudy gray and the bentonite powder dissolves. (It won’t completely dissolve, but you don’t want to see dry powder sitting in the bottom of the jar). Leave this overnight to cool and dissolve.
The next day, shake your bentonite well to distribute the clay evenly. Add about 2 oz. per gallon of amaro. To this, crack a fresh egg and add only the white to your amaro. Cap the amaro bottle and shake it vigorously. You want to distribute the egg white and bentonite throughout the mixture. Once it’s thoroughly mixed, set your bottle back in the cupboard. And wait.
Within the hour, you should start to see a sludge forming in the bottom of the bottle and very clear, transparent liquid sitting on top. Allow this settling process to continue throughout the day.
When it seems that you have a nice clear liquid floating on top, insert some air tubing into the upper portion of the bottle and secure it with a binder clip or clothespin on the lip of the bottle. Start the siphon and siphon off the clear liquid into another gallon bottle or several clean mason jars. If you have an oral syringe, you can attach that to your tubing to get your siphon started (or you can use the tasty old-fashioned method). Siphon as much of the clear liquid as possible. This is termed “racking” the mixture.
Once you’ve pulled as much clear liquid as you can, set it aside. Put a coffee cone and filter on a clean mason jar. Pour the sludge and impurities into the filter and allow it to drain into your mason jar. You may have to change coffee filters several times as the sludge stops the flow completely. NOTE: This secondary filtering of the sludge can take hours to complete. When you have poured all of the sludge through filters, you should be left with some beautifully clear liqueur in your mason jar.
Take the mason jars of the liquid that was racked and pour them through a coffee filter. Note: sometimes the filter is more effective if it already has a thin layer of impurities at the bottom. It helps close up the pores of the coffee filter. Once you’ve filtered all of your liqueur at least once, transfer it all back to a clean gallon bottle.
You’re done!!! You now have a gallon of amaro that can be bottled into 9-10 ea. 375ml bottles, or 4 ea. 750ml bottles. Or, you can let your gallon bottle sit for a week or two, making sure that any other impurities will settle out of solution. Rack the bottle one last time.
Micromanaging – that’s right. You get to touch the stuff one more time! If your amaro isn’t dark enough, feel free to make additional caramel coloring and add that as desired.