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The New Digestif Drinker: Old-Fashioned Amari and Herbal Liqueurs are Enticing a New American Market

Posted on  | January 1, 2006   Bookmark and Share
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Like the traditional aperitif, the digestif has medicinal roots, going back centuries, when accessible botanicals were boiled, pounded or preserved in alcohol for restorative purposes. Leonardo LoCascio, CEO and president of Winebow, a distributing company that offers an array of herbaceous potables, explains, “Just as wine provided a form of nutrition to ancient peoples, the digestif was devised from local plants for its medicinal qualities. This is still common practice in Italy and every city or community has a distinctly traditional way to finish a meal. Digestifs provide care for the body after a meal, and modern day producers have perfected the ages-old custom by making them delicious and enjoyable.” Like any acquired taste there are ways to gradually introduce customers to after-dinner bitters.

The Italians have the digestivo down to an art form. Ocino in Washington, NJ, a trattoria style restaurant, carries a worthy array, including Meletti, Averna, Monte-negro and Fernet Branca, among others. Tad Carducci, the beverage manager, declares, “I’ve made Cynar [artichoke-flavored digestif] believers out of a lot of people. Much of it has to do with bottle positioning, when they see the packaging they get curious.” He has also piqued the interest of the uninitiated via a mixed drink. Called the Marche Shimmer, it contains Meletti, freshly squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup and prosecco, served over ice in a rocks glass. He says it is one of their most popular house cocktails.

Nate Ready, the sommelier at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, CO offers an insider’s tip, “We’ve been really good at identifying an amaro for the beginner. Meletti from Marche is smooth and has a little cumin, saffron taste without that aggressively bitter or vegetal quality that some of them have.” As well as having a sound menu of Italian digestivo they also carry the syrupy, jewel hued French digestif, Chartreuse, made by Carth-usian monks in the French Alps. When it comes to this particular libation he says, “Instead of serving the original green, we offer the VEP or the yellow.” Whilst staunch Chartreuse fans will tell you that they enjoy the intensely piney taste of the green, a bartender or sales assistant would do best to take Nate’s advice when introducing customers to the mountain elixir for the first time.

Lupa, a New York Greenwich Village restaurant, practically has a shrine dedicated to digestivos and is keen on encouraging their diners to enjoy them in a myriad of ways. Jason Denton, part owner of the restaurant, recommends the Montenegro as a starter amari (an Italian bitter drink – amari essentially means bitter and can be taken either before or after dinner). “I love Montenegro from Bolgona, it has more of a caramel, herbaceous character and is a good representation of amaro.” Carrying every Italian bitter available to New York, Lupa has a selection of 22 amari on their list and they even offer flights. Denton divulges, “We do tastings and offer flights of three different amari. Like wine, we always start from the lightest to the fullest.”

Tastings are a great way to inform customers of the culture behind tummy settling libations. Fans of amari can be found at Smith and Vine in Brooklyn, NY. Owners Michele Pravda and Patrick Watson have an impressive inventory for a compact store. Their enthusiasm led to a sit down tasting last winter at a local restaurant. They poured six amari and, to show the diversity of digestivo, poured the unctuous style Borsci San Marzano Elisir over gelato at the end of the degustation. “It was so successful that we’re going to do another one this fall,” shares Pravda.

Sam’s Wines and Spirits in Chicago uses shelf talkers that are provided by suppliers, while also writing their own for display. The wine director, Todd Hess, also sees a bottle of bitters as a good suggestion, in addition to a done deal. He offers, “When someone is planning a dinner party we always try to work with them and a digestivo would make a great add-on sale.”

Bottle positioning has given Michele Pravda’s amari sales a lease of life. “We carry eleven amari on a shelf that sits right over the register. Customers are always eyeing them while paying for their wine. The bottles themselves are so beautiful they capture attention. Since we moved them up there I’d say our sales went up by fifty percent.”

A digestif, whether it is from France, Italy, Hungary (Unicum), Germany (Jager-meister) or Spain (Anis del Mono or Pacharan), is an ideal substitute to a dessert wine for those who don’t have a sweet tooth or for those who don’t want more of a sugar rush after their slice of cake. Ready supports, “We want people to feel good about their meals here, to add sweet wines to their rich chocolate dessert can send some over the edge; a digestivo is more therapeutic and they leave here feeling better about their digestion.”

Practically all trade digestivo enthusiasts take their hats off to Lupa for starting the concept stateside. Pravda, who previously worked at Lupa, acknowledges, “Lupa really made me aware of what they are. I appreciated the mystique, the background and the romance behind them.” Lupa may have started a club following but is the craze among consumers really catching on? Todd Hess views bitters and the like as still being a very specialized category that won’t be hitting the mainstream for a while yet. He offers, “It is an esoteric thing. When you try to explain what it tastes like, most people are going to wonder why on earth you would want to put that in your mouth,” he says with a chuckle. He adds, “We carry them all because we love them but for now they are really cool niche items and will probably remain so for the next 10-15 years.”

On the other hand, imbibing herb-driven digestivo could be a trend in the making, as Pravda remarks, “The interest in amari has way piqued.”

glossary of terms
Amari – Plural for amaro. Refers to the entire category of bitter drinks.
Amaro – Italian word for “bitter.” Refers to beverages that are usually made with a base alcohol and a range of bitter herbs. An amaro can be a before dinner drink, such as Campari or an after dinner drink, such as the Ramazotti.
Aperitivo – Italian term for a pre-dinner drink
Aperitif – French term for a pre-dinner drink
Digestif – French word for an after-dinner drink
Digestivo – Italian word for an after-dinner drink
Fernet – Refers to an exceedingly bitter style of amaro, such as Fernet Branca and Luxardo Fernet.
Liqueur – Any usually sweetened alcoholic beverage served after a meal.

Lupa, a New York Greenwich Village restaurant, practically has a shrine dedicated to digestivos and is keen on encouraging their diners to enjoy them in a myriad of ways. We decided to learn a thing or two ourselves by tasting a selection with co-owner Jason Denton, all of which were poured into the traditional thick cut amaro glass.

China Martini (Piedmont)
Produced by Martini & Rossi, this viscous post-dinner elixir has a quinine base. Denton shares a story, “On more than one occasion, in the dead of winter, someone from Italy has come in feeling a little under the weather and asked us to heat the glass with hot water and pour a little China Martini into the hot water and they drink it just like a medicine.”

Cio Ciara (Lazio)
Orange rind and green herbs abound in this very pretty amaro and it plays the main component in one of the Italian-centric cocktails shaken up at Lupa. Called the Il Ciacio, it is mixed with Maraschino Luxardo and citrus juices.

Cora (Piedmonte)
One of the lightest styles of amaro, it is light and honeyed with hints of sweet orange. “The orange character makes this almost like a Drambuie. It also makes an excellent tonic when you add soda water and a slice of lime because it’s so light. A nice way to introduce the palate to this is drizzled over a gelato. And the chef often braises a lot of our dishes with different amari.”

Luxardo Fernet (Veneto)
A fernet is in fact a very bitter style of amaro and this is bracingly bitter. Do many guests order fernet? Jason replied, “It does happen.” He adds, “There’s a taste for everybody. Something like this would be perfect after a really heavy and fatty meal.” With the decadent likes of tuna belly and pork shoulder on their menu, we got his drift.

Maria Al Monte (Liguria)
Showing cola hints on the nose and dandelionbitter greens on the palate with some nice floral hints, Denton noted that we were heading into the more medicinal tasting amari.

Meletti (Marche)
On the saffron based amaro Denton avers, “I’m a big fan of Meletti because it has this vibrant flowery nose. Some of the brighter, easier bitters are good for warm weather sipping while darker, heavier amari is better for the winter time.”

Nardini Amaro
Here is an amaro that will please hardcore fans and beginners alike. Smooth, complex and spicy, this is the chef’s favorite at Lupa.

Nocino Riserva (Emilia-Romagna)
Offering a beautifully distinctive nose, this was my favorite. Denton shares my enthu-siasm, “This one is made with green walnuts. I like the depth. It has nice rounded flavor and balanced bitterness.”

Ramazotti (Lombardy)
“We say this is the coca-cola of amaro,” announces our host when we taste the next elixir. Close your eyes, take a whiff and it could well be coke gone flat.


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