My family being scattered all over the world, we reunite once a year for one week in a different country each time. This time, it was Italy. Growing in the French Alps, I used to spend most of my free time between France, Switzerland and Northern Italy, but the south was a first for me. Coming from a very epicurean family, our first day was spent piling up huge amounts of food and all kind of alcohol through local markets, butchers, cheese makers and wineries. Unfortunately for me, most of the distilleries of interest are located in the northern part of Italy, but I still ransacked local liquor stores talking my way through with a mix of Buongiorno, English, Spanish, French and Grazie Mille!
So, today, I wanted to talk to you about Amaro.
Amaro (plural: Amari ) means bitter in Italian. You can still find all kind of bitters around Europe under different names like the Genepi, Chartreuse, Vermouth, etc. The Roman Empire saw the Amaro come to life by simply infusing medicinal herbs into wine. In the 1800’s, monks made their own secret blends, but this time using neutral spirit and sugar. They were mostly used to “cure” common diseases, just like Gin was used for from the very beginning, Rum Grog or Tonic.
Today, Amari are mostly made of infusing herbs, roots, flowers into neutral spirits, wine or both with the addition of sugar syrup. Tastes range from sweet and light flavored to very bitter and dry. This alcohol makes all the sense in the world in Italy since the weather is perfect to grow anything. From the wet and cold weather in the north ideal for everything alpine, to the dry and hot weather of the south for olives and Mediterranean herbs, without forgetting the fabulous Tuscan hills where all the fruits grow. The landscape is perfect to play around recipes for decades!
I tasted the Amaro Gariga, infused with 43 herbs, blessed with a strong thyme flavor and a nice mild bitterness without too much sugar. In my own opinion, it was lacking a little bit of citrus notes for a better balance on the tongue, but I know they wanted to put the Mediterranean terroir forward in this blend.
The Macchia Vermouth was a white one. The Italian white vermouths are always very sweet compared to the red or dry ones. This particular one was extremely sweet, with a nice freshness from the lemons. But it was a hot day making pizza, so sipping it in a glass with lots of ice cubes was just perfect.
The beauty of amaro: it’s the perfect winter DIY project. I do mine using Cinchona bark soaked in vodka for a week to really saturate the bitterness and by using different herbs like wormwood, lemon and orange peels, lavender, ginseng and almonds. Infuse them separately in Mason jars for two to seven days, taste them twice a day and filter when ready. Then, the fun part begins: the blending. Try, bit by bit, until you reach the perfect balance. My secret: I use the wormwood to make the syrup and blend the alcohol infusions into the syrup!