DO YOU need to expand your drinking repertoire, up your booze game, or get yourself out of a libation rut? Then aromatized wines and spirits could be for you. Recently sommeliers and bartenders have been peddling vermouth, quinquina, americano, and their exotic cousin, amaro, as stand-alone aperitifs and digestifs, just like they are in Europe. Bittersweet, they can be an acquired taste, though there’s an unspoken assumption that it’s a boost to your cultural capital if you drink them straight, with ice, lemon, soda water...with anything, really—just not as a bit part in a spirit cocktail (so passé, my dears).
But this is an uncertain and confusing world—the range of styles is formidable, and categories and purposes are fuzzy. Whereas wines are very much defined (often by law) by what’s in them or where they’re from, here it’s a matter of convention and cultural preference.
Herbal liqueurs such as these have been used for centuries and can be traced back to medieval monks fiddling with alchemical formulas and medicines. At its simplest, an aromatized wine is infused with botanicals—barks, seeds, herbs, spices, peels and the like—for flavor and color. The bitterness found in many of these drinks is deliberate, as an aid to digestion. The body typically dislikes anything bitter (which it associates with a toxin), so once tasted the digestive system is alerted and begins its sensitive work.
Vermouths, which originated in the Alpine regions of northeast Italy, are considered aperitifs (from the Latin meaning “to open,” as in the appetite). Amaro, meaning “bitter,” are classed as a digestif, the after dinner drink that adds a final layer of contentment to a meal.
That being said, there’s no real definition for an amaro—take the grass and leaves in your backyard, stick ‘em in a fortified wine, and you can call it amaro. Recipes are closely guarded, and styles are diffuse. To confuse things, vermouths can also be digestifs and amari can be dressed as aperitifs. Then there are aperitivo bitters, such as Campari and Aperol, which are similar in ingredients and production methods to amari, though conventionally they’re colored orange or red and are lighter in alcohol.
There’s no road map here, so best we find a guide. I turned to Dustin Wight, who owns Locale, a café bar that specializes in aromatized drinks (straight up, as a flight, and in non-spirit cocktails). He explained how in European cultures it’s important to have a drink before and after a meal. He then added, “Most of these things cross over—they can be wherever you want them to be.” This isn’t quite what I was hoping to hear. He starts me with Dolin Rouge, a French vermouth (the red coloring comes from caramelized sugar, not the variety of wine). It’s light and balanced with a sweetness that isn’t cloying, and buzzes with oregano, basil, and cooking herbs. Add a thick ice cube and it makes a perfect pre-dinner sup. That’s about as simple as things will get.
In contrast, Punt E Mes, an Italian vermouth that dates back to the 1870s, has a medicinal quality from the addition of quina (a Peruvian bark that’s a component of tonic water). There’s interplay of sweet and bitter—Wight suggests drinking with a slice of orange peel as a digestive.
Cardamaro is a wine-based amaro from Piedmont, Italy, that gets its name from its key ingredient, the cardoon, which is related to the globe artichoke. It smells like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, though the flavors are more grown up: nutty, like a sherry, with dried fruits and an earthy base. There’s a note of bitterness that gives way to a sweet finish. Though an amaro, it is used as an aperitif as well as digestif (go figure). Worked by Wight into a Cardoon Old Fashioned cocktail, it becomes a refreshing sipper, light and herbal.
I’ve had Chinato as a digestif, though I’m told it can be an aperitif as well (which doesn’t surprise me by now). Expensive and magnificent, it’s made from fortified Nebbiolo, the noble grape of Italian Barbaresco and Barolo wines. Baking spices, cloves, chocolate, and coffee all bind into a luxurious whole, that to my mind still works best after dinner.
And then there’s Elisir Novasalus, an amaro by Cappelletti, which is the final word in digestifs. It’s wine based, infused with Alpine plants and Sicilian pine tree sap. Wight describes it as “putting a pine forest in your mouth.” Indeed. I’d also add that it’s earthy, dirty, not really herbal, and tastes incredible. Not necessarily good, but like nothing else you’re ever going to taste. I urge you try it—it’s 2017, time to venture forth.