An encounter with the headbanging bitter Italian liqueur amaro can be emotional. Few beverages have the ability to tickle the senses while simultaneously settling the stomach after a big meal. An encounter with Ischia Sapori Rucolino Amaro last week did exactly that.
It was after I'd indulged in the kind of long lunch that seamlessly morphs into a long dinner that the observant restaurant owner noticed the strain. "This amaro will fix you," he said with confidence. And it did.
The magical Ischia Sapori Rucolino Amaro hails from Ischia, a volcanic island in the Gulf of Naples (find it locally for $110 a bottle at blackheartsandsparrows.com.au). It is made from two types of rucola (rocket), the leafy green you have in salad. Now there's a conversation starter.
Herein lies the beauty of amari: the alchemy of ingredients from which they are made.
In a nutshell, amari are digestives made using barks, roots and botanicals, which are macerated in alcohol (usually the grape kind), sweetened and generally aged in barrels.
Marco Singarella is the founder of Victoria's Vino Bambino, which imports and distributes wine across Australia. Beguiled by amari's past (monks favoured them for medicinal purposes), Singarella always has one in his portfolio.
The first-generation Italian travels to Italy to seek out family-owned boutique producers. Earlier this month, he visited Sicily's Palermo, where fifth-generation producer Tutone has a production still in the city centre. The set-up dates back to 1813 and the ingredients have been a consistent and well-guarded secret for more than 200 years.
"Tutone only use plants, herbs and roots that have been part of the Sicilian landscape," Singarella says. "Theirs is a traditional Sicilian story; the key ingredient is aniseed, along with indigenous herbs like fennel and roots such as carob."
Australians have climbed aboard the bitter bandwagon – we are increasingly drinking (and making) more of it.
"There has been quite a movement toward spirits in general," Singarella says. "Amaro has long been considered an after-dinner digestif and that's exactly how I enjoy it. The bittersweet notes are a staple of the Italian diet."
Pro tip Serve on ice (with a slice of blood orange) or straight from the freezer, either as a starter drink or to round off an evening.
Three to try
Beechworth Bitters Company Beetle Juice is Australian-made using rhubarb, citrus and flowers. It's not so bitter that it'll blow your head off; more of a gentle wake-up call to enjoy before a meal. 22.8% alcohol, $70 for 500ml, beechworthbitters.com
Full Circle Spirits Red Amaro is a punchy, herbaceous modern take on Campari and Aperol. You'll find orange, blood plums, rosella and hibiscus flowers in the mix. This small-batch beauty is made in SA. 20% alcohol, $55 for 500ml, fullcirclespirits.com.au