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Amore e Amaro: Bitter Choices

By Craig Camp
Friday, July 25, 2003 

I'M BITTER and I like it.

No wait. That's wrong. I should say I like bitters.

Italy is famous for amore, but in reality it should be famous for amaro. Amaro is the bitter, sometimes bittersweet digistivo that is produced under dozens of name brands in virtually every corner of Italy. Fernet Branca, Ramazzotti, and Averna are sold throughout the world, but in Italy there are many major brands and in every region of Italy you will find local brands, some only sold in the town of their birth.

Amaro is magic. At least that what the monks that used to make it thought they were doing. They steeped herbs in alcohol to create medicine for almost anything that could ail you. In the 1700s, monasteries throughout Europe were producing alcohol and herb concoctions that were supposed to provide some sort of medicinal benefit. These beverages may not have cured you, but they made you care less about your ailment. This second factor increased the popularity of these potions to such a point that around 1800 these beverages began to be commercially produced. Most of the famous brand names of today were established by the late 1800s.

The recipes for these magic elixirs are closely guarded secrets. The producers blend around forty herbs, fruits, and spices with a base of grape brandy or grain alcohol. The varied recipes mean brands of amaro can differ greatly in flavor, weight, darkness of color, and alcoholic punch. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all bitter. Not that they bite, but the first taste by those not accustomed to the it often elicits a look of horror and a quick grab for the water glass. Amari (plural of amaro) are often an acquired taste, worth acquiring.

While herb-infused alcohol products are common throughout the world, in Italy they are part of daily culture. Every bar has five or six types often displayed in large 1.5 liter bottles. A 1.5 liter bottle of Fernet Branca would be several years' supply in most American restaurants, but in a busy Italian bar they're gone in a day. Italians believe with all their hearts that amaro aids you in digesting a meal, and that taken with sparkling water before a meal it not only aids your digestion but also stimulates the appetite. In a country filled with such a plethora of extraordinary things to eat, this perceived property alone could explain the popularity of amaro,

I agree with the Italians. Nothing settles the stomach like amaro.

Italy may be the home of amaro, but in the United States Jagermeister is the king of the bitters hill. Much to the chagrin and amazement of the powerful Italian brands, a German bitters has cornered the lucrative American market, leaving the Italian producers in chinaroot dust. Fernet Branca, the largest Italian brand with a sales volume in the same league as Fiat, is a far, far distant second in the category in the USA.

Amaro is normally severed at the end of the meal after your coffee. Some people like to add it to their coffee, but I prefer to enjoy it on its own. Usually amaro is served straight-up in a liqueur glass, but in warm weather an ice cube or two makes it even more refreshing. It is quite common in an Italian home to drink your amaro from your empty espresso cup, mixed with the leftover coffee and sugar. Served with a splash of sparking water, amaro becomes an aperitif and the large producers, being good marketers, are always coming up with some new cocktail with amaro as a prime ingredient.

Bitter Choices:

-Fernet Branca, Milano: Fernet is actually a type of amaro produced in the Lombardia region and Fernet Branca is the most famous brand of Fernet amaro. Darkly colored, pungently bitter, and with a strong alcoholic kick, the brand is far and away the best selling brand of Italian amaro in and out of Italy. Included in the recipe are aloe, bay leaves, absinthe, anise seeds, bitter oranges, basil, cardamom, nutmeg, peppermint, and saffron. It is quite bitter and has no fear of any amount of anything you have eaten: Fernet Branca will search and destroy whatever lurks in your stomach. This brand is easy to find almost anywhere and is often the only Italian amaro a store or restaurant will stock. I am amazed by its success in the United States because Fernet Branca is so intensely flavored. Jagermeister lovers will freak out at just at the smell. A great party trick to play on your enemies, Fernet Branca is an excellent product, but a little intense for most. A bottle lasts a long time.

-Branca Menta, Milano: This is Fenet Branca with a good dose of mint liquor. You can get a similar product at home by mixing Fernet with about 40% creme de menthe. Very refreshing on the rocks and much easier to take than straight Fernet, while getting the same digestive benifets.

-Averna, Sicilia: My favorite brand. Darkly colored, with a bitterness that is rounded out by rich fruit flavors. A bit of vanilla and sugar is included in the recipe and balances out the bitter herbs nicely. Quite rich in texture and mouth-feel, it is the fullest bodied amaro -- a good starting place for the amaro-deprived. Works almost as well on stuffed stomachs as Fernet Branca, but without the nasty face. Very smooth and easy to drink, Averna ices down nicely on summer days. Bottles of Averna have been known to disappear quickly.

-Ramazzotti, Milano: Another Milano brand that has caught on big time. In the eighties it was the brand to drink in fashion-conscious Milano. Medium-dark in color and quite bitter, but not as intense as Fernet Branca or as round as Averna. A great example of the Italian style. With Fernet at the extreme bitter end and Averna at the more generous end, Ramazotti would fall right in the middle of the range. An excellent digestivo with just enough bitterness to refresh without being too intense.

-Amaro Lucano, Basilicata: Decidedly bitter, but without the intensity of Fernet Branca. Very complex, nutty, herbal overtones without a trace of sweetness. The lighter body of Lucano makes it easy on a full stomach.

-Amaro Montenegro, Bologna: Very popular in Italy, with a unique squat bottle shape, Montenegro is quite similar in weight and bitterness to Lucano, but with a more citrus and nutty, spiced flavors. I don't think Lucano and Montenegro ice down straight as well as Averna, but they both work beautifully with sparkling water as an apertivo.

- Amaro Nonino, Friuli: The newcomer of the group and an innovation. Herbs are blended with the Ue brandy produced by this excellent grappa producer, then aged for five years in barrels. The result is very complex with warm, round flavors in the mouth. It brings the refreshing herbal characteristics of amaro together with the complexity of grappa. The Nonino is too serious and complex for ice and is a fitting end to the finest of meals.

-Amaro Braulino, Lombardia: Made with aromatic herbs which grow on the slopes of Monte Braulino in the Alps. This strongly herbal amaro is aged for years in barrel before release. Quite refreshing and bitter, it was reputed to be the favorite of Garibaldi -- how can you resist?

I can't. A meal without amaro is like a day without Rolaids.