Election Sips 3: Amaro Montenegro

Amaro Montenegro

Tonight’s election sip is Amaro Montenegro from Italy paired with a Kit Kat. I know it’s not a perfect match but it’s helping me to wait out the results of our all consuming election race.

This widely available Amaro is from Bologna and was first made in 1885 by an herbalist named Stanislao Cobianchi. It is named after the second wife of King Vittorio Emmanule III, Helen of Montenegro. Montenegro’s signature aroma is a hint of orange.

This article first ran in the former iteration of the Somm Journal a while ago. That said, thinking about what to drink after today, Amaro came to mind.

The story of the Amaro category is really a tale of two beverages – one in it’s native Italy and another in other nations such as the USA and Argentina. Amaro, the Italian digestif that used to grace every dinner table has been having somewhat of a bad decade in Italy where it has essentially been replaced by other drinks from Limoncello to Gin.

In earlier decades, every Italian household had at least one Amaro on hand and many made their own version of the drink as well. Amaro would be brought out at the end of a big lunch or dinner and at every holiday. Now it’s appearance has dwindled down to making a showing at the end of a holiday meal such as Christmas or Easter.

Italian drinks specialist, Pasquale Porcelli, was hard pressed for a specific reason for the decline of Amaro in his country over the last 15 years or so but attributed it to the rise of other competing liquors as well as the propensity to drink less. “Younger generations order trendier liquors when out at a bar be it Rum, Gin, or Vodka. Older patrons still sometimes order an Amaro with their espresso but fewer and far between,” he said. One Milanese enthusiast, Marcello Foresti who makes his own home brew noted with chagrin that, “Grappa has taken over for Amaro as the drink of choice. People in Italy see it as an older man’s drink only.”

Still, every bar worth its salt in Italy still has at least four to five different brands on its shelves among them Averna, Montenegro, Cynar, Ramazzotti, Lucano, Fernet Branca, Braulio, Jagermeiser, and Unicum.

Amaro, which means bitter in Italian, is a beverage that first became famous starting in the latter half of the 1800s. It is an infusion of herbs, roots, flowers, bark and at times citrus and other elements. The herbs are macerated and then distilled. Some age in oak casks while others in the bottle. 

Each brand is usually made according to a traditional recipe that they often keep a secret. A few actually still used recipes that were handed down to them from the monasteries that first produced these kinds of liqueurs that used to be known as elixirs. In fact, the Amaro category was initially a medicinal beverage used to cure aliments, often of the digestive track. It was the Arabs who first brought the technique of infusions and distillation to Europe.

An elixir with properties similar to an Amaro was first mentioned in the 1300s in conjunction with a concoction made to aid Pope Boniface VIII. Further historical mentions of a similar liqueur were made in the 1600s and attributed to monasteries run by both Franciscan and Jesuits.

Starting in the mid-1800s, these liqueurs were used as a digestif drink after a large meal. For the next two centuries in Italy, Amaro was consumed in this way or in an espresso in the morning. It is often drunk neat or on the rocks. Amaro is usually between 17-35 proof.

The heyday of Amaro in Italy began during the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Sales within the country remained strong in the 1980s and into the 1990s but declined in recent years. It was the Ramazzotti brand that created one of the key advertising phrases that came to define yuppies in Italy, the “Milano da bere.”

While one might be tempted to associate Amaro only with Northern Italy and the mountains, each Italian region has at least one Amaro that is particularly well-known such as Averna from Sicily, Ramazzotti, Braulio, and Fernet Branca from Lombardy, Amaro Lucano from Basilicata, Amaro Sibilla from Le Marche, Amaro Montenegro from Emilia Romagna, Vecchia Amaro del Capo from Calabria and Luxardo from the Veneto, among others. 

Each Amaro is made with a particular blend of herbs, roots and flowers, which can be found locally and make this a classic example of a “terroir-driven” beverage.

Two amaros from other countries are always mentioned in the Amaro pantheon: Jagermeister from Germany and Unicum which is originally Hungarian.

One of the most particular Amari on the market and one of the oldest is Cynar which has a distinctly artichoke note. Cynar unlike the other Amari is often served as an aperitif, before the meal.

In order to create an Amaro, the ingredients are selected and then dried. Next they are crushed into a powdery form and steeped in alcohol. The maceration phase then takes place and when it is done, the mixture is pressed. The result is then mixed with alcohol, water and sugary syrup. Eventually this mixture will then be either aged in oak or in the bottle, some firms add a caramel note to enhance the color, others do not.

Many different combinations of flowers and herbs are added to the various amari including Angelica, Lemon blam, Melissa, China, Verbena, Juniper, Anise, Fennel, Ginger, Sage, Myrrh, Licorice, Wormwood, Elderflower, among others.

While the home market has been on a steady decline in the past decade or two for Amaro, abroad Amaro has made a real splash. In the United States, some Amaro was always sold particularly brands such as Cynar and Campari but it has been the cocktail revolution that has made a real difference in sales in the United States and in other countries such as Argentina. Amaro has found a new generation of enthusiasts. Some are purists who like their product neat or on the rocks but most are discovering the pleasures of an Amaro as part of their new favorite cocktail. 

This is especially true in San Francisco where this spirit has been all the rage for a number of years. Mixologists and sommeliers have been extolling the virtues of Amaro in their drinks. These are the same group of interested parties that have made the creation of their own bitters into a national pastime. In Argentina, Fernet Branca has found a new mecca where it is used in a widely requested drink with Coca Cola

For the Italian brands, nothing could be sweeter than seeing their bitter liqueurs in the new, cool cocktails that millennials are imbibing with abandon. While it is not the same as creating a family tradition of drinking amaro at the end of a meal, it is a new lease on life for this beverage. 

It is surprising how many of the premier Amari are on sale in the United States. Many of the more artisanal brands are not to be found locally but that is the same from one part of Italy to the next. It is still somewhat rare to find Amaro on a wine list but there are a number of restaurants that include them.

There are different styles of Amaro, some lighter and some heavier, depending on their alcohol as well as their ingredients. Below are some of the ones I have tried and favor. Perfect for the end of a big meal or the end of a stressful experience like this election.

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