Introduction to Italian Digestives and Amari Drinks

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campari-aperatif

Do you do bitter?  No, no I’m not asking you if you like to complain or wake up each morning looking for a fight with the world (or worse your spouse)!  What I’m asking is if you’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing what the Italians refer to as Amari?  Amari are traditional digestivos or spirits (read post dinner drinks or liquids that will help you digest your massive meal).  Amari are made by distilling a wide variety of herbs and spices – no one Amari shares the same makeup or ingredients.  For example, Amaro Averna from Sicily is comprised of citrus, herbs, roots, and caramel and Fernet-Branca includes aloe, gentian roots, rhubarb, galangal, red bark, etc. (Fernet-Branca keeps most of the ingredients a secret).
Generally speaking, and as Eric Asimov explains in a recent “The Pour” article, bitter drinks aren’t exactly the rage in the US and, moreover, Americans haven’t yet reached the ephemeral state of post digestive bliss.  That is to say, Mr. Smith could care less about how his stomach is doing after a large meal, conversely, in Italy, the digestive system is taken more seriously than Catholicism, hence the fascination with post dinner Amari designed to soothe both the stomach and the soul (don’t worry I’m not a Cartesian).   Also related to post meal digestion, the Italian tradition of fruit after lunch and dinner is also meant to cleanse the palate and help the stomach do it’s thing. 
I grew up with a few basic Amari including Campari (which is made from cascarilla bark and the insect Dactylopius coccus which gives the liquor it’s distinctive red color) and Vecchio Amaro del Capo (an herbal and minty amaro made in Calabria).  My parents served Amari before and after lunch or dinner.  In terms of consuming fruit after a meal, it was a given that we had a virtually fruit stand at our dinner table every night, including two types of pears, a couple of varieties of apples, oranges, cactus pears, grapes, peaches, plums, etc. (all according to the correct season).  I still consume tons of fruit after dinner, but I can’t peel a pear like my father or grandfather.
The following is a wholly non comprehensive list of Italian Amari (thanks to both Asimov <NY Times> and Weber <San Francisco Chronicle> for doing all the heavy lifting; let’s start with Weber’s list (quotes are straight from his wonderful article, That’s amari: Italy’s traditional bitter liqueurs find new life with American consumers):

amaro_nonino1

Amaro Nonino (about $42).  ”A lighter style of amaro made in Friuli at the Nonino distillery. Its flavors are warm, with a gentle spiciness and smooth texture. The spice character lingers on the finish, proof that Nonino is one of the more elegant amari on the market. Contains a portion of ÙE Grape Distillate, a proprietary aquavit aged in small barriques of nevers, limousin and sherry woods, plus an infusion of herbs. It is best enjoyed as a digestivo or as an aperitivo with ice and orange peel.”

AMARO_AVERNA


Amaro Averna (about $35).
  ”A sophisticated and complex amaro that hails from Sicily. The addition of blood orange and lemon peels to the aromatic herbs used to make this amaro adds a bright and refreshing character. Averna is widely considered to be one of the most versatile Italian amari.”

capo


Vecchio Amaro del Capo.
 An herbal and minty amaro made in Calabria, my parents place of birth.  Capo is excellent when served on the rocks or ice cold from the freezer.  

cynar


Cynar (about $22).
  ”The earthy flavors in this herbal amaro are enhanced by the flavors of the artichokes used in its production. Cynar also has a relatively low alcohol level (16.5 percent), making it a popular amaro for cocktails, as well as a style of amaro that’s enjoyable as an aperitivo.”

fernet-branca


Fernet-Branca (about $30).
 ”A pungent and black drink made in Milan and considered by many to be the benchmark Italian amaro. Flavors of anise and saffron add complexity to this forceful drink.”

mariaal


Santa Maria al Monte ($38).
 ”This shows an engaging herbal complexity that recalls fresh basil and spearmint. Its strength and power are similar to Fernet-Branca, while the vibrant finish feels spicy and rich.” From the Valle d’Aosta, Santa Maria al Monte is a digestivo that uses bitter orange peel and ginseng among other flavoring agents.  Menthol presence is heavy.

ramazzotti


Ramazzotti ($24).
  ”One of the more popular Italian amaro brands, Ramazzotti is made in Milan. The balance between bitter and sweet in this aromatic amaro feels almost seamless, while the snappy flavor of fresh ginger lingers on the finish.”
Other brands mentioned in Asimov’s article:

12campari


Campari (about $26).
 Originally produced in 1860 by Gaspare Campari in Milan.  As stated above, Campari is made from cascarilla bark and the insect Dactylopius coccus which gives the liquor it’s distinctive red color (note: as of 2006 insects are no longer used to give Campari it’s red color; a red dye is now used).  I like Campari via the Negroni, Americano, or with grapefruit juice and a splash of red vermouth)

luxardo

Girolamo Luxardo of Veneto.  A pleasant aperitif liqueur obtained by the infusion of several herbs and fruits such as: sweet oranges, bitter oranges, rhubarb, mint, marjoram and thyme.

brancamenta


Branca Menta (about $27.50).
 As one online reviewer put it, “Deep chestnut, mahogany. High toned, mineral, alpine herbed, licorice aromatics. Rich texture. Wild, intensely concentrated palate – like liquid Ricola. Very fresh, minty and clean with a powerful infusion of spice. For all its presence, it retains nice balance. Use this in winter – should cure anything.”


mioamaro


Inga Mio.  More info to follow.

Chinati.  Made from wine with the addition of herbs
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  • Maria Catena

    Thanks Vin…I didn’t know all that!!!! Americans would do good to bring fruit back to the table~!!! Not sure I could do the bitters! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family….and Happy lst to Tommaso!! xoxoxo Maria

  • Vincent Scordo

    Hi Maria. Fruit is great so bring it back! The Amari are great as well, try them with ice! Happy Turkey Day to you as well…
    Vin

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  • http://aroundannellestable.blogspot.com Annelle Williams

    Campari has been my ingredient of beverage choice for years. Since the Negroni was a little too strong for me for casual cocktails, I mix Campari/Gin/OJ 1/1/3 and an orange slice. Now I’m sad to learn that Campari is colored with red dye. Have not been able to find other amari in our liquor stores (SW Virginia), but will search until I find!
    Thank you for this very informative article!

  • http://www.2baci.blogspot.com Valerie

    We acquired a taste for the amari and do like their digestive properties. The Nonino is nice, though my husband prefers the GrappAmaro from Lucano (a newer product that is hard to find outside Basilicata). Lucano is old standby; my cousin in Lucania always plunks one small icecube into the glass.

  • Annelle

    Campari drinks are my absolute favorite, esp. Campari/Gin/OJ 1/1/3. But now I’m sad to know about the red dye! I’ve been looking for Averna, but living in SW Virginia, our liquor stores aren’t complying! I need a big city store!
    Really enjoyed this article, and the blog!
    Look forward to more!

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