Drink of the month: amari
The drink of the month for April is running a bit late (sorry about that), but should make up for it in flavour and alcoholic intensity. After the mellowness of wheat beer, autumn calls for something more bracing to round off a hearty meal, which is why I've chosen the broad category of bittersweet after-dinner liqueurs known as amari.
I was originally going to choose digestifs, but since that covers everything from madeira to Scotch to grappa (as long as it is imbibed after a meal with the excuse intention of improving digestion) it was too broad to write about. Amari form a small subset of that, and with their fiercely herbal and often medicinal flavours, they are very much an acquired taste. I'll leave it to others to sing the praises of Campari and its well-known cocktails, and look a little further afield.
After Campari, the most well-known and fashionable amaro at the moment is Fernet Branca. It's trendiness no doubt has something to do with its powerfully astringent taste (it makes Campari taste like an RTD by comparison), making it something of a test to separate serious drinkers from mere dilettantes. The fact that it became the drink of choice for the hospitality industry, first in San Francisco and now here, also gives it scenester cachet. Unsurprisingly, Motel and Matterhorn are Fernet central, though it seems to rarely drunk as it was intended (as an after-dinner digestivo) but taken in shot form instead. If you want some variety, you could always try it the San Fran way (with a beer or ginger ale chaser) or the Argentine way (mixed with Coke).
Beyond Fernet, there is a wider world of Italian amari with more subtle and varied flavours. Brands like Lucano and Montenegro are widely available, but one of my favourites is the slightly mellower Alchermes, which I've only come across so far at Scopa. When served with ice and a slice of lemon to take the edge of the bitterness, it can work just as well as an aperitivo as a digestivo.
The Italians seem to love making liqueurs from all sorts of unlikely ingredients, such as unripe walnuts (Nocino) or artichokes (Cynar), but the most delicious and individual after-dinner liqueur that I've tried in Wellington was Maria Pia's own secret recipe, with an elusive flavour derived from herbs and flower petals. It probably doesn't quite count as an amaro, but it's worth going back for (as if the food weren't enough).
Obviously enough, bars and restaurants with an Italian theme or origin are the natural home of amari. Serious cocktail bars can usually be relied on for a decent selection, and some other places with Europhile tendencies have comprehensive ranges: Capitol is a great example. Other than the places and brands mentioned above, where and what else should I be drinking this month? And are there any other interesting ways of drinking amari that you can recommend?