Soon after you start your first job in a bar or restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, someone will put a shot glass full of a dark and aromatic brown liquid, hold one up themselves, toast you, a knock it back. It’s a jarring experience at first. It’s sweet and bitter. It’s complex, loaded with herbal flavors that are familiar but difficult to distinguish. It’s stronger and more viscous than vermouth but a touch mellower than gin or other aromatized spirits. Congratulations, you’ve just had your first shot of Fernet Branca.
What was once a very regional experience, limited almost entirely to old North Beach Italian men and the cooks, waiters, and bartenders of the area’s many restaurants, Fernet Branca has built a much large footprint for itself, following the farm-to-table organic culture of Bay Area California Cuisine as it spreads throughout the country.
This signature after-shift drink (often chased by a small glass of ginger ale or club soda) is part of a broader family of Italian digestive liqueurs (digestivi) called “amari” (singular: “amaro”) and should be an essential part of any drinker’s portfolio of potables. These drinks consist of herbs, roots, barks, citrus peels, and flowers steeped in neutral spirits or wine so that the flavors and oils are extracted. The liquor is then mixed with sugar syrup to reduce the alcohol and offset the potent bitterness of many of the components.
The origins of amaro are rooted in the need to preserve medicinal plants so that they can be shelf-stable for shipping or so as to have access to their properties when fresh herbs and flowers are out of season. Some of the earliest commercial amaro were made so that European colonial soldiers in Africa and other mosquito-infested parts of the world had ready access to quinine so as to fight malaria. Pharmacists would mix more palatable botanicals as well as sugar to make the sharply bitter quinine more palatable.
And that’s why I love amaro (and its non-Italian brethren like Amer Picon, Underberg, and, yes, even Jagermeister): they are medicinal. And they’re medicinal beyond merely feeling good after a couple drinks. Anyone who has had a shot of fernet when their stomach is feeling upset or has downed an Underberg after a rich Oktoberfest meal knows their benefits as it helps your body digest and move the offending comestibles onward and, well, outward from your body.
From a cocktail standpoint, amaro offers a strong concentration of flavor that compliments both sweet and classic drier cocktails. It can replace the sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, add a robust depth to an Old-Fashioned, yet even mixes well with fresh-squeezed citrus juices over ice. Amaro and grapefruit juice is one of my favorite hangover brunch cocktails.
So don’t be intimidated by the sometimes Baroque packaging and give one of these beverages a try. Although they can get quite expensive, many amari can be had for around $30 and remember, a little goes a long way. Brands I recommend include Nardini (which I sell wholesale, full disclosure), Averna, the aforementioned Fernet Branca, Ramazzotti, and Cynar.
Different amari have different flavor profiles: some are more savory than others, some more minty, others more bitter, so if you’re intimidated, ask your friendly neighborhood wine and spirits dealer for recommendations. They’re also often readily available in 375ml (or even smaller) bottles, so look for those if you just want to try out something new. Enjoy!