A bittersweet introduction to the joys of amaro

David Williams

Fernet-Branca Liqueur Bitters, Italy, (from £21.95, Master of Malt, the Whisky Exchange, Great Western Wine) The British palate has become a lot more tolerant of bitterness. There’s the ever-darker chocolate, ever-hoppier craft beers, ever more lurid green health shakes and salads piled with raw brassica. There can be a whiff of snobbery at play – a matter of liking bitter things as an expression of sophisticated maturity, where entry to the club happens only once you’ve got past a powerful, and wholly reasonable, feeling of disgust. This certainly describes my own experience with the loose category of drinks known in Italian as amaro, and of Fernet-Branca in particular. First made in 1845, the bitter liqueur’s secret blend of roots, herbs and spices (among them, it is thought, aloe, gentian and myrrh) is darkly and, once you get used to it, deliciously liquorice-medicinal.

Cynar Liqueur, Italy (from £12.95, Drinkmonger, Ocado, the Whisky Exchange) Amaro’s medicinal associations are wholly intended, the historic Italian brands having been formulated as a kind of stomach-settling, postprandial medicine. These days, however, amaro is most often used as a way of adding complexing bitterness to cocktails. Another classic amaro brand, Cynar, is the main ingredient in the Bitter Giuseppe, invented by Chicago bartender Stephen Cole, where the bitterness is balanced by sweet herby vermouth (the recipe calls for Carpano Antica Formula; £30.95, the Whisky Exchange) and lemon juice. I’m just as happy sipping Cynar (and the luscious bakewell tart-like Carpano Antica for that matter) on its own over ice: based on artichokes, its flavours run from fresh herb to coffee bean.

Aecorn Aperitifs Bitter, UK (£19.99 (50cl), Waitrose) All alcoholic drinks have some form of bitterness, and finding its equivalent in non-alcoholic drinks is the only way to stay sane, in my opinion, in periods of abstinence. Italians offer one delicious solution: chinotto. Made with the juice of the small, tart orange fruit of the myrtle-leaved orange tree, chinotto is dark, sweet, syrupy and fizzy like Coca-Cola, but with a vital bitter-spicy kick that makes it much more sippable with food. San Pellegrino’s classic version (£1.09, 33cl, Delicatezza) is the easiest to find here. Also worth a look in is an alcohol-free English take on another Italian bitter genre: the Campari or Aperol-style aperitif in the form of Aecorn’s zippy mix of blood orange, ruby grapefruit and barky-bitter notes, which works as well as its alcoholic inspiration with fizzy water or over ice.

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