Forage and garden: bitter-sweet and homemade amaro

1500757_10202719089236861_130854274_oHaving spent a full day indoors at the computer, the time has come to mix a cocktail (a rye Manhattan with both sweet and dry vermouth and a splash of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino) and walk in the remaining warmth of a perfect fall evening, in search of bittering agents I could dig up.

In pursuit of bitters I am definitely behind the curve, having just decided I could make my own amaro. But without access to the bittering agents that would really deepen the recipe to a complex, intense blend (gentian is first on that list), I’ve stalled.  We are past the time to harvest hops; I can’t yet identify wild gentian. So I stepped slowly, scanning for dandelion (harboring a new regret that I tend to dig them out), or broadleaf plaintain, or burdock, and for other roots I can’t name but will spend the evening trying to identify.

Bitters. You might think of those small bottles, wrapped in kraft paper and frequently available in supermarkets and specialty stores, by the names Underberg, Angostura, Fee Brothers or Peychaud’s; these are cocktail bitters. The recipes generally call for a couple drops also known as a dash. You’d never want to drink these neat.

But I’m picturing tall bottles of amaro (Italian for bitters, though variations on the idea are found just about everywhere) – an alcoholic preparation flavored with botanicals, often intensely bitter. The list of amaro includes names like Campari, Averna, Cynar, Aperol, Fernet Branca, Ramazzotti, Jagermeister, Becherovka, Antica Formula, and their less bitter cousins, Italian vermouths like Cocchi Vermouth di Torrino or Carpana Antica. Some of the more commonly used amaro included flavors from cascarillacassiagentianorange peel, and cinchona bark.

Generally low in alcohol, they can be enjoyed straight up, on the rocks, with a splash of soda or mixed into a cocktail. The older traditional usage was medicinal (think of those depictions of the medicine shows from the 19th century with their magical medical elixirs), and you can imagine it – deeply bitter, nearly distasteful (even repulsive to some), a spoonful intended to cure what ails you.

Autumn Amaro

Autumn Amaro

My first attempt at amaro is brewing in the cellar; a vodka base with foraged wild or organic flavors: whole Asian quince, wild apple, pear and rosehips, tarragon, parsley, lemon verbena, allspice, peppercorns, arugula leaf, thyme, rhubarb, coriander, anise and fennel seeds, raspberries, and dandelion root. It’s been steeping for a month, but still needs that extra bitter ingredient to get to the flavor I’m hoping for.


My favorite way to drink amaro – besides a shot in soda water on the rocks – is my own version of a Manhattan, I call it the Bitter Ex-New Yorker: 2 parts rye, 1 part each sweet and dry vermouth, 1/2 part amaro, and a dash of Hella’s aromatic bitters would be most appropriate. Garnish with a twist of orange.


For more on making your own amaro check out the Serious Eats post on the subject:

About barbaraprice

Artist, Food writer, book editor, gardener, patient advocate (BCPA)
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