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The New Secret Ingredients: Apéritifs & Digestifs

Posted on  | June 27, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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No longer obscure, vermouths, quinquinas and amaros become a bar menu wild card.

The Amaris cocktail at Amor y Amago features housemade dry vermouth.

With romantic stories of secret formulas concocted in remote European villages and handed down through generations, most apéritifs and digestifs had no place in America until very recently. Rediscovered by bartenders and importers who traveled abroad and came back enamored by the distinctive flavors, these once obscure elixirs are becoming an important part of cocktail culture.

Most European aperitifs are made from a wine base fortified with herbs, spices and other botanicals. The one we know most commonly is vermouth. Cocktail manuals of the 1930s and ’40s listed French Vermouth (dry) and Italian Vermouth (sweet) as an ingredient in nearly every recipe. Yet slowly through the decades, consumers began to favor wine and sweeter drinks. By the time the martini craze came back in fashion in the 1990s, vermouth was all but forgotten as an essential part of the drink itself.

Other aperitifs like Dubonnet and Lillet (called quinquinas with the bitter addition of quinine) were not being used by Americans as a pre-dinner apéritif to open up the appetite ritualistically as the French and Italians did. Nor were we capping off our meals with digestifs, or amaros (Italian for “bitter”) like Cynar or Fernet-Branca.

Thankfully, the past few years have changed that, with a revival of craft cocktails due to curious connoisseurs who embraced authentic products from yesteryear—but couldn’t easily find them in the United States. One person that came to the rescue (and is adored by many a bartender) was Eric Seed, who founded Haus Alpenz in 2005 and began importing or recreating obscure brands from the pages of history. Suddenly, Cocchi Americano and Bonal were new ingredients to play with, adding a fresh dimension to cocktail-making.

Many bartenders have been using these brands to put a spin on classic cocktails, substituting Maurin Quina for Campari in a Negroni or using amaros in whiskey-based drinks. At Bellocq at The Hotel Modern in New Orleans, Neal Bodenheimer says apéritifs are the center of their entire cocktail program. His staff tastes through their expansive vermouth and fortified wine selection like regular wine, developing a usage strategy for each.

Nearly all of the cocktails at Cocotte in Portland, OR, utilize aperitifs or amaros; examples include the La Nella Moda (Bulleit Rye, Amaro Ramazzotti, Dolin Rouge, Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters) and the Mère (Hendrick’s Gin, Dubonnet Rouge, lemon).  Co-owner Levi Hackett notes that aperitifs have an extra advantage for mixolgists: their lower alcohol content encourages people to try a few cocktails and still enjoy wine with dinner.

Digestifs, a less than sexy descriptive term, become more appealing when incorporated into cocktails or simply called by their Italian term, amaro. As a self-described early-adopter of amaro, Bodenheimer says the rise in bartender usage of these brands corresponds with the integration of homemade ingredients in cocktails and the fact that “people are drawn toward things they know the least about.”

Reaching End Users

For consumers, the language of aperitifs and digestifs is being learned by tasting them. More frequent usage on menus takes the fear out of ordering. And for a brand like Averna, framing this ancient bitter liqueur in a new light is part of a decidedly modern approach. With social media and hipster events in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Averna is hoping to be included in the bar repertoire as more than just a digestif.

Journeyman in Somerville, MA, offers an amaro section as part of the after-dinner drink menu, where patrons can choose a flight of three 1 oz. pours to sample a range. And New York City’s Amor y Amargo (Love and Bitters) is dedicated to bitters and vermouths, even offering a house made vermouth on tap in the Spanish style. Cocktails range from the classic Americano (house made sweet vermouth, Campari and water, carbonated and served on draught) to the Française Four-Play (Cognac, yellow Chartreuse, Lillet, Bonal).

While many European brands are still niche, some of the better-known ones are hoping to expand their consumer bases by keeping things simple. Lillet, for example, recently debuted a rosé version; it is being promoted straight, on the rocks, with a slice of grapefruit in place of the flamed orange peel popularized to accompany Lillet Blanc.

Aperol, one of the fastest-growing spirits on the market, is aiming to put its signature Aperol Spritz on the tip of the tongues of Americans from coast to coast. Keys to the effort: brand ambassadors helping bars create the perfect pour (3 parts Prosecco, 2 parts Aperol, 1 part soda, over ice in a rocks glass or oversize wine glass); extensive social media (42,000 Facebook fans); and a marketing push to promote Aperol Spritz as a happy hour staple, via “mini sunset parties.” One sure sign of success: imitation. The low-calorie, low-alcohol bright orange Aperol Spritz has prompted several pre-formulated versions.

Infinium, importer of Fernet-Branca, is aiming outside the on-premise box for their amaro, sponsoring a Facebook-driven battle of the bands competition in Florida, Austin, Atlanta and Chicago. Local bands can upload videos of original performances; the three with the most Facebook votes will advance for a chance to play live at the Fernet-Branca after-show during the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago in July.

Uncommon Goods

Regularly stocked and stirred brands include Aperol, Campari, Lillet, Fernet-Branca and the wide array of vermouths such as Martini and Rossi, Noilly Prat, Cinzano, Dolin and Carpano Antica. Below are some lesser-known, but increasingly popular aperitifs and digestifs.

Campari Pumps Up The Volume

Staying in front of mixologists is becoming a priority in the aperitif/digestif category. In May, Campari sponsored the first-ever Campari “Best Aperitivo” Cocktail Competition in conjunction with the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). Morgan Schick of Jupiter Olympus in San Francisco won for his Fiore di Melo, deemed the best among fresh-mixed cocktails by the 29 regional finalists representing USBG chapters from across the U.S.  The final competition was held at The Shanty in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. “Morgan Schick did an amazing job of creating a cocktail that stimulates the appetite without overwhelming the palate,” said judge Tony Abou-Ganim.  
After the competition, the winner was announced at Campari’s Count Negroni Birthday Bash, which was held at the adjacent New York Distilling Company. Guests were given prop mustaches in honor of the Count, a high-flying Italian aristocrat who invented the Negroni cocktail in the early 20th century.

Fiore di Melo
by Morgan Schick

1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Hibiki 12 Year Old Whisky
1/2 oz. Oroloso Sherry
1 barspoon Honey Syrup
   (1:1 honey & water)
Sparkling Cider

Combine ingredients, except sparkling cider, in a mixing glass with ice and stir. Strain into a flute or martini glass. Top with sparkling cider and garnish with a lime peel.










Amaro Lucano
CATEGORY: Amaro, 30% ABV
PROVENANCE: Pisticci Scalo, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: A recipe with 37 herbs with dominant flavors of cinnamon, mint, cardamom and licorice
SERVED: As an aperitif with ice, lemon rind and soda or neat, as a digestif; a complex addition to cocktails
IMPORTER: Marsalle Company

Amaro Montenegro
CATEGORY: Amaro, 23% ABV
PROVENANCE: Bologna, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: Over 40 herbs with light orange peel flavor; sweet at first then turns mildly bitter and botanical
SERVED: As a digestif or in cocktails like Jackson Cannon’s Adriatique: 1 oz. Amaro Montenegro, 1 oz. fresh squeeze orange juice, ½ oz. Aperol. Shake with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
IMPORTER: Vias Imports

CATEGORY: Amaro, 32% ABV
PROVENANCE: Sicily, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: More than 60 herbs, roots and fruit peels with notes of flowers, licorice, chocolate and semi-bitter citrus rind
SERVED: Chilled or on ice after dinner, or in cocktails like Jacob Grier’s Averna Stout Flip: 2 oz. Averna, 1 oz. stout, 2 dashes Angostura bitters, 1 egg, fresh nutmeg. Combine Averna, stout, and bitters in a cocktail shaker. Stir in egg, add ice, and shake vigorously. Double-strain through a fine sieve into a wine glass and garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.
IMPORTER: Domaine Select

Bonal Gentiane-Quina
CATEGORY: Quinquina, 16% ABV
TASTE PROFILE: Made by an infusion of gentian, cinchona (quinine) and herbs of the Grand Chartreuse mountains in a Mistelle (fortified wine) base
SERVED: Neat or with a twist; can be used in place of sweet vermouth in cocktails.
IMPORTER: Haus Alpenz
Byrrh Grand Quinquina
CATEGORY: Quinquina, 18% ABV
PROVENANCE: Thuir, France
TASTE PROFILE: Created by macerating
South America quinquina bark with coffee, bitter orange, colombo and cocoa in Muscat Mistelles, which is then matured
in oak casks.
SERVED: On the rocks with a lemon twist
as an aperitif.
IMPORTER: Haus Alpenz

CATEGORY: Amaro, 17% ABV
PROVENANCE: Piedmonte, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: Wine-based infusion of cardoon (a relative of the artichoke) and blessed thistle, then aged in new oak for six months. Milder than most amari, with a nutty, spiced fruit profile that is a cross between a sweet vermouth and a Madeira.
SERVED: On the rocks with a twist or in cocktails.
IMPORTER: Haus Alpenz

Cocchi Americano
CATEGORY: Quinquina, 16.5%
TASTE PROFILE: Made from a base of Moscato d’Asti fortified with a little brandy, flavored with cinchona, gentian and citrus, then
laid down for a year. It’s acknowledged by many to be the closest replica to the now-defunct Kina Lillet (a staple in the classic Vesper recipe).
SERVED: On the rocks with an orange twist or with a splash of soda; or in cocktails.
IMPORTER: Haus Alpenz

CATEGORY: Amaro, 16.5% ABV
TASTE PROFILE: An infusion of13 herbs
and plants, predominately the artichoke (Cynara scolymus), from which the drink derives its name
SERVED: Seen as both an aperitif and digestif; can be served on the rocks, with sodas or mixed with orange juice (a European favorite). Often substituted for Campari
in cocktails.
IMPORTER: Campari America

Maurin Quina
CATEGORY: Quinquina, 16% ABV
FIRST PRODUCED: 1884 (The iconic green devil on the label was created by an Italian artist in 1906)
TASTE PROFILE: A base of sweet white wine fortified with an infusion of wild cherries
and quinine in a neutral grape spirit; then cherry brandy, lemon and cherry juice are added to give a sweet, distinctive cherry-marzipan flavor
SERVED: Tyler Dow’s Mauroni:  1 oz. gin,
1 oz. Maurin Quina, 1 oz. Carpano Antica, 2 dashes grapefruit bitters. Combine all ingredients with ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled glass and garnish with a flamed orange peel.
IMPORTER: Preiss Imports

Punt e Mes
CATEGORY: Vermouth, 16% ABV
PROVENANCE: Turin, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: A fortified wine base infused
40 herbs and spices with slightly bitter chocolate notes; a cross between sweet vermouth and Campari
SERVED: On the rocks, but most often used in place of sweet vermouth in cocktails like the Manhattan or cocktails
IMPORTER: Infinium Spirits

CATEGORY: Amaro, 30% ABV
PROVENANCE: Milan, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: Made from a blend of 33 herbs and roots, with notes of gentian, orange, cardamom; slight root beer and vanilla taste
SERVED: Straight or on the rocks as a digestif,
or adds herbal complexity to cocktails
IMPORTER: Pernod Ricard

Santa Maria Al Monte
CATEGORY: Amaro, 40% ABV
PROVENANCE: Genoa, Italy
TASTE PROFILE: Often compared to Fernet-Branca; a bitter, herbaceous liqueur with notes of ginseng and strong menthol
SERVED: Neat or in cocktails.
IMPORTER: Vias Imports


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