Food & Drink: Amaro’s Table brings ancient drink to life

A flight of three amari await tasting at Amaro’s Table in downtown Vancouver. Rachel Pinsky

Sara Newton, beverage director at Amaro’s Table, is an amaro whisperer. She knows you probably haven’t tried an amaro, so she has created amaro flights, paired with helpful note cards, to bring you on a buzzy journey through the world of this ancient amber digestif and darling of craft bartenders.

Amaro is the Italian word for “bitter.” But that barely explains the complex flavors created by mashing a mosaic of traditionally foraged ingredients in alcohol, sweetening it with sugar or honey, and aging it in casks or bottles. Unusual herbs like gentian, angelica, cardoon, cinchona, lemon verbena, juniper, anise, fennel, bay laurel, rue, and wormwood create curious flavors and aromas when combined with roots, flowers, bark and citrus.

In his influential book “Amaro,” Brad Thomas Parsons explains, “Generally speaking, amaro refers to the collective class of Italian-made aromatic, herbal, bittersweet liquors traditionally served as a digestif after a meal.” Unlike Italian wines, amari (the plural form of amaro) don’t have a DOC (controlled designation of origin) label, so bitter liqueurs from places outside of Italy can also be called an amaro.

At Amaro’s Table, flights consist of one-ounce pours of three different amari. Many craft cocktail bars have several varieties of this bitter; here, there are more than 30 imported and domestic amari colorfully decorating the neat oak shelves behind the cozy, bright white bar. Newton likes to have “a good representation of all the varieties.”

I tried a Bartender’s Choice flight of three different amari. This flight changes regularly.

Newton thoughtfully designs a card that lists all the amari you’re trying in the same order as they appear on the wood serving plank. This card has the name of the amaro, where it’s made and some tasting notes. The amari are set before you in order from lightest to most bitter (similar to a beer flight). There’s no correct way to drink an amaro. They can be served with soda water or a twist of citrus, on the rocks or neat. At Amaro’s Table, the flights are served neat in squat, wide glasses that allow you to gaze at a color spectrum from light caramel to burnt amber and sniff the array of aromas.

On my visit, the flight included amari from three Italian regions: Amaro Sibilla from Muccia, Black Note from Piedmont and Averna Amaro from Sicily.

The Amaro Sibilla from the mountainous Marche region of Southern Italy was invented in 1868 by Girolamo Varnelli and used as a remedy for shepherds. Honey of the Sibillini Mountains is used to sweeten this tongue-tingling, herbaceous drink. It’s aged for at least six months to allow the flavors to blend and mature. It smells like honey and raisins. When it coats the mouth and tongue, there’s a surprising tingling sensation. After the initial bewilderment wears off, the tingling and numbness is stimulating. It signals the awakening of your salivary glands in preparation for a meal.

The second amaro was Black Note out of Turin. Newton told me that this is a good beginner’s amaro. She said, “A lot of times, it’s one of the ones I introduce people to so they can learn about amari. It becomes one they are enamored with and infatuated with it. It does have so many layers to it. You have that toasted marshmallow and that orange peel and then that dandelion, gentian. The beginning of it is so herbal, but at the end, it’s so fresh.” It smelled like anise and herbs. It tasted like marshmallows — this sweetness expertly tempered by herbaceousness.

The final amaro was Averna Amaro from Sicily. It smelled like Sprite. This citrus finish comes from the essential oils of bitter lemon. It tasted sweet, subtly aromatic with notes of anise, juniper, sage, vanilla and citrus. The recipe was first made in 1868 by Benedictine monks of the San Spirito Abbey in Caltanissetta, Sicily. The monks passed on their recipe to Salvatore Averna, a benefactor of the abbey. The Averna family made this bittersweet bitter until 2014, when it was purchased by Gruppo Campari in Milano, Italy. Averna is still infused in Caltanissetta, using the traditional local ingredients.

If you prefer to just dip your toe into the amaro pool, there are several amaro cocktails on the menu that allow you to get a taste of amaro mixed with other flavors. The Amaro’s cola (Amaro CioCiaro, Topo Chico and a twist) is a pleasant doorway into the world of this fascinating drink.

As Newton advised, “Everything is overwhelming in the beginning. Start somewhere.”

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