Darcy O'Neil :: December 6, 2007 9:40 PM

Amaro-poliEven though Amaro may sound like a new, unified, North American currency, it actually means bitter in Italian. It's also a class of liqueurs referred to as stomach bitters, and not surprisingly they are used to aid digestion or to settle an upset stomach, unlike aromatic bitters which add flavour and aroma to drinks. These types of medicinal spirits have been popular in Europe for a long time. Italy seems to be fond of amaro's and has a significant number of brands. In North America, you generally won't find a lot of amaro's behind the bar, but you may find Jagermiester on tap, but that’s more of a school boy manhood test. Getting people to enjoy bitters is a bit difficult, but once you've got the hang-of-it, you can sit back, relax and enjoy.

I find amaro’s a bit like whisky. Obviously not in a similarity of flavour way, but in the similarity of the progression of flavours. When you are young, you may start with something mild in flavour like a Canadian or Irish whiskey. As you grow accustom to the flavours you may move into Bourbons and some of the higher end Canadians. From there, you end up in Scotland. First, you start with the Highlands or Speyside. Maybe a detour through the Lowlands and the Orkney Islands, but at the end of the trip, you will end up in Islay, from where there is no return.

You see, Islay scotches tend to be big and bold in their flavour profile. The tasting notes often indicate strong flavours like; heavy phenolic medicinal iodine and seaweed aroma, oily, slightly sweet, smoky, salty, iodine finish. Tasty. Because of the stronger flavours, when you go back and visit your old whiskies, they seem light and flavourless. This is only because you’ve become accustom to more pungent and assertive flavours. This is similar to how bitters work.

If you really want people to enjoy the bitter flavours in Amaro’s, the trick is to ease new recruits into it. Don’t give them a shot of Fernet Branca and then laugh as they gasp for air. It’s funny, but wrong. There are a couple of really potent stomach bitters that should be left to the more experienced imbiber. The aforementioned Fernet Branca being one, and another being Unicum bitters from Hungary. They are both very bitter, but very effective at soothing an upset stomach.

Amaro-noninoThe best way to approach Amaro’s is to start with a nice gentle one. Yes, there is such a thing as a mild amaro, and a perfect example is Nonino Quintessentia Amaro. This amaro is sweet with a subtle bitterness in the background. It is more herbal liqueur, like Benedictine, than a bitter. However, the flavours in it are indicative of other amaro’s, so it is a perfect introduction into this category. Nonino Quintessentia is also one of the more pricey amaro’s, but it is worth it if your tongue is intimidated by bitter flavours.

After you’ve acquired the taste for some of the herbs used in amaro’s, you can move onto Amaro Ramazzotti, Amaro Lucano or Jannamaro. These are more robust stomach bitters, but they still have a very sweet side which helps to temper the bitterness. Ramazzotti is pleasant, but not really spectacular and is a relatively easy going amaro. These amaro’s are pretty common so the price range is reasonable.

Once you’ve master those, you might want to try something like Amaro Poli which is an artisanal amaro. It is pleasantly bitter, but not over powering. It also has more spice (cinnamon) and a refreshing menthol component. Everything is in balance and refined. These higher end amaro are priced accordingly, but worth it if you enjoy them. 

Fernet-brancaOnce you’ve conquered all of the above, you can finish off with the Fernet style amaro’s, or others like Unicum. These are very bitter and often regarded as medicine and not a Sunday sipper. They were created to cure things like menstrual and gastro-intestinal discomfort, hangovers, baby colic, and other ills. As to their effectiveness, who knows, but many people swear by them for easing stomach discomfort. I tend to agree and have on occasion used bitters to ease a grumpy digestive track.

In North America the word bitter is considered a swear word. It shouldn’t be. I think it is a matter of re-educating people on how to enjoy all four flavours the tongue can interpret. That way you can get the most enjoyment from and drink, and life.

Fix the Pumps
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