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posted: 11/21/2013 6:00 AM

That's amaro: Falling for an Italian liqueur

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  • Amaro, a bittersweet Italian liqueur, is hot right now.

      Amaro, a bittersweet Italian liqueur, is hot right now.
    Photo for The Washington Post by Deb Lindsey

 
By M. Carrie Allan
The Washington Post

I'm developing a taste for amari. I'm almost disappointed in myself.

It's not that there's anything wrong with these bittersweet, herbal Italian liqueurs. Dozens of articles will eagerly assure you: Amaro singular/amari plural is hot right now: on all the post-prandial drinks lists at upscale Italian restaurants, lurking in your craft cocktails. And while amari share certain qualities, there's a great variety among them, from the warm, caramelly Averna to the minty, saffron-laced Darth Vader of amari, Fernet Branca.

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"Amaro is almost like a language, and each region in Italy has a slang," says Francesco Amodeo, who grew up on the Amalfi Coast and founded D.C. liqueur maker Don Ciccio & Figli. "You will never find the Alpine amaro in the south. You will find the more citrus-oriented amaro, where if you go up north you will find more rosemary, thyme-driven amari; the herbs that grow up there are different."

What's more, as we get into the season of gustatory overindulgence, there's little better antidote for a food coma than one of these bad boys. Although Jeff Faile, beverage director of Fiola and Casa Luca in D.C., says he's always delicate about pitching diners on the digestive properties of amari, their capacity to clear the head and the innards has long been part of amari's appeal. (Not everyone is so guarded: In describing the amaro he's developing for Don Ciccio, Amodeo tells me, "You will see when you try it: After a minute and a half, you will digest everything you ate that day." I'm assuming that won't be as dramatic as it sounds.)

My initial resistance to amari, I think, sprang from sifting through too many stories written by smug-sounding Europhiles who explained the drink to American consumers in the reassuring tones of someone calming a toddler getting a tetanus shot.

Yes, they soothe, you were raised on Frosto-Choco-Smacko-Pops, and your infantile, sugar-addicted palates will probably be shocked by the terrible bitterness of amaro. But perhaps you can grow up.

Too often these stories have a whiff of That Guy Who Spent a Semester in Milan and Now Understands the World on a Whole New Level. He conveys with every sigh his disdain for us poor Yanks with our Super Big Gulps and our love of sprayable cheese. Having tried Morbier flavored with vegetable ash, and coffee from beans that have traveled through the intestines of a civet, he has recognized the folly of his erstwhile love of Slim Jims and Miller Lite. He has evolved.

It's not even that That Guy is wrong. But does he have to be such a jerk about it? Doesn't he realize that the difficulty of finding your favorite amaro locally is the madre of all First World problems?

Such stories also encourage amaro newbies to brace themselves for something unpleasant. Not necessarily so. Sure, if you start out at the deep end, you might be in for a slap in the palate. Faile describes one of his current favorites, Amaro Dell'Erborista -- a dry, bracing creation from Fiola chef-owner Fabio Trabocchi's home region of La Marche -- as an example.

"If that's their first exposure, there's just no way they'll ever even try an amaro again," he says. "It's like the first time you try Brussels sprouts as a kid. You'll think, 'Well, that's done. That's over.'"

But many amari, such as Averna, CioCiaro and Ramazzotti, have a sweet, syrupy quality balancing those bitter herbs; even straight, they aren't likely to shock. Many Americans have been happily consuming Campari for years, and although Campari isn't marketed as an amaro, it essentially is one. (Why Campari isn't usually listed as an amaro -- despite being a bitter, herbal Italian liqueur -- is a question I have yet to get answered satisfactorily. But Amodeo says Italians are tipped off to aperitivo vs. digestivo qualities in their amari by color. Reds, like Campari and Aperol, are sunset drinks; dark amari are for night hours, post-dinner.)

If you're interested in exploring the possibilities of amari, the do-it-yourself kind is surprisingly easy. You'll have to seek out some of the herbs. But mostly, creating an amaro that is bittered and sweetened and herbed to your taste involves waiting for it to infuse, then figuring out what you like so you can refine your next version. It takes patience, but the next time you see That Guy, you can say: "Yeah, dude. I know about amaro. I've made my own."

Even better: Tell him you've made Faile's.

No one has done more to lead me along the amaro path than bitter-loving Faile, who is constantly investigating new amari and keeps a variety of them behind the bar at Fiola. He mixes them into several cocktails, including the Coventry, a Manhattan variation that incorporates rye, maraschino liqueur and Averna. Eavesdropping at a liquor store recently, I overheard a customer seeking out Amaro Nonino on Faile's say-so. (Amari PR people should be sending him big bouquets of lire.)

Faile has been perfecting his own amaro, one that incorporates the wintertime spices perfect for the holidays. Early versions were mintier than he wanted, but he's happy with the current version. "Not that my bathtub amaro is the same as what people have been doing for decades in Italy!" he says. "But I like the fact that with all my favorite amari, you can just sit there and keep tasting new things, and this one is following in those footsteps."

Amaro, Faile says, has a complexity that makes you think about what you're drinking. And even for us sugar-, football- and Jerry Bruckheimer-loving Americans, that's nothing to be scared of.

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