August 2010

Bitter Truth

AMARI is ready for its American century
by JOD KAFTAN / photograph by NIGEL COX

Italy has encountered little resistance when it comes to exporting cultural treasures to our country. But assimilation doesn’t happen overnight. Incredibly, it took nearly half a century for Americans to fully embrace pizza. So, does the next great Italian import really consist of bitter-tasting elixirs made from macerated herbs?

Francesco Lafranconi would say yes. Of course, his conclusion about amari—translated from Italian as “bitters”—comes after concerted trial and error. The American sweet tooth is formidable.

National director of mixology for Southern Wine & Spirits, Lafranconi recalls arriving in the U.S. in 2000 and being asked to design aperitif and digestif menus for Las Vegas clients. Their reaction to his use of amari was memorable. “They were looking at the drink with a twisted face, disgusted,” he says. “One of them said, ‘What are you doing drinking this s--t!?’ ”

Lafranconi thinks his American reception to all things bitter could’ve been worse—if that’s possible—without the pioneering work of Sidney Frank’s Jägermeister in the late ’80s. “In Italy, Jägermeister is not pounded just to get drunk,” he says. “It’s a legitimate digestif that we sip after a meal.” The German libation, made from herbs and spices and with a bitter flavor profile, made a dent in the shot-pounding ’80s due to shrewd marketing tactics.

The time for amari in the States may never be better. Thanks to the craft-cocktail movement, we’ve begun trading in our fuzzy navels and cosmos for Manhattans and highballs. Tacky clubs with velvet ropes are being replaced with rum bars and speakeasies. After decades of cocktails punked with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors, we have finally broadened our palate, returning to our classic cocktail pedigree—all things vintage are synonymous with authenticity.

Of course, it’s one thing to wince while sipping smooth small-batch bourbon; it’s another to taste something whose original purpose was medicinal. Somewhat suspect ingredients like quinine, ginseng, licorice and wormwood make amari the last frontier for the most progressive of American drinkers.

With origins dating back to nearly 300 B.C., amari are the natural heir to elixirs used to cure everything from tapeworm to high blood pressure. The ancient civilizations of China and Egypt created rudimentary wines from macerated herbs to serve as panaceas along the ancient Silk Route.

The shift of these elixirs from medicinal to recreational occurred during the Renaissance, when Catherine de’ Medici joined France’s Henry II as his queen. Along with her Tuscan court, she brought assets including recipes for cordiali. Her evangelism for the benefits of amari helped them gain traction among Europe’s aristocracy.

“Sometimes when foreigners come, events become more touristy. The most important thing is that the fiestas stay authentic, a unique expression of each winery.”

Today, each amaro has a unique formula—most are Italian family recipes kept strictly secret. And while they run the gamut of flavor profiles, many include the eupeptic properties of their ancestors. Modern-day amari, as aperitifs or digestifs, usually contain botanicals that stimulate gastric acids to aid digestion or increase appetite.

Campari is one of the best known brands of amari. In Italy, it’s usually taken as an aperitif, paired with orange juice for balance. Digestif amari, such as Luxardo Amaro Abano, are not only higher in alcohol than their aperitif cousins but run a tad sweeter. Certainly among Europeans, no matter how amari are used—before or after a meal—they are an elemental part of the dining ritual.

While adventurous American drinkers might be tempted to try their first amaro in a cocktail like a Murano or an Italian Swizzle, Lafranconi suggests going neat for the inaugural taste. “Considering there aren’t many American barmen who are experienced with amari, you may have a bad experience—better to take the genuine product straight so you can fully understand the taste.”

Pouring an amaro over ice is ill advised as well. Across the pond, amari are usually taken neat, partly because Europeans aren’t conditioned to add ice to their drinks and, more important, because amari are meant to be sipped—ice would dramatically impact the flavor as it dilutes. Our country’s obsession with drinking things cold is a habit that will die hard.

Of course, American tastes are in constant evolution. Though we may be in a golden age for spirits, it’s the mavens of the cocktail world who continue to push the envelope. You’ll know you’re one of them if you can, as Lafranconi says, choose whether “you are Indiana Jones or Bill O’Reilly—it comes down to your view of life. Taste is what you make of it.”

Premier mixologist Francesco Lafranconi offers up amari recipes and tips >