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30 May 2017

On Cocktails: The Best Drinks Are Often Bittersweet—and That's Why Amaro Is Such a Fantastic Liquor

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On Cocktails: The Best Drinks Are Often Bittersweet—and That's Why Amaro Is Such a Fantastic Liquor Stephen Woolverton via Wikipedia.org

May was a strange month for me—a time of pushing the limits of good sense, as the end-of-season fatigue began to show.

What drinks am I working on? Well, you might get an ancho La Louisiane (delicious) or … well, I was only half-kidding last month about the muddled pretzels.

In my personal drinking, I have experimented with vodka. I swear, I don’t know how some of you do that to yourself.

I also made a shocking discovery: Some people seem to like it when I prattle on about bar geekery. I figured, for some reason, people would prefer to hear about my shoving cocktails and burgers down my gullet over lessons on the minutiae of back bars and obscure liquor suggestions. But lately, I’ve had my assumptions tested. I even had a friend at another publication ask me for my deepest musings on fernet. Well, there is a lot of meat on that bone! However, as far as the home bartender and craft enthusiast is concerned, fernet is a bit of an auxiliary—albeit a worthy one.

The real hero is fernet’s larger family group: amaro!

This is a big topic … where to begin? Well, it’s hard to start this discussion without mentioning the most important member of the family: Averna. I remember many years ago watching a middle-age man walk into one of the more cutting-edge cocktail bars in Boston, and start ripping shots of the stuff. After he walked out, I asked the bartender: “What kind of person drinks Averna like that?” He answered simply: “A (expletive deleted) legend.”

Amaro is a type of bitter liquor; that simple description could really cover a lot of ground, but amaro varieties are (generally) dark, (often) semi-sweet and (most often) from Italy. The recipes are closely guarded secrets, with common ingredients being saffron, cassia bark, cinchona bark, citrus peel, thistle, rhubarb, myrrh and on and on. No Italian restaurant is complete without a few different flavors of amaro, up on a shelf over the service bar, collecting dust. Some of you might even have a bottle sitting in your liquor cabinet. Well, dust that baby off, ’cuz we’re making some cocktails!

Arguably, the first amaro cocktail you should be making (or having your bartender make for you) is the Black Manhattan. Want a nice, balanced Manhattan, but hate vermouth? This is the drink for you. This little gem comes from what I refer to as the “rye-revolution” of the early 21st century, a time when Manhattan variations were popping up all over Brooklyn like moistened mogwai. It even has an easy-to-remember recipe based on that famous Manhattan area code, 212:

2 ounces of rye whiskey

1 ounce of amaro Averna

2 dashes each of Angostura and orange bitters

Do you have a friend who hates Campari? No worries! Just substitute Averna, and they, too, can join you for Negroni week!

Want to see how versatile this black, sticky stuff is? Try my new baby, the Strangelove:

1 ounce of gin

3/4 ounce of Averna

3/4 ounce of lime juice

1/2 ounce of creme de pêche

A dash of simple syrup to taste

I consider this drink a nod to Depeche Mode fans. (Get it? Creme de pêche? Sorry.) You can also be just like that unnamed legend and shoot three or four shots of Averna in a row, but I don’t advise it.

Amaro Nonino certainly deserves a shout-out here, as it is featured in a modern classic known as the Paper Plane (despite a beloved guest who insists it’s called a Sweet and Sour). This beauty is equal parts Nonino, bourbon, Aperol and lemon juice, shaken and served up. Amaro Nonino is lighter in body than Averna, but if you want to use Averna in this one, it works.

Don’t think I would forget about Cynar, Sicily’s artichoke-laced contribution to the amaro world. Cynar is one of the ultimate utility infielders of the back bar; I can’t count how many times I have had a young bartender, smiling like he invented yoga pants, tell me how he likes to substitute a little Cynar in his Manhattan for vermouth, or in his Negroni for Campari, etc.; it never gets old. Also, don’t worry about the artichoke thing; it doesn’t actually taste like artichokes at all. In fact, the day someone tries Cynar completely ignorant of the label and says, “Oooh, tastes like artichokes!” is the day I hang up my Hawthorne strainers for good.


Enough learning for one day; I think it’s time for a road trip.

Due to the fact that I have no car, I’ve barely left Palm Springs for nine months … so where should I go for a day trip? San Diego? Los Angeles?

Nah, Indio. Someone told me Neil’s Lounge might be a good remedy for months of tiki, martinis and electro Cher. I really had no idea what to expect, to be honest. I walked in to the sounds of contemporary country music, and moved past the pool table into the main lounge. It was late afternoon; a few regulars were hanging around, sipping beer and highballs. If there was a cocktail list, I didn’t see one, and I didn’t ask to see one.

I ordered a burger and a whiskey, and tried to not look too out of place. I didn’t ask about amaro.

I actually built a bar once that looked more than a little like this place. I mean built, too—my body still bears some scars from the construction. It was in Northern Arizona, and we called it The Lodge. I had no idea what I was doing. They said I was the best bartender in town, aside from the cute girl at the place down the road, and the other one who gave the place away. That’s where the bartending bug started—I was a recent college kid slinging Crown-and-cokes for the cowboys and country girls. It was perfect.

After a couple of years of that, I headed back East to see what would happen next. I am feeling back in a happy place right now.

The best drinks and memories are both bittersweet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have next on the pool table.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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