If you’ve been wondering about the relative lack of DIY liquor-making advice in this magazine, you may be interested to know that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives generally doesn’t appreciate folks distilling gin in their apartments. Lucky for us, some of the coolest bottles on the bar lately are so simple to make that the government needn’t know anything about it. Amaros, sweet and bitter Italian digestifs that go by names such as Fernet-Branca and Cynar, are sort of like booze teas. They’re made by soaking aromatic herbs, spices, and citrus peels in strong, flavorless liquors, then watering it down with sugar water. “It’s something you can make in your kitchen and you won’t be doing it that dissimilarly from the big amaro houses in Europe,” says Dave Willis, head distiller at Bully Boy Distillers, an operation in Boston that has recently expanded into producing an American amaro that contains, among other things, hops.
As for what to put in the stuff, the sheer freedom can be intimidating. There are hundreds of recipes, nearly all of them secret, with the only unifying factor being that the end product be both sweet and bitter, with an alcohol level between 16 and 40 percent. “The process that I recommend, and it’s the process that everyone uses, is simple trial and error,” Willis says. “Think of flavors you enjoy, and try to create a theme around it.”
We tried two: The first was a standard citrus-peel-based amaro, containing the bittering agents gentian and cinchona bark, as well as mulling spices such as clove, cinnamon, and allspice. The second was a long shot—an amaro centered around spices found in Thai food. With so few restrictions, it seemed exotic but achievable. Plus: Who’s ever heard of a Thai amaro? Thrillingly, the very first iteration of the traditional amaro was quaffable, if a little strong. During the photo shoot for this very page, the photographer kept sneaking sniffs of it and asking for the ingredients. Over a second attempt, we refined it into the recipe below, which would be perfect for pouring into little glass bottles and giving to friends as birthday presents.
As for the Thai amaro . . . well. Let’s just say we figured out why nobody’s made one yet.
750-ml bottle Spirytus Rektyfikowany, Everclear, high-proof vodka, or other strong neutral spirit 5 grams whole cloves
2 grams cinnamon bark
5 grams juniper berries
5 grams gentian root
5 grams cinchona bark (Gentian root and cinchona bark are bittering agents, responsible for amaro’s bitter flavor.)
5 grams allspice
5 grams cardamom
10 grams orris root (A common ingredient in perfumes. “It’s a binding agent, so it helps with stability,” says Willis.)
10 grams fresh ginger
15 grams grapefruit peel
5 grams fresh rosemary
1 vanilla bean
5 grams rhubarb root (“Rhubarb root I would highly recommend. It’s one of the things that defines amaro, but people don’t really know that they’re tasting it.”)
10 grams rosebuds
3 grams calendula buds
3 grams yarrow (Willis: “I love yarrow, it has this almost citrusy quality, but it’s a unique aroma, which is really great for an amaro.”)
1. Using a gram scale that is accurate to the tenth of a gram, such as the Bonavita coffee scale, measure out any flavorings that might extract quickly and add them to the liquor in a wide-mouth jar. Taste (carefully, it’s strong) every day until the flavor seems pungent enough. In this case, we started with cloves, cinnamon bark, juniper berries, gentian, and cinchona, then strained everything out after three days.
2. Now add your second charge of lighter botanicals: the allspice, cardamom, orris root, ginger, grapefruit peel, rosemary, vanilla bean, rhubarb root, rosebuds, calendula, and yarrow. Taste every day. We waited about six more days, then strained the whole mixture using a kitchen strainer, then again using a coffee filter. 3. Make simple syrup by stirring one part sugar into one part boiling water. Let cool. Using a 10-ml pipette (you can buy these on Amazon), add simple syrup to the flavored alcohol 10 milliliters at a time until the sweetness balances the bitterness, then add pure water 10 milliliters at a time until the alcohol reaches an acceptable percent. We added 200 milliliters of simple syrup and 800 milliliters of pure water for a final alcohol content of about 40 percent.
4. Pour 2 ounces over ice in a rocks glass. Enjoy.
Three Amaros You Can Drink Right Now
“I work in a room that has 200-plus bottles of amaro in it, so picking one is like picking one of my favorite children,” says Max Green, laughing. Green is a bartender at Amor y Amargo, a bar in New York City focused entirely on bitter liquors. In the end he gave us a few worth trying:
: “It’s made with Chinese rhubarb, so there’s a light vegetal smoke to it, and it has undertones of chocolate, which is great for cold weather.” $32
: “Monte is a great amaro for someone just starting out. Lightly bitter with juicy orange blossom and bitter orange flavors, it’s good for cocktails or sipping neat or on the rocks.” $27
: “A Latvian bitter, newly available in the U.S., this is for your more advanced amaro drinker. It’s dry, bitter, and dark with deep notes of chocolate, coffee, and a light cherry finish.” $32
This appears in the April 2018 issue.