Amaro & Vermouth: The Bitter and the Sweet
My first experience with the romantic taste of Amaro came in Rome, when I was traveling in Italy with my parents. They would pull my sister and me out of school for a month or more at a time to see many of the European countries. My parents liked the best things that life had to offer — and rather than stick us on an impersonal tour bus, they would immerse us in local food, wine and museums.
I first noticed people enjoying Amaro in a street-side café. We were staying at the Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish Steps. Tourists find this staircase irresistible for photography and for pausing to enjoy a relaxing cocktail from the multitudes of street-side, stand-up table cocktail bars. There were several tall tables set up beside the steps, and young men in sharply cut suits were sipping tiny glasses of a caramel colored liquor with shots of espresso on the side.
I also remember that there was a tall, red tinged cocktail in almost everyone’s hands. I direct tweeted world famous “Cocktalian” Gaz Regan for his Negroni cocktail recipe and am including it here for good luck.
Negroni (recipe courtesy of Gaz Regan, via Twitter)
Little did I know at the time that what they were drinking would pave the way to my future desire to whisper about cocktails. I wanted to taste what these stylish people were drinking, because I was very sophisticated for a 12-year-old! At the end of my usual dinner bowl of Tortellini in Brodo, I remember sipping at my tiny glass hesitantly. It smelled faintly of citrus, and the texture of the liquor was soft on my inexperienced palate. The finish (as I remember) went on and on, seemingly for years.
Italian Vermouth in many ways is similar to Amaro, but a bit less bitter on the tongue. Some uniquely flavorful ones from Italy are Punt e Mes and the esoteric, salubrious Carpano Antica. The Carpano is a rum raisin-filled mouthful of sweet vanilla cake, laced with Asian spices and caramelized dark stone fruits. Punt e Mes is lighter and nuttier, with caramelized pecans and hand-ground grits in the finish.
I’m sure the alcohol is low — all these products (Amaro included) are low in alcohol, making them perfect in a cocktail. Amaro can be enjoyed as a digestif, it acts to settle the stomach after a large meal because of the herbal ingredients.
But what does Amaro taste like? The flavors vary from sweet to bittersweet to herbal, featuring orange blossoms, caramel and nuts. Some taste like artichoke, others like mint, and still others like a sweetened root tea. They may be enjoyed in a cup of hot tea as an elixir, or dropped into a small cup of espresso to “correct” the sweet, thick coffee.
You can drink Amaro straight or on the rocks, or even as an adjunct to other alcoholic and non-alcoholic ingredients. I love Ramazzotti Amaro, Averna, Branca Menta and its twin (without the mint), Fernet Branca. There are dozens that I’ve tasted around Europe and at home in New Jersey.
But why is Amaro so fundamental to the Italian style of living? Perhaps the explanation will be: with everything sweet, there must also be a bitter side?
I’m not sure, since I’ve read that Amaro is more than just a drink; it’s a way of life. Whatever the explanation is, the use of the bitter herbs, roots and spices are pleasing to drink and stimulate conversation. Because of the low alcohol level, the drink is uniquely designed to extend your meal into further conversation, not end it immediately with a cup of coffee.
A dash of bitter and a dash of the sweet make life go round and round.