Flower Power is on 9th Street in Manhattan, just a few buildings down from a store called Enchantments, commonly referred to as the East Village's very own "witch store." Both deal in healing balms and tinctures, though Flower Power's selection is certifiably food grade, making it the go-to destination for a casual home witch attempting to make amaro.
A unique class of Italian liqueurs, amari are the ultimate all-in-one spirits. Carefully concocted from wild herbs, roots, and flowers, the best contain within them all the complexity and depth of flavor of a craft cocktail, and the alcohol content is the ideal level for a smooth sipper. Serve over one large rock and you're in business. Italians have been making these aperitivi and digestivi for centuries, slowly perfecting the craft with the patience of a monk on a mountaintop (which is actually how many of them are traditionally made).
So while the average overly ambitious person might not produce a sublime, retailable amaro on the first try, that didn’t stop me from wanting to make a go of it. There’s a deep and sultry appeal to dragging your fingers along the shelves at Flower Power, wisps of incense drifting up from the windowsill while you try to imagine just what angelica root and calendula petals might taste like once they’ve soaked for a month in 192-proof rectified spirit. The same can be said for time spent scouring a rural hillside for edible leaves and flowers, creating a literal distillation of the local landscape (a thing I wasn’t too keen to do living in New York City).
To start, I turned to Sother Teague, the barman behind New York City's Amor y Amargo, a tasting room devoted to the craft of bitters. "The exciting (and frustrating) thing about amari," he told me, "is there really aren't any rules. 'Bittersweet liquor' is the basic definition, and from there, anything goes."
Bitter and sweet. It's a start. But the final product is infinitely complex, and most recipes remain a secret: One of my favorites, Bràulio, from Valtellina in the Italian Alps, uses gentian root as its bittering agent and gets its deep brown color from years spent aging in oak barrels. A blend of herbs gathered from the Alpine hills fills in the gaps between recognizable flavor bursts of spearmint, juniper, and chamomile. Even Campari, perhaps the most well-known of the Italian amari family, keeps its ingredient list behind lock and key, alluding only to an infusion of "herbs, aromatic plants, and fruit." And it's not just the Italians; the French have their bitter amers, and the Germans have their slightly sweeter Kräuterlikor, the recipes of which all remain equally elusive.
Let's start with bitter. "Gentian root and cinchona bark are the workhorses when it comes to bittering agents," Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Amaro, told me the other day as I started plotting my grocery list. Gentian root contains many bitter compounds that release easily into alcohol, but most notably amarogentin, supposedly the most bitter-tasting compound of all. "Bitterness can also come from other ingredients like wormwood, licorice root, and even tea leaves," Parsons adds; the complete list in his book goes on to include burdock root, angelica root, cherry tree bark, fringe tree bark, and quassia bark—all ingredients high in bitter compounds. I was leaning toward angelica, because I like the name, and I also planned to nab some wormwood, because it sounded like a thing that belonged in a potion.
With the bitter accounted for, the rest of the ingredients start to feel like a free-for-all. “There’s a Wild West element to making amaro,” Parsons told me, “but there are some category profiles to consider.” When he creates an amaro, he avoids using commercially available products as models: “Most Italian producers have a headstart by a century or two,” he said, “so I'm not necessarily interested in making a clone of an existing amaro, but instead creating something driven by the season, occasion, or spotlighting local ingredients.”
Staring at the 15-foot wall of herbs, barks, roots, and flowers at Flower Power, I let Parsons' "Rite of Spring Amaro" recipe be my guide, while I made some minor adjustments for my own personal taste. The real magic of amaro, it seems, is that it doesn't really matter, so long as the plants are edible and the flavors appeal; a variety of contrasting and complementary elements will ultimately result in something complex and intriguing. It's also worth noting that certain ingredients can seem appealing, but should be avoided due to their latent toxicity. So it's best to start with a recipe, or at least do some research beforehand.
By the time I was ready to prepare it, I'd stocked up on angelica root, elderflowers, licorice root, dried hops, calendula petals, hyssop, cardamom pods, lemongrass, dried artichoke leaf, citrus (for the peels), anise seed, fresh sage, fresh mint, and a few hoja santa leaves that were lying around the SAVEUR test kitchen.
I muddled a small heap of each of them together with a mortar and pestle, breaking down the fibers of the leaves and the citrus peels, and incorporating them all before putting the mixture in a giant lidded mason jar and covering it with Spirytus Rektyfikowany, a Polish rectified spirit not unlike Everclear that clocks in at 96% alcohol . And then I put it under my desk for a month and forgot about it.
By the time I uncovered it again, the mixture had turned a cloudy olive green color, and when I removed the lid, I was reminded of the sheer amount of alcohol present in it; at first it smelled like paint thinner, but then it opened up into a perfume of grapefruit peels, and then a warm, herbaceous aroma of freshly cut summer lawns. But it was still a whopping 192-proof, and the lightest drop on your tongue came with a burning sensation and an intense bitter sting. This is where the sweet part of ‘bittersweet liquor’ comes in.
Once the infusion is strained through a cheesecloth over a sieve (and strained again, and then again once more), the sweetening stage is when you get to balance the bitterness of the liquor you’ve prepared, but is also when you can bring your undrinkable hooch down to a palatable ABV (alcohol by volume). Kate O’Connor-Morris, an experienced home amaro maker and co-owner of Rose’s Bar & Grill in Brooklyn, says 30% ABV is her sweet spot. “30% gets you a smooth, non-burning sipping bitter”, she says, “that can also shine through when mixed with other ingredients into a cocktail.”
Frankly, I was worried I’d ruin it. With some slightly complicated math I hadn’t used since high school, I figured I’d need to mix my amaro with around twice its volume in simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar by volume) to get it even close to the 30-ish percent range.
I imagined a treacle-y sweet schnapps-like concoction that would have defeated the whole purpose of waiting a month for something meant to be intentionally bitter. So I experimented again, using a syrup made from a higher ratio of water to sugar, taste testing with every addition until I felt it didn’t need to be any sweeter. The alcohol content got progressively weaker as the mixing went on, but I still consumed enough that I’m slightly unsure of my math at the end there. But I think I got it to about 33%. Everyone had a sip and mostly the reaction was “...hey! This is … actually really good????” I was giddy with success (and maybe a little drunk).
Poured over ice, it was the best I could have imagined it being. Far better than my previous attempt at homebrewing beer. It tasted like it smelled—citrusy and herbaceous—and assertively bitter, with only the slightest sugary-sweet aftertaste.
It certainly wasn’t Bràulio—it lacked the precision of flavor and the dark, toasted notes from barrel-aging—but it was good, and far greater than the sum of its parts.
1. Spirit: Start with any over-proof clear spirit that strikes your fancy (think vodka, rum, or Everclear), but try and keep it neutral so the flavors you choose can develop fully and shine through on their own. 150 proof or higher is ideal, but don't go below 100 proof, or the alcohol won't absorb the flavors as well.
2. Bitter: Arguably the most important component, the bitter provides the backbone of the finished product. Choose one or two bittering agents to add to the infusion—like cherry tree bark, cinchona bark, wormwood, licorice root, angelica root, or gentian root—and use about a tablespoon per 750mL of spirit.
3. Dried: The dried ingredients lend depth and complexity to amaro, and allow for a more diverse flavor experience than you can get with fresh ingredients alone (unless of course you happen to live on an alpine hillside). Use about a teaspoon each of 5-10 edible dried components as it appeals to you, like lemongrass, anise seeds, cardamom, dried cranberries, hyssop, hops, or elderflower.
4. Fresh: The liveliness of fresh herbs adds top layers of brightness to amaro, but use them sparingly as fresh ingredients like citrus peels can easily become overpowering. Use a handful of fresh mint, sage, or rosemary, and a few strips of orange, grapefruit, or lemon zest.
5. Sweet: Once everything gets muddled together and infuses for several weeks, the inedible alcohol infusion needs to be diluted and sweetened to taste. Simple syrup is a classic, but for more depth of flavor, you can make a demerara syrup, or dilute honey or maple syrup with fresh water before stirring into your filtered amaro.