The typical well-stocked backbar in Louisville – or anywhere in America, for that matter – gives off an amber glow as stately and authoritative as the burnished chambers of an old-school attorney. As evidence of quality, the labels on the bottles state their age and their proof. The names on the bottles invoke legendary people, places, and landmarks. The most frequently used adjective is “old.” Even the fonts look like something copied from an ancient parchment.
Such bars have a reassuring gravitas built around rigorously defined categories and classifications and legally-defined mash bills. A person can behold such a bar and think, “Yes, the universe truly is orderly and predictable.”
But there are other bars where the labels are a riot of colors and images. They sport strange vegetal tangles and maidens dancing across Alpine landscapes. The fonts could have been created for the cover of a comic book or a noirish graphic novel. And in many cases there’s not a word of English to be seen on the label.
If you run into a bar like that, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve come across a place that highlights the chaotic, anarchic pleasures of Amaro.
The Italian word “Amaro” translates as “bitter” in English. Intuitively, “bitter” is an off-putting word for most of us. In the U.S., bartenders have long used amari (the plural form) to bolster the flavor profiles of cocktails (especially in the vibrant class of Italian-style pre-dinner cocktails, like Negronis). But for many of us the notion of sipping full-strength bitter liquids is intimidating. Elsewhere in the world, though, and increasingly in the U.S., amari are becoming stand-alone beverage staples, sipped neat, on the rocks, with a splash of sparkling water, or as the main ingredient in virally popular drinks like the Aperol Spritz.
In the Fall issue of F&D, we profiled Max Balliet, chef-owner of Pizza Lupo, who took us on a deep-dive into the culinary joys and mysteries of bitterness on the palate. So it should come as no surprise that amari are highlighted in Lupo’s bar program.
At last count the Lupo Amari list had nearly fifty entries — and Lupo Bar Manager Jessye Ramsey frequently greets customers with news of another arrival (most recently it was a blueberry-inflected bottle called Pasubio that’s produced in Italy’s northern Alpine region).
Before coming to Louisville, Ramsey spent part of her career in Portland, Oregon, at the renowned Multnomah Whiskey Library. And talking to her is like consulting a gifted and enthusiastic reference librarian. She’ll chat with you about your flavor preferences, your menu selections, your tastes in beer, wine, and spirits. Then her mental Rolodex starts spinning and she’s laying out options and steering you to a perfect choice: like the pine-scented, orange peel and artichoke notes in the sippable, wine-based Cardamaro that pairs perfectly with the old-fashioned cream pie that Max’s mom cooks up for the weekend service.
A Drink That Knows No Rules
Expert advice is helpful as you enter into the world of amaro – and if you ask you’ll find that a high percentage of bar professionals are knowledgeable enthusiasts; many are passionate enthusiasts.
And the first advice you’re likely to get from amaro enthusiasts is likely to be: “There are no rules.” You’ll see labels like “aperitif” or “digestif,” which suggest that an amaro is better suited for drinking before a meal or after, but those are just suggestions.
Ramsey says that an Italian may ardently recommend a preferred amaro, but as for how and when to drink it, their advice is likely to be, “Drink it before a meal. Drink it after a meal. Drink it when you wake up. Drink it when you go to bed. Their brand will vary depending on where they’re from or a family affiliation with a particular brand, but going to just that brand at any time of day.”
Balliet echoes that sentiment. “The Italians are very relaxed about this,” he says. “For them all these bottles really do just fall into the category ‘amari.’ They don’t break them down and say, ‘this is a digestif and this is an aperitif.’ They’re just amari and Italians are going to drink them whenever they want to drink them.”
For people with a taste for adventure, that absence of rules is both alluring and challenging. On the one hand, you’re not testing your taste against someone else’s rating or putative expertise. All that matters is what you like.
But how to dive in?
One way is just to dive in by sampling whatever you find. At Lupo, amari are priced by the shot ($5-$7). Any amaro can be transformed into a “spritz” by adding Prosecco and soda water for a small upcharge. If you’re already familiar with the popular amaro-based spritzes, Ramsey suggests exploring other amari through the same vehicle.
Or, for no charge at all, you can ask for a glass of ice or a glass of sparkling water. Then sip the amaro straight and pure to experience the mouthfeel and the intense, unique interplay of bitter, sweet, and herbal flavors that characterizes every amaro. Then, if you like, make yourself a simple amaro “splash” to see how the flavors open up when slightly diluted.
All these amari, even the most bitter, are a mix of exquisitely complicated and idiosyncratic flavors and mouthfeels. Tasting your way through this category is like working your way through a fascinating crowd at a party. Some bottles you’ll latch on to, some you’ll return to occasionally, and some you’ll avoid in the future at all costs — but you won’t regret the experience.
Don’t forget that although amari can be drunk alone, in Italy, where they originated, they are also an essential part of the dining experience. Ramsey notes that these low-proof, herb-inflected beverages stimulate the palate prior to a meal and aid with digestion after.
And there are guides. Best to find a knowledgeable bartender, or second best a full list with descriptive notes. The list at Lupo breaks things into categories (“sweet” and “bitter”). But all amari are by definition bitter, and all are a complex mix. So don’t put too much stock in those divides.
More useful are descriptive tasting notes. Lupo’s list, for instance, describes the popular Aperol as “sweet orange, rhubarb, white flowers”; the Cardamaro mentioned above is “tangy, orange peel, pine.” The list is full of references to flavors and aromas like rhubarb, mint, tarragon, anise, clove, espresso, smoke, lemon, saffron, and more.”
Brad Thomas, the author of Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueur, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas, suggests dividing amari into styles like light and medium (which vary in color, intensity, and their balance of herbs and citrus); Alpine (which feature pine scents and mountain herbs); fernets (bitter-focused), carciofo (artichoke), and rabarbaro (which derive their flavor from rhubarb).
But all of these are idiosyncratic, multi-flavored potions that grab your attention and make you think about what you’re experiencing.
When you do find an amaro you’d like to take home, you’ll find selections in stores around town, but to my knowledge, the best bottle selection in the city can be found in the shop at the rear of the downtown craft cocktail bar called Meta. The shop is called Show & Tell at Meta (425 W. Chestnut, 502-822-6382, www.metalouisville.com — unlike the bar, the shop does keep daytime business hours). F&D