The Thinking Drinkers look to leave a bitter taste in your mouth. As featured in Jamie Oliver’s Jamie Magaine
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie and you’re thirsty for a digestif – that’s amaro. Amaro is Italy’s best-kept alcoholic secret, but has enjoyed a recent renaissance, because (when the world seems to shine and they’ve had too much wine) the Italians have been smacking their lips and settling stomachs with amari (plural) for centuries.
In short, amaro translates as ‘bitter’ and is a liqueur that evolved from an ancient spell of drinks experimentation in which herbs and roots were thrown into alcoholic mixes. Initially used in the practice of alchemy, they flourished when creators later argued they were medicinal. Booze into gold is obviously bunkum, but even alcohol holding hands with healthy living seems unlikely. Yet the early successes on digestion with the herbal and root based remedies from the Greeks, Arabs, Romans and monks catapulted these elixirs into mealtime lore.
Diners around this time discovered how the right mix of ingredients cured a tummy upset, and with the hefty meat dishes the medieval set enjoyed, any tonic was regarded a Godsend.
The ingredients were initially selected according to the geography, with amari becoming a regional speciality, so the Tartufo Amaro enjoyed in Umbria was made using the local black truffles, but as spice trails bought forth new ingredients, the recipes were adapted according to what would serve the stomach best.
Today other ingredients in amari range from gentian to camomile, or sage, juniper, liquorice, saffron and citrus rinds, all of them infused using various maceration techniques. These maceration methods are crucial for taste, so for Meletti Amaro, coming from Marche, herbs and botanicals pass through a cold-extraction process called percolation, with alcohol poured over them to infuse the alcohol with flavours.
There’s plenty of hype attached to the blend of ingredients and it figures that recipes are fiercely protected family secrets. To distinguish we rely on the tall tales of creation that imbue each bottle with the Italian romanticism that makes us swoon at the alcohol aisle. Take Amaro Montenegro, created by Bologna citizen Stanislao Cobianchi after he fled his homeland due to the threat of becoming a priest. He found asylum in Montenegro and while he twiddled thumbs and knobs on distilling kit, the country that saved his bacon provided the key secret ingredient to his elixir, not to mention the pretty princess Elena who inspired the name.
Elsewhere the Fernet Branca’s recipe is shrouded in mystery; was it a Swedish doctor, was it a housewife, was it the two of them together? Nobody knows, except maybe the team where it’s made. They use a 165 year old recipe with over 30 different roots and herbs, including, zedoaria, saffron, myrrh and rhubarb, with the production process using numerous different types of macerations with every ingredient treated and processed separately. Once blended these macerations are aged for 12 months in huge Slovenian oak vats between 15,000 and 20,000 litres each.
For the connoisseur the distinctions between elixirs such as amari and other liqueurs enjoyed at the beginning or end of a meal, are clear, Amari coming at the end of the meal, although some diners have indulged before dinner on ice and Cynar, recognized for its artichoke ingredient, is a fine aperitif. This has inspired new creations such as Kamm & Sons, complete with 45 ingredients including ginseng and juniper which has been used effectively as an aperitif, but equally as an ingredient in after dinner drinks.
Historically amaro has spent centuries earning its place as the quintessential après-dinner tipple at gluttonous banquets, and it’s a tradition that discerning drinkers appreciate. Granted it will struggle to compensate for the indigestion if you chose to eat a an entire pig, but it’s worth remembering that, when the stars make you drool, just like meat hungry fazool before and after you eat, a quick amaro can take the edge off.