That's Amaro, Unabashedly Bitter

(By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, March 19, 2008; Page F05

I'm one of those irritating Italophiles who long ago acquired the nearly unacquirable taste for amari. Over the years, I've found that nothing flummoxes the American drinker more than these bitter herbal liqueurs that Italians sip after dinner.

Some of the unease stems from the concept itself, and I can empathize. An amaro (meaning "bitter" in Italian) traditionally is consumed as a digestivo, or digestive aid. And let's be honest: The idea can seem a little gross. Digestivo, to me, is where the Italian language, generally so poetic and mellifluous when it comes to food and drink, veers sharply into the prosaic and unpretty. Digestion is an unconscious process for good reason: No one really wants to think about it, or to equate their after-dinner beverage with Alka-Seltzer.

There does seem to be some validity to the therapeutic reputation of herbal bitters; a 2001 study published in a Swiss journal said they "sensorially stimulate" stomach secretions and digestive glands "at even very small concentrations." But medicinal value, of course, isn't the main concern when it comes to spirits. Digestive tract aside, there's also the issue of the bitter taste, which might politely be termed "challenging" for the American palate.

Bartending logic being what it is, that bitter challenge makes amari the perfect ingredients for cutting-edge mixologists, and plenty have been experimenting with them on cocktail menus.

Dino in Cleveland Park has one of the largest assortments of amari in Washington, and head bartender Chris Cunningham uses them in several drinks. His latest is a version of a Negroni in which he substitutes Fernet-Branca for Campari. "I want to push people outside their comfort zone," Cunningham says.

I can't think of a better amaro than Fernet-Branca to push someone out of their comfort zone.

When I was living in a northern Italian village as a newly arrived 19-year-old student -- already way out of my suburban comfort zone -- my host father was always very concerned about my digestion, especially after I'd gorged myself into a food coma on my host mother's delicious cooking. His surefire cure (which he partook with me) was a shot of Fernet-Branca.

Beginning your relationship with amaro by drinking a shot of 80-proof Fernet-Branca is like starting to learn a language by reading physics textbooks. The taste? How about a bracing smack in the face with a eucalyptus tree? The other night I served my real American mother Fernet-Branca after dinner. She took one sip, made that bitter face, and said, "Oh, God, it tastes like Vicks VapoRub."

Created by a self-taught herbalist in Milan in 1845, Fernet-Branca is made from a secret recipe of more than 40 herbs and spices, including rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, saffron and -- to get a little biblical -- myrrh. Besides settling digestion, it originally was used to treat such maladies as menstrual discomfort, baby colic and cholera. It survived Prohibition because it was sold in pharmacies for medicinal purposes.

Many in the bar and restaurant industry drink Fernet-Branca as a badge of honor; I was recently at a dinner where one famous bartender ordered it, and then everyone else felt that they had to order one. It's particularly popular in (of course) San Francisco, where locals order a shot with a ginger ale chaser.

But take it from me: Though Fernet-Branca works wonders for a hangover, it is not a good place to start your journey of discovery into amaro. Even Dean Gold, the owner of Dino, professes a distaste for the stuff. There are so many different amari that Gold encourages people to find the one that suits them. "Bitters are very personal," he says. "They're all very distinctive." Most are in the 40-to-60-proof range, lower in alcohol than many spirits.

Ramazzotti is perhaps the easiest-drinking amaro, with its gentle notes of orange and cola. Amaro Meletti, with its floral aroma and tastes of saffron and violet, is also interesting. And I've found that Amaro Montenegro, from Bologna, is an excellent starter amaro: sweeter than most, with orange peel and clove among the flavors and aromas, and an only slightly bitter finish. Amaro Montenegro was called the "liqueur of virtues" by the famed Italian poet Gabriele D'Annunzio (though it should be noted that D'Annunzio ended up becoming a figurehead of Mussolini's Fascists, so be wary of looking for virtues in a bottle of amaro).

Right now, however, Averna is the amaro of the moment, and I'm seeing it as an ingredient on cocktail menus all over the country. It's even used in my new favorite Manhattan variation, called a black Manhattan (two parts rye whiskey, one part Averna, a dash of Angostura bitters and a maraschino cherry). Averna is quite assertive when mixed with stronger spirits, such as whiskey or cognac, or with syrupy, flavorful liqueurs, such as maraschino or limoncello.

Or you can just drink it neat. And when you make that bitter face, just remember: At least your digestive tract is smiling.

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

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