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
0.95a = (8oz. X 0.4) + (0.4a)
0.95a = 3.2oz. + 0.4a
0.95a – 0.4a = 3.2 oz.
0.55a = 3.2 oz.
a = 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.
0.35a = 3.2 oz.
a = 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!