A beginner’s guide to the eclectic liqueur with Claire Ottley, manager at Lincoln Wine Bar
Over the past few years, Italian liqueur amaro (the singular word for amari) blew up in the United States as both a stand-alone drink and a mixed-beverage component. Many variations trace their lineage to Italian family recipes from the 19th century and are created in monasteries or pharmacies.
Claire Ottley, the manager at Lincoln Wine Bar in Mount Vernon, first became acquainted with the drink while working at a bar in Memphis, Tennessee. After doing some research and becoming more intrigued, she started stocking up.
“Whenever my partner or I were traveling, we would pick up a bottle or two, so we have a pretty beefy collection at this point,” she said. “Most of our bottles have a fun story or a trip type of memory tag.”
Now a well-versed amaro fan, she says the Mexican amaro Fernet Vallet is her favorite because “it’s a flavor experience, unlike anything [she’s] ever had.”
“I always feel like part of what’s fun about amaro is challenging your palate to experience something that it’s not typically going to experience.”
What to expect
1. Wide flavor range
Amaro is made by macerating a variety of herbs, roots, flowers, bark and/or citrus peels with alcohol. Each bottle incorporates anywhere from 10 to 40 different ingredients. As a result, flavor profiles vary immensely, from fruity to cinnamon-infused to Coke-like.
Unlike non-potable liqueurs like Angostura or Peychaud’s, amaro is consumable as a stand-alone beverage. Nonetheless, it’s still typically more bitter than other alcoholic beverages.
While amaro began as an after-dinner digestif, incorporating it into cocktails allows you to enjoy it at any time of day. It can also be sipped alone, drunk on ice or mixed with tonic water or syrup, among other variations.
How to get into amaro
1. Visit bars and restaurants and sample
While purchasing bottles of liqueur to try is nice in theory, experimenting can be rather expensive. To save money and prevent shelves of unused bottles from accumulating, try variations of the drink at a local bar or restaurant.
“Most of the time, for servers and bartenders, the best part of their job is getting to talk about the product and what they’ve taken so much time to learn and study,” Ottley said. “Don’t be afraid to just ask people about what they know, and ask if you can taste something.”
2. Do research
Once you’ve tried various amari and determined what flavors you enjoy, doing research will help you get a better feel for what other variations exist and what your palate would enjoy. Ottley recommends James Beard-award winning author Brad Thomas Parson’s book Amaro. In addition to educating the reader on the liqueur, the book provides recipes detailing how to incorporate amaro into everyday cocktails.
“There are tons of cocktail recipes that are amaro driven,” Ottley said. “If you’re a learner by reading, it’s a great way to learn a little bit more about them so you could feel a bit more set up for success purchasing certain bottles before just grabbing them blindly.”
3. Ease yourself into the drink
Due to amaro’s relative bitterness, Ottley recommends taking things slow. Good starting points include sweeter variations, such as Nonino, or highly popularized versions like Campari and Aperol.
“Slowly work your way to being able to taste it on its own,” she said. “However, if you’re accustomed to bitter stuff, like black coffee and super bitter dark chocolate, I would definitely encourage you to jump right in and test it out.”
Ultimately, Ottley believes that experimentation is the only way you’ll determine what version of amaro is best for you.
“A lot of the classic amaro cocktails are just three or four ingredients that you might already have in your house,” she said. “It’s such a crazy large, broad category that there’s always something to learn and always something to taste. It just continues to give and to be fun to learn about and taste.”
If you’re looking for a restaurant to assist in your amari education, consider Cobble Hill Eatery and Dispensary, 219 2nd St SE, Cedar Rapids. The restaurant is the only spot in the area to offer amari flights. For $28, you can sample four .75 oz pours of herbal liqueur. The knowledgeable service staff will happily guide you toward a selection, or you may choose your own adventure from the bars selection. Pick a flight of aperitifs to start the night or a digestif for a post-feast treat, or feel free to mix-and-match to sample the wide range of flavor profiles under this classification.