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The Curve on Amaro with Local Bartender, Andrew Kong

The Curve is a column dedicated to exploring and feeling out the corners of complex, multi-dimensional, often hierarchical and always completely random subjects. The aim is to inform readers – in progressive, graduating fashion – on everything from gin and poems to cheeseburgers and trees.

You’ll find Andrew Kong posted up behind the bar at Suyo, making cocktails that weave deeply storied narratives with unique ingredients and serving each drink with enough genuine enthusiasm and expertise to make each guest feel as though they were enjoying his own favourite creation… But ask him enough about ingredients and backstories, and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to Amaro. Because, in reality, it is this Italian digestif – with its herbal complexity and deep history – that captures his fascination the most. So enamoured is he with this traditional liqueur, that he actually converted a portion of his downtown Vancouver apartment’s precious square footage into a dedicated bar, creating the perfect setting to showcase his extensive Amaro collection to friends and fellow enthusiasts.

Increasingly interested in the digestif ourselves, we knew without question that Andrew would be the ideal guide to deepen our appreciation of this versatile spirit, and he did not disappoint…

Beginner: Get Bitter

Amaro (or plural, Amari) is murky and hard to categorize, but there are a couple important things to remember right off the bat. One: Amaro translates to “Bitter” in Italian. For the vast majority, Amari is an infusion of botanicals into a spirit that is then sweetened with some sort of sugar content. These botanicals range from citrus, floral and fruity, to roots, resins, and bittering agents. Historically, it was treated as a sort of medicinal supplement to one’s diet; however, in the modern era, it is mainly consumed as an Aperitif or Digestif. I say Amari is difficult to categorize, like whiskey or agave, because traditionally recipes were family secrets going back generations. Someone’s grandmother wasn’t as interested in following the rules to make an “Alpine” Amari or Carciofo, as it was just making something for her child suffering from a cold.

Interestingly, humans can sense bitterness in much smaller amounts than any other taste as a warning system to tell if something is poisonous or not. Hence why certain Amari can be an acquired taste (much like coffee, veggies, and hopped beer) – we’re literally fighting against our nature to enjoy these spirits! So, if you aren’t a fan of all things bitter yet, here are a couple of Amari that I recommend trying as an introduction: Montenegro (the gateway Amari) is light and floral, with barely any bitterness and a nice sweetness that isn’t clawing or lingering. If we want a little bit more spiciness, Meletti still contains a floral note, but it is backed up with herbaceous and anise flavours. A recent favourite of mine, from Sicily, is Nepeta. It has delicious limoncello notes, and a round mouthfeel with a touch of nice olive oil, finishing with a bright mint note picked from the slopes of Mt. Etna. Oh, and of course, drink it the way you like! Amari can be super versatile in how it’s enjoyed: you can serve it neat or on ice or even with soda for a refreshing way to explore its complexities.

Intermediate: Get Loose

Okay, so now that we’re at the Intermediate level, let’s get to know some of the loose styles of Amari: Light (citrus-forward); Medium (darker, more balanced bittersweet herbs, citrus); Alpine (mountain style); Fernet (very bitter, medicinal); Carciofo (artichoke); Rabarbaro (rhubarb); and Tartufo (truffle). Getting into the darker Digestif range, Averna is found commonly around these parts. Rich molasses notes mingle with some bitterness, balanced by spices and cola. Cynar, one I deeply love, is made with artichokes, giving it an earthy quality with notes of black tea, and a decent level of lingering bitterness. The Nardini MezzoeMezzo is a Rabarbaro, which sometimes rides the line between an Aperitif and a Digestif (before or after a meal) because of its nice bittersweetness, and flavours of orange, vanilla and delicious rhubarb.

Advanced: Get Medicinal

Some Alpine styles, such as Alta Verde or Elisir Novasalus, get really resin-y and bitter, but if you want something a little more balanced, try Braulio or Lazzaroni.

Fernet (translating from Fer Net, “Clean Iron”, in reference to the iron pot they would use to cook the botanicals) is typically characterized by a lower sugar content and a herbaceous menthol finish. This style is quite famous for making a face when drinking it! And if you want to get really weird, Ferro-China is a botanical blend of citrus, gentian, tonic and iron citrate. Certain ones can give you the impression of licking a copper penny or drawing blood from biting your cheek.

Extra Credit

Now that we’ve gotten the hang of this bitter thing, where do we go next? Well, it just so happens that there’s a whole world outside of Italy that’s producing all sorts of Amari these days – including local stuff. Liqor del Sobador is a Mexican style fernet, that is slightly funky with resins and roots, and bittered with their Mexican wormwood. From the North Shore here in Vancouver, The Woods Spirit Co produces a delicious Aperitivo style Amaro, with big grapefruit and forest pine notes. And it turns out you can even buy Digestifs from the pharmacy: Underberg is a unique little German package that packs a big anise and cinnamon punch (collect the caps!)

Finally, if you’re looking for more information on Amaro, there are two marvellous books that I recommend checking out: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas by Brad Thomas Parsons, and The Big Book of Amaro by Matteo Zed.

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