For all its hype, the craft-distilling movement is often more notable for what is absent in its spirits—a compelling sense of place, novelty, even creativity. Yet a salve for these disappointments appears to be coming from an unlikely source. Instead of issuing yet another vodka, whiskey or gin, a number of distilleries are finding the voices of their own locales, through a product that to many people is still obscure: amaro.
Consider the story of the Southern Amaro created by Scott Blackwell of Charleston’s High Wire Distilling Co. A chance seating next to Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Amaro, at a dinner three years ago, planted the seed. Over casual dinner conversation, Parsons noted the lack of regionally specific American amaro, stirring Blackwell to create something both novel and local.
“We talked about bittering agents like pecans and pecan shells and sorghum,” Blackwell says. “I took a bunch of notes and started sort of piddling around.” Coincidentally, Blackwell had the opportunity to go out with a local forager during a chef ’s conference, which is when he discovered yaupon, the only native caffeinated plant in North America, a relative of yerba mate that grows only in a few places in the Southeast. A tip from a University of South Carolina professor clued Blackwell into the Dancy tangerine, another native icon. Its peel goes into the mix along with the yaupon, Charleston black tea and readily available wild mint. The result is a bracing amaro, which he presents at a manageable 30 percent ABV. It smells of root beer, tea and orange peel and tastes almost sweet and spicy at first before curling into a dry and bitter finish.
“It’s wild and sharp; it feels like a classic amaro,” says Lane Becker, bar manager at The Ordinary in Charleston. “But Scott’s amaro also tastes incredibly southern to me,” he says, “because it smells almost like sweet tea. It’s like a super-bitter sweet tea.”
At Woods Spirit Co. in Vancouver, Joel Myers and Fabio Martini had a similar idea when they created the Pacific Northwest Amaro. The two would often go foraging in the woods for mushrooms and berries, which is where they became well acquainted with the Grand fir. Not as common as the Douglas fir, the Grand fir has a more refined scent, and the boys knew from an old foraging book that it could be used to make tea. They tried it, and the infusion beguiled them with an unexpected note of piney grapefruit, which they now capture through infusion and low-temperature vacuum distillation to build into their Pacific Northwest Amaro. Based on spirit they distill entirely from B.C. grains, and augmented with rhubarb, gentian, wormwood and citrus peels, the amaro is on the lighter end of the spectrum. Peter Van de Reep, barman at Vancouver’s Campagnolo Upstairs, appreciates the local ambience delivered by what he describes as tree resin and “flavors from the woods.” “The Grand Fir is incredibly evocative of the temperate rainforest up here,” he says. “It’s so fragrant and potent that it’s best paired with a spirit that supports the amaro—gin, Tequila, lighter mezcal—rather than overpowering it with an oaky brown spirit.” His favorite deployment is in his Piñon Martinez, with the amaro replacing vermouth in this Tequila-centric take on a classic.
These are just two examples of a movement that’s taking off around the country. At Townshend’s Tea Company in Portland, Oregon, distiller Seth O’Malley is using local Douglas Fir needles, hops and birch bark for his local take on a fernet. Victoria James’ Aster amaro from upstate New York is made from entirely foraged botanicals. And other recent amari—such as Fernet Francisco, which sources most of its ingredients within a hundred-mile radius of San Francisco—make an effort to use locally available botanicals, if not necessarily ones as distinctively regional as those from High Wire and Woods.
By assiduously capturing a sense of place, these spirits are redeeming a craft distilling movement that repeatedly left drinkers wondering why we should buy another random gin. As some distillers begin to ask themselves, ‘What do we have to say?’ One answer is in capturing one’s place in a new and evocative way. These amari appeal to drinkers in the same way as kitchens that beckon travelers who arrive at a new place with the chance to sample the local specialty. On our travels, we may not have time to stumble into the woods in search of yaupon or Grand fir needles, but we can order a cocktail at a local bar and, perhaps for a moment, savor what it would be like.
This article first appeared in W&S April 2017.