Amaro Frustrating & Fascinating - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Amaro Frustrating & Fascinating

From Aperol to Zucca, the Diversity of Amari Spurs Cocktail Invention

Sother Teague uses close to 300 amari at NYC’s Amor y Amargo to reinvent classic cocktails. (Photo: Adam Friedlander)

Amor y Amargo, New York City’s bar devoted to bitter libations, began as a pop-up in 2011 in the storage space of the sandwich shop next door. What was meant to be a six-month run has turned into an eleven-year stretch, offering close to 300 amari and more than 500 tincture bitters. Sother Teague, co-founder and beverage director, says guests range from the curious (people who have never had an amaro before) to seasoned pros who are excited to find something new. “We recently had someone come in who grew up in the Czech Republic and ordered Becherovka,” Teague recalls. “He hadn’t seen it anywhere since he’d left his home twenty years ago.” With the winter months approaching, I caught up with Teague to talk amaro, both straight up and in cocktails. —Alissa Bica

How do you categorize different types of amaro?

As far as the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) is concerned, there are only three words that matter: “bitter,” “sweet” and “liqueur.” If you are making a product that has a bittering agent, a sweetening agent and booze, then the TTB will happily slap the word amaro on the bottle. In American whiskey, there are laws in how it’s made. When you compare one American whiskey to another American whiskey, it’s apples to apples; when you try to compare one amaro to another, it’s more like apples to carburetors.

I have what I call the F & F Theory when it comes to amaro: It’s frustrating or fascinating. For me, it’s fascinating to go down the rabbit hole and understand that all amari are different from one another, and there’s no categorization, no governing body that’s overseeing how they’re made. However, for the people who get frustrated by that, they want to put them into boxes so they can understand.

What are some of those boxes?

Your big hits would start with red bitters, which are typically lighter in body and citrus-driven; they have a burnt-caramel quality giving them their bitter edge—Campari, Aperol, Sirene, Bordiga. These are often considered apertivi.

Then, I would say you have citrusy amaro (like Amaro Montenegro and Vecchio del Capo); alpine amaro (Braulio or AltaVerde) that have pine, juniper or fir qualities; and medicinal styles (almost every fernet you can think of, Cynar, Brooklyn Amaro or Unicum from Hungary). Things like rabarbaros (amari made with Chinese rhubarb like Zucca or Sfumato) stand in their own world. They come off quite smoky, so that’s a new, burgeoning category. Herbal, like Suze, would be another.

Vino amari, like Pasubio, can be served straight or as a juicy mixer. (Photo: Adam Friedlander)

How do you use these amari in cocktails or mixed drinks?

At Amor y Amargo, we’ve never had a drop of juice. The only non-alcoholic ingredient in this entire bar is water. Some amari are juicy—vino amaros come to mind, like Cardamaro or Pasubio. Amaro Montenegro has a very orange, citrusy quality with cucumber and celery on the backside, so it’s very wet on your palate. I use these amari as juice analogues in cocktails.

Red bitters do seem to be more spritzy, but this does not mean I can’t make a spritz with Pasubio, which is black in color, or even Ramazzotti, (a cola-nut amaro with dried-fruit notes).

A more viscous amaro (typically with higher levels of residual sugar) can serve as a sweetening agent in an Old Fashioned. Jägermeister has hints of ginger, grapefruit, star anise and cinnamon but it’s also pretty viscous. Just a bar spoon of that instead of sugar with bitters at the bottom of my glass with two ounces of American whiskey poured over it and I’ve got a whole new Old Fashioned.

Are there staples you recommend for at home bars?

Absolutely. Amaro Montenegro is so useful. The juicy quality, the fact that it has a lot of citrus notes and is a little bit floral makes it eminently mixable. Montenegro is like lemon—almost any spirit can go with it.

If I was planning on doing any kind of entertaining, I’d have to have some Campari. Everybody wants their Negronis and Sbagliatos (sweet vermouth, amaro and prosecco). Then, I would think about having a cola-nut amaro, like Meletti, because you can mix it with anything you would order with Coke—whiskey, rum, Cognac, even vodka. I’m also a big fan of Suze for something sharper, herbal and grassy. Mix this into your martini or slip a quarter-ounce into your margarita for a big change in flavor.

Have something medicinal in your bar. There’s a new amaro out from a company called Eda Rhyne in North Carolina. The distiller forages the botanicals himself, and he’s got a fernet that is quite delicious, very forest floor. If you like that flavor, slide it into your Manhattan. This amaro isn’t going to find a home in juicy, shaken drinks, but stirred, boozy drinks, sure.

Any final thoughts on amaro?

Nobody, ever, put anything in a bottle and thought to themselves, “Well, I hope this goes good with other stuff.” If they thought it was missing something they wouldn’t have put the cork in the bottle. Amari are all meant to be drunk as they are, so, I always recommend that first. But beyond that, sure, mix it up.

Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Associate Editor at Wine & Spirits. She is also a sommelier at 71 Above and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.

This story appears in the print issue of Winter 2022.
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