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It's Made With WHAT?

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

When introducing new and strange drinks to people, I find that some libations can be a harder sell than others.

Lately, for instance, I've been trying to spread the word about an Italian aperitivo called Cynar. Here's how the conversation usually goes:

Me: "You must try Cynar!"

Them: "Cynar? What in the world is that?"

Me: "It's a bitter, 33-proof liqueur that's distilled from artichokes."

Them: "Artichokes? Weird. What the heck does it taste like?"

Me: "It's sort of bittersweet."

Them: "What does it look like? Is it pretty in a martini glass?"

Me: "It's kind of a dark brown."

That's when they usually make a face, just as you might be doing right now. Cynar doesn't sound very promising, does it?

I won't lie. Cynar -- like anchovies and modern jazz -- takes a bit of effort, at first, to love. But I implore you: Make the effort.

Cynar (pronounced CHEE-nar), with its infusion of more than 13 herbs and other plants, is one of several bitter, low-proof aperitifs imported from Italy whose popularity has been growing in recent years. Because the Negroni has become a cocktail menu staple, nearly everyone is familiar with another Italian liqueur, the bright red Campari. And another of Italy's best-loved bitter spirits, Aperol, was recently introduced in the United States.

If Cynar is Campari's homely cousin, Aperol is its hot younger sister. Bright orange in color and containing 11 percent alcohol (less than in most glasses of wine), it's a sweet and bitter blend of 30 herbs, spices and more, including orange, rhubarb and gentian. This past winter, as Aperol came on the scene, the influential Spirit Journal wrote that "if there is any justice, [it] should become a favored pre-dinner quaff in aware U.S. households and restaurants."

Aperol is a great light drink for a summer afternoon. The most popular way to enjoy it is in an Aperol Spritz: on the rocks, topped with a little spumante or prosecco and a splash of club soda.

Chris Cunningham, the bar manager at Dino in Cleveland Park, offers several Italian liqueurs, including Cynar and Aperol, and has created several cocktails with them. So far, he says, it's been relatively easy to turn people on to the Aperol Spritz. "The bright color alone is huge in deciding if you're really going to like something," he says, adding that women have been most receptive.

Cynar, on the other hand, has been more challenging. The picture of the artichoke on the bottle does not help. Neither does the fact that the name shares four letters with the word cyanide. But Cunningham is creating converts. "People at first are like, 'Eww, what's that like?' " Cunningham says. "I always tell them, 'It's not as bad as you'd think.' " He adds: "Once they try it, most people really like it."

In fact, Cynar mixes much better than Aperol with the harder stuff. Some bartenders, for instance, are using it in Manhattans, along with sweet vermouth.

To gain a full appreciation, Cunningham suggests first trying Cynar on the rocks, with club soda and a slice of orange. It may take a few sips to wrap your mind around the bittersweet flavor.

Then try using Cynar as an alternative to other bitter aperitifs. Cunningham, for instance, makes a drink at Dino in which Cynar replaces Campari in the traditional Negroni: equal parts Junipero gin, sweet vermouth and Cynar. To which I would add a dash of bitters and a squeeze of orange juice.

To my mind, his Cin-Cyn (a play on the Italian for "Cheers!") is the perfect first drink of the evening, living up to the aperitivo name by preparing the appetite for the meal to come. I offer the recipe here as my means of converting the Cynar nonbelievers.

Still skeptical? Let's just pretend I never told you about the artichokes. And about that brown hue: It's really a lovely sepia tone. Really.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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