Culture

"Amaro" Demystifies This Beloved, Sometimes Baffling Spirit Category

A book called "Amaro" on a table next to glasses.
Brad Thomas Parsons's book "Amaro" sheds light on this elusive and oft misunderstood bittersweet category. (Photo: Shannon Sturgiss)

Brad Thomas Parsons revolutionized the bitters world with his James Beard and IACP award-winning book, “Bitters.” Suddenly, this arcane topic went mainstream, inspiring bartenders and cocktail geeks around the world to cook up their own potions. Happily for the cocktail community, Parsons is still on a bitter streak with “Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas” (Brad Thomas Parsons/Ten Speed Press, $26). It is a definitive and enlightening take on this oft-misunderstood spirit category that continues to intrigue, perplex and confuse even the most seasoned hands.

“I see ‘Amaro’ as a companion piece to ‘Bitters,’ both in topic and stylistically, but ultimately, it’s a love letter to Italy filtered through my American point of view,” says Parsons, who initially considered addressing the two in a single volume. “There just wasn’t room in one book to take on both bitters and amaro without making it a very big, likely unpublishable book.”

Any doubts about the need to demystify the category were quashed at Barnacle, an amaro-centric bar in Seattle. He explains, “I was geeking out over all of the different amaro they carried. A frustrated couple on a date next to me ordered a gin and tonic. All of these beautiful, bittersweet options to experiment with and a gin and tonic! While my neighbor sipped his drink, he was looking at those bottles on the wall with ornate labels and strange Italian names and turned to his date and said, ‘I don't know what the f—k any of these bottles are.’ It was a bit of a eureka moment for me as that guy’s voice was in the back of my head throughout the whole writing process.”

By interviewing amaro producers, peeking behind the veil of secrecy that shrouds what goes into more than 80 of these storied elixirs and proffering 100 cocktail recipes that incorporate them, Parsons takes readers on a high-spirited and enjoyable tour.

A category that bristles at easy definitions

Parsons begins his journey by offering a working definition of amaro, namely a bittersweet, herbal liqueur. He honors Italy’s unassailably umbilical role and is clearly fond of the often colorful characters he meets who craft it. From Averna to Amaro Ciociaro, Cynar to Amaro Ramazzotti, his sweep is broad and comprehensive. He includes Campari, though notes that Italians may quibble that it belongs to a separate category, Aperitivo bitters. There is also a detailed discussion of Fernet, as well as non-Italian amari, e.g., Underberg (Germany), Suze Saveur D’Autrefois (France), Zwack Unium Liqueur (Hungary) and 17 from the U.S., like the newcomer Balsam American Amaro and the dare-worthy Jeppson’s Malört.

Classic amaro cocktails and modern interpretations

Of course, the gateway for most Americans to begin to appreciate amaro is in cocktails. Parsons regales the stories and recipes behind the classic cocktails like the now-ubiquitous Negroni and its variations like the Americano, Negroni Sbagliato and its kissing cousin, the Boulevardier. Other tasty stalwarts include the Garibaldi, Jungle Bird and Hanky Panky.

Equally inspiring are Parsons’ curation of modern classics, both his own creations like the Amaro Sour (a salute to Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s Amaretto Sour), and recipes from top bartenders from coast to coast, such as Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy, Sam Ross’ Paper Plane, Dennis Gobis’ Bjórn Supremacy, Sam Levy’s San Francisco Treat, Tad Carducci’s Gato Amargo and Damon Boelte’s Hard Start.

For those with a Let’s Make Amaro! bent, Parsons offers recipes, background on bittering agents, tips for sourcing obscure botanicals, ideal base spirits (“don’t use anything that’s less than 100 proof”), proper gear and even the best bottles to safeguard these magical brews.

The takeaway

Parsons’ “Bitters” blew up the bitters category and became a staple on back bars throughout the world. With beautiful photographs by Ed Anderson, also of “Bitters” fame, “Amaro” is a must-have book for anyone thirsting to learn about this important spirits category and its myriad ways of enjoyment. In Parsons’s words, “Stay bitter!”

Feeling bitter? Try three amaro cocktails from Parsons's new book: Smithstreeter, Amaro Sour and Negroni Sbagliato.

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