Head bartender Mike Ryan prepares a manhattan with his proprietary amaro… (Kaitlyn McQuaid / For RedEye )
Averna. Fernet Branca. Cynar. If you've ordered a drink at a craft cocktail bar in the past few months, you've likely seen one of these ingredients on the menu—but do you know what you're drinking?
The bitter liqueurs have been favorites of bartenders for years, but this category of spirit, called amaro, only hovers on the edge of mainstream popularity.
One reason: the characteristically bitter taste.
"If you grew up in our modern American drinking culture, which has a lot to do with refreshment, you tend to get taken aback a little bit [by amaro]," said Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in River North, who recently bottled his own recipe for amaro with BroVo Spirits.
Botanical and sometimes quite sharp, amaro isn't going to become most people's go-to spirit. But as more Chicago bars incorporate these spirits into cocktails and stock a wider range of bottles, even skeptics may be converted.
"There's so many amaros out there that there's got to be at least one for everybody to like," said Ronnie Higgins, bar manager at The Revel Room in Wicker Park, which stocks well-known amaro brands such as Fernet Branca and Cynar along with more obscure bottles such as Fernet-Vallet and Amaro Braulio.
The spectrum ranges from the sweet, mint flavors of Fernet Branca Menta to the lush fruitiness of Montenegro to the smooth, maple notes in Averna.
Ken Zawacki, spirits director at Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar in Bridgeport, said newbies shouldn't be turned off just because the flavors of amari are unfamiliar. "I think you have to have an open mind and don't immediately dismiss it just because you haven't tasted anything like it before," he said.
Most people would describe their first sip of an amaro as herbal or even medicinal. "It's a bit of an acquired taste," Ryan said, putting it very mildly.
This distinct flavor isn't surprising, given amaro's medicinal past. Originally developed in Italy, amari still owe their tastes to the combination of herbs, roots and spices that make up each recipe. "They were medicinal remedies designed to alleviate symptoms of stomachache, the common cold, whatever," Ryan said. "Mostly, they're really good at alleviating sobriety."
Because they've been known to relieve fullness and help settle the stomach, amari often are consumed as digestifs or after-dinner drinks. (From personal experience, I can attest that a shot of Fernet Branca at the end of the night will leave you feeling much better the next morning than a shot of whiskey would have.)
Zawacki said he's noticed that amaro is a popular order at Maria's among guests who have just filled up on savory pies at next-door Pleasant House Bakery.
"A perception of bitterness is evolutionarily tied to something that's poisonous or toxic. It does send certain signals to the body," Ryan echoed. "It gets your digestive system kicked up to overdrive to start processing whatever's in there."
But sipping an amaro post-meal isn't the only way to enjoy the spirit; it's also become more popular as a cocktail ingredient to balance sweeter flavors.
Like manhattans? Dip your toes into the waters by asking your bartender to substitute an amaro for the sweet vermouth and bitters in that classic cocktail, or try Sable's Cynar julep made with Cynar, grapefruit juice, sugar and mint. Once you've developed a preference for the stuff, dive head-first into the Windsor Knot cocktail at Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar, which is an anise-heavy blend of Averna, Fernet Branca, whiskey and Angostura bitters.
If you're still skeptical, Ryan offers this bit of perspective: "As with everything spirit-related, just don't be afraid. There's things out there that are actually dangerous or that could kill you. There's famine in [bleeping] Africa. Amaro is not something to be afraid of."
Where to try amaro
Balena 1633 N. Halsted St. 312-867-3888
Billy Sunday 3143 W. Logan Boulevard 773-661-2485
Drumbar 201 E. Delaware Place 312-924-2531
The Barrelhouse Flat 2624 N. Lincoln Ave. 773-857-0421
La Sirena Clandestina 954 W. Fulton Market 312-226-5300
RPM Italian 52 W. Illinois St. 312-222-1888
Sepia 123 N. Jefferson St. 312-441-1920
Big Star plans to debut a proprietary amaro, developed with Evanston-based distillery Few Spirits, within the next month. Unlike most amari, Big Star's version is bourbon-based.
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