DIY Amaro – the easy way!

Okay, there are a lot of recipes online for amari, and some of them are incredibly simple. As I review this blog, I realize that most of these recipes here are quite involved – they’re well worth the trouble, but if you want a delicious amaro WITHIN A WEEK, follow me!

The secret is the simplest ingredient – tea! That’s right. Green tea, black tea, orange pekoe tea, sage and ginger teas – you name it. There are very interesting teas out there – Republic of Tea, Stash, Tazo, Bigelow and Twinings among others. If you have a favorite tea, grab it and let’s get started!

Amaro Semplicistico (Simplistic Amaro)
Ingredients:
1. Your favorite tea (loose or tea bags)
2. Neutral Spirits (preferably 75% ABV Everclear, but vodka will work too) – 4 cups
3. Simple syrup
4. Bittering component (optional, but recommended) such as gentian root, angelica root or wormwood.
5. Optional flavoring agents (cardamom, green herbs like rosemary, lemon peel, orange peel, vanilla, anise, etc.)

Method: (note – if using vodka, the resulting amaro will be approximately 40 proof – if using grain alcohol, it will be closer to 60 proof)
Create your bitter base: Take 1 tbsp. of each bittering agent in a mason jar and add 2 cups of your neutral spirit. Let sit for 4-5 days (or longer if using vodka).
Boil 2-1/2 cups of water and add tea and any additional optional flavoring agents. Allow to cool to room temperature. Strain off liquid and reserve solids.
Add leftover solids to 1 cup of neutral spirit.
Take 2 cups of brewed tea, 2 cups of bitter base, 1 cup of neutral spirit and combine them together in a larger container.
Add 1-1/2 cups of simple syrup.
Shake or mix well, taste.

Add additional simple syrup (if needed) to taste. Strain and add half of that amount of remaining neutral spirit (containing tea solids).

Strain the entire mixture through a coffee filter.

You’re finished! If your concoction is a little harsh, add some oak chips and let it sit for 1 – 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, you should have a nice amaro for sipping or adding to your favorite cocktail.

It goes without saying, you have every prerogative to further adjust flavors using tinctures, sweeteners and coloring of your choice. Have fun!

*** Some final notes *** The fermented leaves of teas impart their flavors much better in water. You can try and steep them in alcohol, but the flavor changes and seems less mellow. Other flavors such as orange peel and other dried substances tend to work better in alcohol. A basic rule of thumb is if the item in question contains any oils like citrus peels, or is in coarse form (such as cardamom or juniper berries), macerate in alcohol instead.

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Amaro Valencia (with a pinch of algebra) – Simple as That!

INTRODUCTION

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:

SUPPLIES

  1. A 2.5 liter “growler” or a gallon jug with a lid.
  2. 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.
  3. Coffee strainer with paper filters
  4. Some funnels of varying sizes.
  5. 3 – 6 feet of Aquarium air pump tubing for siphoning liquid
  6. Mason jars – these are for mixing quantities larger than what the small tincture bottles can hold.

Next we’ll assemble our ingredients…

INGREDIENTS

  1. 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.
  2. 1 gallon of distilled water – or filtered tap water – as flavorless as possible.
  3. 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
    • Cloves
    • Cinnamon sticks
    • **Centaury
    • 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.
    • Lavender
    • **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
  4. Fresh herbs (if possible)
    • Peppermint
    • **Rosemary
    • **Sage
    • **Saffron
    • 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…

  1. Balm of Gilead
  2. **Hyssop
  3. Sassafras
  4. **Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
  5. Myrrh resin

** Used in Amaro Valencia

Then you will want some of these finishing ingredients…

  1. Oak chips (medium or dark toast)
  2. Raisins (dark or golden – I use dark for their color)
  3. Sugar, or for a slightly less sweet but milder flavor, honey.
  4. Glycerin (optional – used to thicken a liqueur to give it a heavy mouthfeel) – be sure to purchase food grade!
  5. 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.
  6. One egg white – used in conjunction with bentonite to pull impurities out of your mixure.

PREPARATION

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.
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Base Spirit – prep time: 1 week

Bitter

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.

Faux Brandy

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.

Finishing agents

Simple Syrup

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).

      1. Place a pot or kettle of water to boil. When the water is boiling or near boiling…
      2. 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.

      1. 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.
      1. 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.

  1. 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!
  2. 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:

Where…
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:

  1. v = 2 cups (16 oz.) of simple syrup
  2. n = some amount of neutral spirit to add (what we’re computing)
  3. n% = 0.75 ABV (the percentage of neutral spirit we’re adding)
  4. 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.

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  • 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.

      1. Orange peel
      2. Juniper
      3. Sage
      4. Centaury
      5. Coriander
      6. Cardamom
      7. Rosemary
      8. Allspice – be careful and add a little less
      9. Saffron
      10. Vanilla
      11. Lavender
      12. Galangal root
      13. 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.

      1. 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.
      1. The finishing touches
      1. 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.

      1. 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.

  • Racking

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.

  • Filter

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.

On color and sweetness…

If there’s one elusive quality of fine Italian amari that I struggle to match, it’s the color. Pick up a bottle of Ramazzotti or Averna and the color is a dark chocolate brown – still translucent, but very syrupy looking. In the amari that I create, I use my own caramel coloring and toasted oak to get a beautiful golden to almost reddish brown. My amari are never very dark, but appear more like a medium rum or whiskey.

In order to make an amaro appear dark like the aforementioned brands, you need a LOT of caramel coloring! A cup of sugar and boiling water will produce about 1/4 cup of dark caramel coloring. With that in mind, if one were to create 1/2 to 1 cup of caramel coloring and substitute that for distilled water in diluting the alcohol, the finished product would retain more of that darker color.

The other method (and absolutely required) is the use of toasted oak – whether it’s in a barrel or you’re using oak chips. Home Distiller has a great page on using oak chips. I found that one can get a superb oak concentration by simmering toasted oak chips in water and combining that with oak chips soaked in 60-70 proof (30 – 35%) alcohol. Simply cover about 2 tablespoons of toasted oak chips with water (approx. 1-1/2 cups), heat until boiling and reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. The water should turn a nice dark brown. Combine this water (and chips) with a separate solution of chips in the alcohol until the color is nice and dark. You don’t need to use up all of either solution. Reserve some for the next batch if you find you have anything left over after getting the color perfect. If you’ve properly calculated your alcohol percentage of this solution, you can use it to dilute your liqueur in a controlled way. I would recommend adding this solution by taste over color, however. If you add too much, your oak will easily overpower the more subtle flavors.

On to sweetness… It’s always a challenge to add the right amount of simple syrup to your liqueur without messing up the alcohol concentration or making it too sweet. I came up with a trick that I found to be quite useful – make an alcoholic version of simple syrup. Create your simple syrup according to your preferred recipe (Sugar 2:1 water). Once you’ve got a volume of syrup, say 1 cup, add enough alcohol to create a dilution that matches that of your finished liqueur.  The equation for the amount of alcohol to strengthen a solution is (caution: algebra ahead!):

Where a = amount of alcohol to add;

190 proof alcohol (95% ABV):  0.95a = (amount of simple syrup + a ) X desired percentage

151 proof alcohol (75%ABV): 0.75a = (amount of simple syrup + a ) X desired percentage

So, let’s say we want our liqueur to measure in at 80 proof (40% ABV), we take 8 oz of simple syrup and to that we add (using 190 proof alcohol – 95% ABV):
0.95a = (8oz. + a) X 0.4
0.95= (8oz. X 0.4) + (0.4a)
0.95a = 3.2oz. + 0.4a
0.95a – 0.4a = 3.2 oz.
0.55= 3.2 oz.
= 5.81 oz. of 190 proof alcohol must be added to 8oz. simple syrup to make an 80 proof sweetener

Doing the same calculation with 151 proof alcohol (75% ABV) and 40% desired ABV:

we take 8 oz of simple syrup and to that we add
0.75a = (8oz. + a) X 0.4
0.75a = (8oz. X 0.4) + (0.4a)
0.75a = 3.2oz. + 0.4a
0.75a – 0.4a = 3.2 oz.
0.35= 3.2 oz.
= 9.81 oz. of 151 proof alcohol must be added to 8oz. simple syrup to make an 80 proof sweetener

The resulting simple syrup can be added to your liqueur until the sweetness matches your palate.  You haven’t diluted your liqueur at all!

Using this last method, I was able to fine tune my amaro so that it perfectly suited the tastes of the recipients.  The accolades are constant and plentiful!

Oaking your liqueur – don’t add it too soon! (A cautionary note)

Well, I’ve been playing with amari for well over a year now and I still have to remind myself to do things right!  My thinking always goes, “start with something that’s good on its own and then tailor it to make it fabulous.” Or to translate:  Try to make a delicious base by adding all the characteristics until you’ve reached a delicious base upon which to build your amaro.

Except… you know what?  Don’t.  That’s right.  Some steps should not be rushed.  This was a hard lesson for me.  But this is how it went:

I created several amari from pure neutral spirits – grain alcohol, vodka, etc.  And they were quite good.  I also created an amaro with brandy as a base ingredient and it was definitely a different flavor – a cut above? Perhaps, but more accurately, a bit more mellow and not as harsh.  I began to think that brandy might be the best way to go.  But being a DIY-er, I wanted to simulate a brandy by starting with neutral spirits and concocting my own.  It was a really good start. I’ll outline those steps in another post (note: it involved raisins).

But here’s where I went wrong.  My simulated brandy was still very high proof – over 180.  And thinking that oak mellows liquor, I added a few (very few) toasted oak chips to get that oak-mellowed vanilla noted brandy.  It did not work as desired.  After 5 or 6 weeks, nose to bottle smelled wonderful (if you were distant enough to where the alcohol fumes didn’t singe your sinuses). But the taste was an entirely different story. The flavor was charred.  It had that bitter, pervasive charred taste that is nearly impossible to conceal. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was enough to be obvious.  The alcohol content of my DIY brandy was way too high for oaking and pulled ALL of the flavors out – good and bad.  The only way to rescue it (other than discarding it) is to dilute it using more 80 proof neutral spirits and sweetener.

The lesson learned:

  • Begin with your base spirit (or create one if you must) – but do not add any oak chips!
  • Infuse, steep, flavor to your heart’s content.
  • When you have the right combination of flavors, dilute and sweeten it to a reasonable strength (I usually opt for no more than 40% (80 proof))
  • Finalize any flavors with tinctures or additional infusions
  • Dilute your alcohol to the desired strength (for amaro, that’s 21% – 40%)
  • Fine your liqueur
  • Now OAK!

Don’t use oak in your liquor if the proof is higher than 100.  You’ll regret it.

Addendum – if you’ve visited this site before and have taken note of the amaro recipe in an earlier post, you may notice that the third and fourth phases have been re-ordered. While past experimentation didn’t provide enough evidence of the importance of this order, this current post shows a hard lesson learned. The recipe has been revised and corrected. If this is your first time visiting, you have nothing to be concerned about. The recipe as it is shown now is the most accurate.

Classic cocktails, revisited – “The Nolita”

A take on the classic Manhattan, this large cocktail features the mellow and sublime additions of Rammazzotti amaro with a dash of lemon bitters, or lemon twist. This cocktail is name after the Little Italy neighborhood in Manhattan

3/4 oz. sweet vermouth (Martini & Rossi)
3 oz. Bourbon or Rye Whiskey (Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey or Old Overholt)
1-1/2 oz. Rammazzotti Amaro
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 lemon twist or dash of lemon bitters

Mix all together with ice in a cocktail shaker and stir until chilled. Pour into a chilled highball glass. Add 1 twist of lemon.

Seriously, this will soften any bourbon detractor. Why sip on anything else?

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How to make amaro – a basic recipe

If you’re just joining us, we’ve written a few posts about amari and touched on bitters and vermouth. The popularity of amaro continues to grow, and I’m pleased to have informed other tipplers about its enjoyment. I’ve taken on producing my own because it’s fun, creative and they’re really, really good!

I’ve provided a lot of data in earlier posts on creating my own amaro, but it is a lot to digest. So, if creating a simple amaro is your desire too, here are the basics from my “experienced” perspective.

Use these ingredients in the order shown. This will produce roughly 1 liter of amaro in about 2-3 weeks.

A. Base spirit – (choose one)
1.   2 cups of grain alcohol (beverage-grade ethanol) of 75% or 95%
– OR-
2.   3 cups of neutral dry brandy — you don’t want something too sweet (note: this will produce an amaro that is immediately more similar to those found in the stores).
– OR –
3.   3 cups of vodka

B. Phase one – Bittering agents (soak for 5 – 7 days in 75% or higher spirit, up to 2 weeks in vodka or brandy)
1. 1 tsp of one or more of each the following dried roots: gentian root, angelica root, wormwood, orris root, galangal root, burdock root

C. Phase two – Flavoring agents
(remove bittering agents above and soak the ingredients below for 2 – 3 days – except star anise – see below)
1.  1 vanilla bean or tbsp of vanilla bean extract
2.   1-1/2 tsp Juniper berries (dried) approx 10-14 berries)
3.   4 cardamom pods
4.   4 cloves
5.   1 tsp dried orange peel
6.   1 cinnamon stick
7.   1 sprig of rosemary (about 20 -30 leaves)
8.   4-5 peppermint leaves
9.   4-5 fresh sage, or 2-3 dried sage leaves
10.   1/4 tsp saffron
11.   1 tsp lemon balm (melissa oficianalis)
12.   1 star anise – soak for 1-2 days and test. Star anise has an intense flavor and will overpower your mixture very quickly if you’re not careful. Keep infusing to taste.

Strain and remove the solids. Proceed to the next phase.

D. Phase three – Sweetening/diluting agents

1 to 1-1/2 cups Simple syrup
1 cup distilled water
1 cup white vermouth (bianco vermouth)

You’re going to want to be careful with adding sweetener because it will both dilute your liqueur (and throw any hydrometer or alcoholometer measurements way off) and thicken it. I recommend a 1:1 mixture of simple syrup and distilled water.  Do the math before adding the water.  If you’re using 2 cups 95% spirits and add 1 cup of simple syrup, 1 cup of distilled water and 1 cup of vermouth (at about 18% ABV), you will produce a mixture of 5 cups at roughly 40%. Once the mixture has been mixed, begin tasting. This is your baseline. Add more simple syrup as needed.

E. Phase four – Mellowing and coloring agents

1. Add mixture to small oak barrel and let it rest for 1 – 3 months, OR add toasted oak chips (about 3 tbsp) to mixture, and soak for up to 4 weeks

Strain and remove the oak chips and any remaining solids.

Depending on the toast of the barrel or oak chips, your amaro will darken beautifully. If after the mellowing period you wish to darken it further, you will need to create caramel coloring by heating granulated or brown sugar in a pan on the stovetop and dilute CAREFULLY and SLOWLY with boiling water. Add up to 1 oz of caramel coloring to darken your amaro more.

Finishing touches
See the fining process in an earlier post if the mixture is too cloudy to your liking. You can let it settle for a few days and try to siphon off the clearer liqueur above any sediment.
Once it is clear, bottle it up. It will be certainly drinkable now, but will continue to mellow over the next few months. Store it in a cool dark cupboard.

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.