- Fratelli Branca motto from the 19th Century (translation: "Renew but conserve.")
My obsession with the bitter Italian herbal liqueurs known as Amari is homegrown. Amari, which translates to “Bitters” in Italian, have been a staple in my house as long as I can remember-- my father Francesco is Milanese after all. He would make Campari “Shakiratu” cocktails before family dinners. Francesco’s Shakiratu formula was basic: 2 oz Campari and ice combined in an antique sterling silver shaker, and then shaken until the metal was so cold it hurt your fingers. Then the bright red liqueur, frothy and filled with micro-ice chips, was strained into a frosted vintage 3 oz Manhattan glass. Cin-cin!
Amari are made by blending root, a myriad of herbs, bark, citrus rinds, and spices in grain alcohol and then aging the mixture in wood casks. They are typically flavored with herbs such as anise, cinchona, mint, lemon verbena, and wormwood, to name a few. Caramel is often added after the initial aging to sweeten and give the dark amber color to the finished product. Each region produces unique varieties. This creates a wide spectrum of amari that can range from the honey influenced and light Amaro Montenegro to Averna, from Sicily that is darker in complexion, sweet and syrupy in taste. Campari lies on the lighter side of the Amaro family but is one of the most popular and well-marketed brands in the world.
Campari became the foundation for my enchantment with the bitter liqueurs. During study abroad at the American University of Rome, I came under the spell of Fernet Branca, the most medicinal of amari. Fernet is considered a digestivo, an after-dinner drink that aides with digestion. In the Eternal City, the ragazzi I learned to drink Fernet with were more interested in the liqueur’s 80 proof kick than the health benefits. Fernet is jet black soothing liqueur made from 27 herbs, including saffron, aloes, gentian, rhubarb, gun myrrh, and red cinchona bark. I learned to drink it neat with a twist and also realized that it would be a great addition to cocktails.
Barkeepers using Amari in cocktails are not a new phenomenon. The most famous cocktails are the Americano (Campari, sweet vermouth, club soda, orange twist) and it’s regal relative the Negroni (equal parts Gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth with orange peel garnish). These drinks are great introductions to Amari in cocktails.
One of my favorite cocktails is an homage to the versatility of these spirits. The award winning Sam Ross of Milk & Honey created a drink called the Paperplane, which utilizes not one but two amari, a ninety-four proof bourbon, and lemon juice. The first is Amaro Nonino that is made from grappa infused with rhubarb, caramel, sweet orange, and tamarind. Nonino has more depth, a higher proof, and marries well with the bourbon. The second is a lighter version of Campari called Aperol. This twenty-two proof Amaro adds a bright blood red orange hue to the cocktail, and is balanced by the lemon juice. The Paperplane is constructed in the classic Corpse Reviver ¾ oz equal parts and no garnish is required. Make no mistake; the bourbon shines through, but so do the Amari. This makes for an unforgettable drink and instant favorite for an Amaro-philes.
The Paper Plane
By Sam Ross of Milk & Honey/Little Branch
¾ oz Elijah Craig 12 Years Aged bourbon
¾ oz Amaro Nonino
¾ oz Aperol Amaro
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
Tools: Double stainless steel mixing tin, Hawthorne strainer, Fine strainer, Coupe-style cocktail glass .
Combine ingredients in a mixing tin, add ice, shake rigorously, and double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. No garnish necessary.
*Fredo Ceraso is the editor of the lounge lifestyle blog Loungerati. He is head cocktailian and a co-producer of The Salon parties. He is a member of the USBG New York and rolls drinks at many Lounge, Swing, Jazz Age, & Burlesque events in New York City.
**Got a cocktail question? Reach Fredo on twitter @loungerati, email me at fredo(at)loungerati(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!
***Paystyle will return next week for his Happy Hour column and is delighted to have Fredo as a pinch hitter in the meantime.