Hidden in one of a cluster of low-slung warehouses in Northwest Washington, near a 7-Eleven and a self-storage facility among buildings adorned with “Space For Lease” banners, you will find the nest of that rarest of birds: a domestic amaro.
Though made here, Amaro delle Sirene has deep Italian roots; the bitter liqueur is the latest offering from Don Ciccio & Figli. Owner Francesco Amodeo, who grew up on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, has been planning the amaro since launching his line of liqueurs in 2012, modeling delle Sirene after one once produced at a distillery owned by his two grandfathers.
Working over the past few years to finalize the blend and infusion process for 30 roots and herbs, he often turned to a diminishing source: a 4-ounce sample from an old bottle of their version, a liqueur that hasn’t been produced since 1931.
“I was literally tasting it drop by drop to analyze the flavors,” he says. “You can’t go back to ask anyone, because the owners of the old place died before I was born, and nobody knows anymore.” He named Amaro del Sirene after the mermaids of Roman mythology who — having never read “He’s Just Not That Into You” — supposedly dashed themselves against the rocks near Positano when brave Ulysses wouldn’t give them the time of day.
Amodeo is somehow managing — with his wife, Vanja Simovic, and a few friends who drop by to help — to keep Don Ciccio & Figli growing and expanding even while they both hold down full-time jobs. At this point, he’s still just infusing the spirits, but he hopes to start distilling within the next few years. To keep up with demand for an excellent limoncello, the couple sometimes surrender weekends to sit, with pop music blasting, peeling hundreds of pounds of lemons. (Consider this the next time you disrespect Coldplay.)
Don Ciccio’s bubbly publicist, Kyle Schmitz, tells me that when Amodeo first saw Vanja years back while both were working at Hook in Georgetown, he thought to himself, “That’s my mermaid.” Cute, huh? With slightly reduced effervescence, Amodeo confirms that he has, for years, stored Vanja’s number in his cellphone under the name “Sirenis.”
Vanja, herself an immigrant from near Belgrade, says that she has friends who thought Amodeo’s financial risk in starting up Don Ciccio was too great, but that she’s on board. She says she hopes to be able to devote more time to marketing the line; in a charmingly earnest ode to true love and the free market, she says she told Amodeo: “I believe in you. But even more, I believe in the product.”
As to the latest one, an American amaro is an unusual creature indeed. We Americans are notoriously sweet-toothed, and as Amodeo notes, most amari “are very bitter, medicinal — that’s how they were always made.”
They take some getting used to. Americans drinking bitter boozes often seem to be one of two types: those into the cocktail revival (bitters, after all, are one of the four ingredients listed in the first known definition of the cocktail) or the triple-dog-dare-you crowd. Frat boys have been hazing each other with Jägerbombs for decades, and Jägermeister is essentially a German amaro. Jägerbombs have been around long enough to evolve from the relatively benign Jäger-dropped-in-beer to the depressant/stimulant mix more common today, Jäger-dropped-in-Red Bull. (Kids, listen to your Auntie Alcohol: Don’t drink Jägerbombs. Jägermeister is a complex, fascinating liqueur that deserves more respect than the Jägerbomb provides, and you don’t want to waste good Red Bull. Not when so many toilets need cleaning.)
Somewhere between the mixologists and the bros barfing in a bush outside Kappa Sigma drift the curious newcomers, the ones whose contorted visages you can see on BuzzFeed listicles showing those suffering from “Malört Face” or in Facebook groups capturing the grimaces after one’s “First Fernet.” I suppose this is a form of appreciation, but they seem to treat these beverages as the bibulous equivalent of that infamous YouTube video best known for all the follow-up videos of people reacting to how disgusting it was.
I’d prefer to think the growing interest in amari tracks not only with the cocktail revival but with Americans’ turn of late toward bigger flavors. Our recent obsession with Sriracha, kimchi and fermenting speaks to a food culture that is more and more attracted to what a certain strain of American dude — homo Keanus? — might term “extreeeeeme,” but which happily seems to signify a growing adventurousness in what might be (albeit insufferably) termed our national palate.
It’s a palate that should welcome a homegrown amaro. Amodeo makes his with a series of infusions: Ten herbs and roots go in for 10 days, then another 10 for the same stretch, and another 10 after that. He mentions angelica, licorice and passion flower among the roster of ingredients; when I taste it, I get primarily licorice and sweet fennel, changing over the mid-palate to a long bitterness with a note that tastes almost like coffee. It’s not a beginner’s amaro like, say, caramelly Nardini, but neither is it as aggressively bitter as Sibilla or Dell’Erborista.
While he’s proud of the liqueur’s roots in Italy, Amodeo says he’s happy to be launching his amaro here.
“The beautiful thing about the U.S. is that we work more with cocktails, and I can work more with that kind of palate,” he says. Despite its production of a great variety of amari and many an amazing vermouth, he says, Italy is really not a cocktail country.
“I was in Italy in March,” he says ruefully, “and I had the worst Negronis of my life.”
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.