WellUrban

Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Drink of the month: amari

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A bitter shotThe 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?

8 Comments:

At 8:58 PM, April 09, 2007, Blogger Joanna said...

Is that what you had at Scopa before the Wellingtonista dinner? If so, it was bloody tasty!

 
At 9:24 AM, April 10, 2007, Blogger Hadyn said...

Tom, can you post up a pronunciation guide as well? Like is the 'c' in "Branca" said with a 'th' sound like in Spanish or what? Just helps so you (I) don't feel like a fool asking for a "Al-chur-mess"

 
At 9:44 AM, April 10, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Jo: yes it was. And yes it is.

Hadyn: generally, they should all have standard Italian pronunciation, so Branca is "Bran-ka" and Alchermes is something like "Al-KAIR-mes". I used to wonder whether "Fernet" was French (i.e. "Fair-nay"), but according to this article it comes from the Milanese dialect "Fer net" meaning "clean iron", since iron was used in the distillation process. My Milanese is a little rusty (ahem), but I'd assume that it's pronounced somewhere between "Fur-net" and "Fair-net".

Getting the pronunciation "correct" (as in, pronouncing it the way its makers would) doesn't always help in ordering here, since we tend to evolve a dominant "default" pronunciation of our own. All of last month I tried pronouncing Hoegaarden as "Hoo-gar-den", since that's closer to the real pronunciation, but I got blank looks unless I asked for something that sounds like an al fresco brothel.

 
At 11:24 AM, April 10, 2007, Blogger Joanna said...

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that's amari?

 
At 3:50 PM, April 10, 2007, Anonymous Duncan said...

I'm a big fan of Montenegro (or Schwarzberg as my Italian friends - from blingual Alto Adige - used to to jokingly call it). Great warming feeling and bitter-sweet taste.

And it's more like 'fair-net', with a slight accent on the net, for Fernet based on my exhaustive knowledge of Milanese dialect - which is actually non-zero. A great party trick of mine in Milan was the Australian speaking in dialect ! Not that I remember much now ...

 
At 12:23 PM, April 11, 2007, Anonymous Duncan said...

Pedant's PS: It should be "Drink of the month: amaro" in line with Wheat Beer (not Wheat Beers) and Mai Tai (not Mai Tais) !

One amaro two amari three ammri four.
Five amars six amari seven amari floor.

Ok so I'm bored at work ...

 
At 1:40 AM, April 12, 2007, Anonymous Jules said...

Double gold rum (pref. Appletons), double Amaro Montenegro and a wedge of orange over ice.

 
At 9:44 PM, January 01, 2009, Blogger Bill Connelly said...

Another local place that is big on Fernet is Chow in Petone (don't ask me why a Pan-asian resaurant would choose this).

And according to the folks at La Bella Italia, it's is definiately pronounced "Fer-net Brank-a".

 

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