Spirit Spotlight

Bitters and Amari

Most people in the modern Western world don’t have a penchant for bitter liquors as do some cultures. For many it reminds them of childhood medicine forcibly given to them when they were sick. However, the modern bartender has discovered the beauty of bitters – both potable and non-potable.

Mediterranean cultures have used bitters and amari for centuries to enjoy before dinner, to help them digest meals, and to contribute to their overall well-being. Famous brands such as Campari, Aperol, Averna, Ramazzotti, and Fernet Branca, which once adorned bars throughout Italy and Spain, are now commonplace in high-end bars all over the world. You can now see people on patios enjoying Campari and soda again, while more and more amari – such as Cynar (an artichoke bitters made by Gruppo Campari) – are making their way onto back bars.

What makes an amaro, an amaro? In simple terms, macerated herbs and spices are put into a base spirit, which is then coloured with caramel or fortified wine. The botanicals that can be used in amari are varied and wild – gentian, wormwood, juniper, saffron, and citrus peel are among the most notable – but the combinations of herbs and spices are usually very specific to the region that the liqueur is from. Made predominantly in Italy, each amaro is unique, being made from what is available in the region or the nearby port. Amari are the epitome of a farm- to-table spirit.

There are many sub-styles within the category of amaro that many will never have the opportunity to try. Alpine, Tartufo, and Rabarbaro are all very interesting subcategories that are extremely hard to find in Canada. Alpine amari uses high mountain (alpine) herbs; Tartufo – made in Umbria – uses black truffles; and Rabarbaro uses rhubarb as a main ingredient. Zucca, from Milan, is the most prominent type of Rabarbaro. Fernets (a style bigger than Branca itself) are usually higher-proof bitters heavily flavoured with myrrh and saffron. China amari (made with the bark of Cinchona calisaya plants) hold a higher level of quinine than most bitters, along with heavier citrus content.

Becherovka, Underberg, Unicum from Czech Republic, Germany and Hungary respectively are all regional examples of amari, but one that surprises many people is a top seller in the world – Jägermeister. That bittersweet liquor that you shot neat or dropped into Red Bull is an example of a German bitter. Created to keep hunters warm on their many snow-filled expeditions into the woods, it has always been thought to have medicinal qualities – almost magical restorative powers.

Most bitters were created for this exact reason. Before shots at the bar or cocktails were prolific in the modern age, bitters were developed to help everything from digestion to menstrual pain. There was a story of a hundred-year-old lady living in Boston who shared her secret of long living as, “Cynar in the morning and in the evening, every day.”

Bitters and amari have been known to be an ingredient in cocktails in Europe for a long time. Early cocktail books from the US mention Amer Picon (a near-impossible-to-source French Amer), Fernet Branca and Campari, but it hasn’t been until the new renaissance of these liqueurs that the influx of imports have started to creep into the North American market. Bars such as Amor y Amargo, headed by Sother Teague in New York’s East Village, have been established to educate people on this bittersweet liqueur. At any given time, there are 110 potable bitters behind the bar.

Bitters have now become any bar’s staple, and with the myriad of options that continue to line the shelves of liquor stores over the world and in Canada, the sky is the limit for this bittersweet liqueur.