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Friday, 6 April 2012

Amaro Aperitivos

Drinks are often separated into categories involving food - aperitifs (French), or aperitivos (Italian), which are served before you eat to stimulate your palate and appetite, digestifs, or digestivos, which are served after a meal to aid digestion or calm your palate, and while you are eating you shouldn't really be drinking a mixed drink, but rather a nicely-paired wine, beer, or just water. This practice of enjoying alcohol through different stages of a meal is common practice in Europe, and one that has been carried over through good, high-end European restaurants here, or just in those with a really good cocktail program (Cin Cin in Vancouver, for example, has the second - soon to be first - largest selection of grappa in North America). Italians in particular have a very, very long list of aperitivos and digestivos in the form of amari and the Italian grape brandy known as grappa, both of which for the most part are enjoyed post-meal, but also sweet vermouths, or rossi, that are enjoyed beforehand. This does partly have to do with how it's being served, for example, making a mixed drink in an aperitivo-style, like a Negroni, using a heavier amaro than Campari like Montenegro makes a very refreshing pre-dinner cocktail, but sipping Montenegro neat is an excellent digestivo. But let's not make things too complicated and just look at some specific products.
First, to whet our palates, are the aperitivos, the most popular of which are Campari, and it's 'younger brother,' Aperol.

In 1860 in a town called Novara, northwest Italy, Gaspare Campari invented a recipe for a new liqueur by infusing alcohol (I have no confirmation, but I assume a grape spirit, or grappa base) with herbs, plants, roots, and fruit. It became so popular among the locals that Gaspare moved to Milano and opened Caffe Campari, where he soon invented Campari's signature cocktail, The Milano-Turino, named after the origins of both his liqueur and Cinzano sweet vermouth. This drink was later named The Americano, and you can see more history on this drink in particular here, plus it's successor, the Negroni, here.
It was common at the time to consume bitters (on the English side of things) or amaro after a meal to aid with digestion, but customers began to prefer sipping their Campari before lunch, which began a popular custom of meeting friends in the afternoon at a cafe for a little aperitivo before the big meals. The aperitivo concept was not new, but Campari made it a much more popular social custom.

The recipe has been claimed to include over 60 components, but nobody at Campari has ever spoken a word as to the ingredients. The disctinctive red colour comes from carmine dye, which originally came from crushed cochineal insects. The flavour is very unique and very bitter, but very light in comparison to other amari such as Averna or Fernet. There are hints of spice and menthol, strong herbal flavours, and bitter orange. There are many exciting and classic cocktails that use Campari, and the more you develop your bitter palate, the more you'll just want to just sip it with soda. The Americano is a good starting point for something light, but if you're more of a whiskey drinker, The Boulevardier is a must, with bourbon, sweet vermouth, and just a bit of Campari.

Aperol came much later, after the amaro boom of the mid 1800's. It was created by brothers Luigi and Silvio Barbieri with the intention of making an even lighter amaro than Campari in both flavour and alcohol content (only 11%) to be enjoyed as well as an aperitivo. They unveiled their invention at the Padua Exhibition in 1919, but it didn't really become popular until almost 30 years later. The recipe, as always, is a secret, but has supposedly remained unchanged since its inception. One thing did not, however, and that was the colour, which was basically clear, but a year after the original release (1920), the orange colour was added and used as part of its advertising identity. In the 1930's, Aperol started directing its campaign towards women, claiming its low-alcohol content was a great way for a woman to stay lean and fit but still enjoy drinking. In 1950, the signature cocktail the "Spritz" is invented, combining Aperol with Prosecco and a dash of soda, and the 1960's brought about television advertising, and Aperol really took off in Europe. It wasn't until 2000 that it spread to the rest of the world, when Peggy Guggenheim's exhibition in Venice is sponsored by the Campari group (the company that came to own Aperol) where the liqueur had a big advertising presence and Spritz was served to all manner of famous guests. Fast forward to 2006 and Aperol is suddenly available in the U.S. where it has since been not only delicious but an excellent stepping stone for anyone to get into amaro. This is where you need to start if you haven't yet, and this is definitely where you need to start if you don't have a taste for bitter yet. The biggest flavour is a bitter orange, but gentian and rhubarb are very noticeable as well.
While there are no real classic cocktails using it, it can fairly easily be substituted into any Campari drink to decent success. In fact, you'll see a lot of bars doing this, I assume to avoid offending anyone who isn't ready for the acquired taste of Campari. Making a Negroni with half Aperol and half Campari is quite delicious and easier to handle for the uninitiated, and I also find it mixes well with bourbon as is exemplified by an original by Joel Virginillo at The Refinery in Vancouver called "The Boulevardier of Broken Dreams," with 1oz bourbon, 3/4oz Aperol, and 3/4oz Cynar, built over ice.

Speaking of Cynar, I should take a further moment to mention it as it is most often enjoyed as an aperitivo (though also as a digestivo - being both is part of its identity). Also owned by the Campari group as of 1995 (they have quite the monopoly on aperitivos), but much younger, Cynar is an artichoke-based amaro made from only 13 herbs and plants and bottled at only 33 proof. It was launched in 1952 and gained popularity through television advertisements in the 1960's. Drinking an artichoke bitter may sound odd, and I honestly did not enjoy the first few times, but I have come to appreciate what it brings to a cocktail. Speaking of The Refinery, they make a fine Cynar Negroni that's definitely worth a try before you make any judgements on this amaro, and Pourhouse in Gastown has a couple creative Cynar drinks on their menu as well.

Next, we'll look at some popular amaro digestivos, namely Averna, Montenegro, and Ramazzotti.

[[ See my post on amaro digestivos here ]]
[[ See a buying guide for amaro here ]]

[[ See "The One Hit Wonder" from L'abattoir in Vancouver here ]]
[[ See "The Penny Farthing" from Pourhouse here ]]
[[ See an introduction to amaro  here ]]
[[ See "The Imperial Eagle" from Bourbon & Branch here ]]
[[ See "Sevilla" from Beretta here ]]
[[ See "Fallow Grave" from the Toronto Temperance Society here ]]
[[ See "The Black Prince" from Phil Ward here ]]
[[ See "Bad Apple" and "Jackson Ward" from Amor y Amargo here ]]
[[ See "The Four Horsemen" from Jay Jones at Shangri-La here ]]
[[ See Colin MacDougall from Blue Water Cafe here ]]
[[ See "Debbie Don't" from Dutch Kills here ]]
[[ See "Welcome to the Dark Side" from Cin Cin here ]]
[[ See "Foolish Games" from Russell Davis here ]]
[[ See "Intro To Aperol" from Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club here ]] 

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