Currently, bitter flavors are enjoying a bit of a moment on the American cocktail scene. And it may be more than just a moment — all across the country, bartenders at some of the most elite bars are creating drinks to cater to this oft-ignored side of the palate. Europeans were one step ahead of us on this — long before Fernet Branca took San Francisco by storm, Italians had been enjoying, in the leisurely hours after dinner, a bitter liqueur they call 'amaro'.
Amaros - the name is Italian for 'bitter' - are most often drunk after dinner, as a digestif. They're made by steeping botanicals (herbs, roots, flowers, bark, and/or citrus peels) in alcohol, and then adding sugar to the filtrate. The result is a bittersweet brown liqueur that is intensely herbal. It's a bit outside of most people's idea of cocktail hour (which usually involves very sweet drinks). This is why I'd encourage you to step a little outside your comfort zone and give amaro a try. Which is exactly what I did.
First up: Averna Amaro. Averna is the gateway drug of amaros. Its sweetness makes it approachable; it starts off sweet and bold on the palate before drawing you into its rich, herbal depths. Honestly, when taken straight, I found it to be a bit too sweet, almost syrupy.
Taste: A little bit like Coke, honestly. Like a nuanced, grown-up Coke.
How to drink it: With a splash of tonic and a slice of lemon or orange.
Here's a beautiful, mid-range amaro to reward your experimentation. On the nose, it's so much much like Coca-Cola that I was brought back to the hot summers of my childhood...but there's also the promise or something more, something savory, something a little difficult.
Taste: Like Coke, but mintier. I promise this is not bad.
How to drink it: With sparkling mineral water and a slice of citrus.
Together, the Fernets are their very own branch of the Amaro family. The most well-known here in the states is Fernet Branca, which has gained a real foothold with cocktail aficionados. I like it because it smells a little bit like a dark, unexplored new bar in a strange city, and tastes equally strange and mysterious. After sampling it several times, I feel that I still haven't plumbed its depths - Fernet always has something new.
Taste: Sharply, unabashedly bitter. Very minty.
How to drink it: With coke, as the Argentinians do.
Nancy Mitchell is expanding her horizons. You can find more of her recipes and writings on her blog, The Backyard Bartender.
(Images: Nancy Mitchell)