The Bitter End: Acquiring a Taste for Amari, the Italian Coda to a Meal

by Corby Kummer

WHEN I was first learning to drink, the most sophisticated order I knew was “Campari and soda with lime, please, and very little ice.”I was glad about its sophisticated reputation, because I actually liked Campari. The garnet-red liquid, both sweet and faintly bitter, seemed far preferable to sweet soft drinks. It had spicy flavors I couldn’t identify—some citrus perhaps, maybe a little cinnamon and vanilla, and darker, more mysterious undertones. Mixed with carbonated water it was wonderfully refreshing and at the same time a bit alcoholic—a grown-up soda.

Later, when I was learning to be Italian, I developed a taste for amari, the herbal liqueurs people drink after meals to help everything go down better. An amaro is not necessarily the most sophisticated order at a restaurant in Italy. Even though all classes regularly drink them, something of the blue collar hangs about amari, the air of the kind of bar where men play cards during the afternoon and watch soccer games at night.

Like Campari, which is considered an amaro even though people usually drink it as an aperitif, after-dinner amari combine bitter and sweet flavors, although the balance shifts toward the bitter. Undiluted, they are strong stuff: you wouldn’t want to down more than a medicinal gulp of, say, Fernet Branca, which in Italy is synonymous with “amaro” and has recently been aggressively marketed in the United States, or Unicum, the potent and unapologetically bitter Hungarian digestive, or Jägermeister, a German herbal liqueur. Once you add soda water, though, and maybe a slice of orange, amari—especially the sweet and comparatively mild Averna and Ramazzotti, both very popular in Italy and widely available here—take on a vaguely familiar flavor. They’re like a cola drink but less sweet and many times more interesting.

The very name explains why amari are an acquired taste: “amaro” means “bitter,” and the bitter components of amari, like those of olives and coffee, can mitially put people off. I like my bitters relieved with sweetness, and so do Italians: very, very few Italians do not put at least half a teaspoon of sugar into their thimbleful of espresso, and most amari are in tact fairly syrupy. Tempered or not, bitterness deepens flavors. It’s a great loss to shun one of the four basic flavor attributes the palate recognizes and restrict yourself to just sweet, salty, and sour. Chefs sometimes perk up a sauce with a dash of Angostura bitters, an herbal concentrate that, I recently learned, is highly alcoholic (90 proof); I’m embarrassed to recall how many “nonalcoholic” punches I have unknowingly spiked in my attempt to imitate Campari. After you ease your way into bittersweet liqueurs, other kinds will seem dull and one-note, like soda pop beside Campari and soda. Once you get into the amaro habit, you won’t want to end a meal—especially one of the big meals that are at once a seasonal hazard and a pleasure—any other way.

My own palate was alerted to just how good and unmedicinal amari can be by two encounters in Friuli, a region in the northeastern corner of Italy. One was with a friend who lives in Trieste and writes about food and wine. She had recently agreed to help promote Amaro Praga, named for Prague, where Josef Janousek concocted it in the 1880s. The first sip woke me up: it has zing, from bitter orange, and from a resinous herb like rosemary or an evergreen. Vanilla and clove are there too. The flavors are clear and high, and make other amari seem murky. Amaro Praga, whose manufacturer is hoping to export to this country in the next few months, takes no getting used to—it is markedly, although not overpoweringly, sweet, and relatively low in alcohol (32 proof).

The other was a visit to the Nonino family, which makes remarkably relined grappas and distillates of various grapes and other fruits. I was in a group that included Carol Field, a fellow would-be Italian who is similarly unembarrassed by a slightly declasse preference for amari. (Her new Italy in Small Bites, with a wealth of merende, or snacks, most of them based on bread, is full of recipes for exactly the kind of food I like to eat, and I have begun cooking my way through it with great satisfaction.) When, after a copious meal, an enormous cart loaded with every kind of liqueur, each in a distinctive and beautiful bottle, arrived, Field asked if she could have instead the family’s legendary, and virtually unfindable, amaro. After some searching a bottle was produced.

Called “Quintessence of Alpine Herbs” on the label, Amaro Nonino is bottled in a cylindrical flask, as if from a centuriesold pharmacy. The color is a lovely clear amber, whereas other amari are the deep brown of Coca-Cola or Gravy Master, and for the same reason—added caramel. The Noninos add caramel, but much less than others do, because instead of a base of neutral (flavorless) grape spirits alone they also use liqueurs individually distilled from several kinds of grape, which acquire color from the French oak barrels in which they age.

Amaro Nonino has the nose of brandy, with vapor tracing through the nostrils— you feel cleansed just smelling it. On the tongue it is wonderfully warming and sweet, albeit a good deal less sweet than Benedictine, another herb-based liqueur of which it might remind you. The herbal notes are delicate where in other amari they are forceful, and the bitterness is so understated that its demureness is the only defect I can think of.

This amaro shouldn’t be diluted. I succeeded in taking home a bottle—a triumph at the time. Just now the family is beginning to distribute its amaro far beyond the few deluxe Italian wine shops once able to procure it; call 516-4675907 to find out where to get it. The rapid lowering of the level in my bottle of Amaro Nonino—I insist that guests try it, and most ask several times for a few drops more—persuaded me to learn more about amari.

FERNET Branca, Campari, the English Pimm’s Cup, and vermouth are all based on alcohol-infused herbs, roots, and spices. The well-known brands of amari date from the middle of the last century, when folk traditions across Europe, endangered by the Industrial Revolution, were first being studied. It was also a time when traditional remedies were commercialized, and manufacturers could make whatever claims they pleased for patent medicines, many of them based on tinctures, or alcohol extracts, of roots and herbs. Coca-Cola. Dr. Pepper, and Moxie all date from this era, and they, too, began as extracts of herbs and roots made palatable by a heavy dose of caramel; they followed a different path to popular acceptance, though, having carbonated water added before bottling and the drugs (in Coca-Cola, cocaine) gradually removed.

The formulas for commercially produced liqueurs and fortified wines were sometimes the creations of pharmacists, or of entrepreneurs and confectioners (as in the cases of Campari and Cointreau, both of which contain fruit-peel extracts). Families, too, handed down their secret recipes for various restoratives and elixirs. To this day an annual ritual in many Italian households is the steeping in neutral spirits of herbs, roots, and fruit peels, to create the house digestivo. Especially common is homemade nocino, made of green walnuts, which tradition dictates should be picked only on the night of June 24, the festival of Saint John, by barefoot women working with wooden, not metal, knives.

Often the elixirs were appropriated from monks, the chief repository and transmitters of this, like so much other, knowledge from the classical world. Greeks and Romans relied on herbal cures, and Romans advocated drinking spiced, honeyed wines after meals (and orgies). Medieval monasteries were laboratories for alchemy, which had origins in ancient Egypt and the Arab world. Alchemists searched for various medicines as well as ways to transform base metals into gold; methods for distillation grew out of the search. Today visitors still find monastery-produced digestives for sale, for instance in and around Assisi.

The French herbal liqueurs Benedictine and Chartreuse are named for the orders in whose monasteries they were perfected, and both are still made at or near the original sites—although few if any of the profits go to the Church. Benedictine liqueur long ago ceased to have any connection with the original order; the Carthusian monks sold the formula for Chartreuse in the early 1920s, although they still supervise production, presumably for a fee. No friars benefit from the large sales of Frangelico, the hazelnut liqueur made near Turin (the Piedmont is famous for its hazelnuts) and sold in a bottle in the shape of a hooded monk. Averna, which claims to be Italy’s most popular amaro, is named not for the Capuchin monks who originally made it, in Caltanissetta, in the center of Sicily, but for the businessman Salvatore Averna, to whom they gave the formula in 1854 in gratitude for his support of the abbey, according to official company history.

ITALIANS have never given up their belief in the curative power of herbs. I oday, when there is a growing sense of alarm in Italy about industry and pollution and what science will alter next— perhaps echoing a feeling from the first age of commercial amari—herbal remedies are again taking root (and roots). On each visit to northern Italy, the most prosperous and polluted part of the country, I notice more quaint, crammed herbalist shops, convincingly designed to look as if they had been there a hundred years.

I recently read through a good deal of material on the medicinal properties of herbs, much of it translated from the German and kindly supplied by Robert McCaleb, of the Herb Research Foundation, in Boulder. Bitters fall into three categories: tonic bitters, using European plants in the gentian family; aromatic bitters, which contain volatile oils; and hot bitters, including such ingredients as ginger and galangal, which are common in Asian medicines and food.

Gentian is universal in herbal liqueurs —it is the only specific ingredient listed, for instance, on the Angostura label. The plant family, native to the Alps, includes centaury and gentians of various colors, such as the gentian that gave its name to the dark blue loved by fourteenth-century Italian panel painters, and purple gentian, the roots of which are still used to make infusions that serve as antiseptics and treatments for certain fungal infections. The gentian most often used as a digestive is yellow; its roots are said to increase the secretion of gastric acid—instantly upon contact with the mucous membranes in the mouth, according to Rudolf Fritz Weiss’s Herbal Medicine— and thus speed digestion. (This effect would be undesirable, of course, for someone who suffers from an acid stomach.) Another common ingredient is cinchona, made from a Peruvian tree bark that also contains quinine. Exotic, expensive imported ingredients seemed to give turn-of-the-century manufacturers an edge, or so they claimed.

The chief aromatic bitter is angelica, which I had known only as an applegreen, rhubarblike plant preserved in sugar and used to decorate cassata and other Italian desserts. Its pharmaceutical uses, though, far outweigh its decorative ones. In Magic Gardens, an odd and lovely book originally published in 1939 and recently reprinted, Rosetta E. Clarkson wrote that angelica got its name after a monk was visited in a dream by an archangel (the Latin name is Angelica archangelica) who said that it would ward off the plague. It didn’t, but it did have other benefits, and is still valued for its digestive properties, put to use in Benedictine and Chartreuse. I remember enjoying slices of the candied root, the one time I could find them in this country, for the pleasantly astringent taste; Henry Beston, in Herbs and the Earth, another quirky book from the 1930s that was recently republished, says that angelica seed “tastes of juniper and bites the tongue.” Angelica root and related seeds such as coriander, anise, and fennel are all valued for their “carminative” properties, meaning that they are anti-flatulents. And, of course, anise and fennel impart a licoricelike flavor to any drink.

ANYONE new to amari should probably start with Campari, or Campari and soda (which in Italy can be found premixed in neat little bottles), as a refreshing way to end an afternoon or begin an evening. Among strictly digestive amari, the easiest to find in a restaurant or a bar may well be the advanced-level Fernet Branca, which requires the mollifying additions of soda and orange. Branca Menta, which tastes strongly of mint, is far more pleasant.

You can introduce yourself gently by buying a bottle of Averna, the mildest of the commonly found amari, which makes a very nice colalike drink with the addition of sparkling water and a slice of citrus; another sweet and mild amaro is Ramazzotti, which I found in several wine stores near me. Like Campari, each tastes more like a complex, foreign-educated soda than like something that is intended to be good for you. Another way to dilute amari is with hot water and a squeeze of citrus, for a possibly soothing tea.

Anyone not quite ready to seek the medicinal help of herbs, and who is in the market for a more rewarding after-dinner liqueur, should look for Amaro Nonino. It will be a sure inducement to conversation and—why not?—digestion.