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.

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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.

Italian bitters – amo, amas, amat, amamos amari!

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.
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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…

Techniques

1. Infusions

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.

2. Diluting/Sweetening

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 – Before and after…
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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.

20121021-000332.jpgThe fining process – notice the stratification of clear liquor and impurities.

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 created my first Amaro from an Amaro Alla Erbe recipe that I found on About.com and combined those ingredients with others I found at DIY Amaro – SeriousEats.com.

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.

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