The Bitter Miracle
Now that I’m 35 years old, I can feel myself losing the imperviousness of youth. It’s the same with all of my friends. We gain weight, lose hair, fall asleep early, throw out our backs, and blow our knees. Worst of all, I know someone whose stomach has become sensitive with age. For a whole month, he had to cut cheese out of his diet. When you see someone’s quality of life is so hobbled, it’s easy to see thorny philosophical problems in a new light. I can’t say I counseled him to consider euthanasia, yet I can’t say I discouraged him either.
With these cracks in the foundation, it’s no wonder that I notice a lot of advertisements for alternative medicine. Echinacea for colds. St John’s Wort for depression. Chinese medicine for low energy. Chiropractors for crumbling lumbars. I notice, but I do not partake. For me, there is only one alternative remedy that counts. It is a miracle drug — what Moses and his biblical cronies would refer to as the Balm of Gilead. Best of all, I can find it at the liquor store. It is called Fernet Branca Amer.
Fernet Branca is an Italian herbal liqueur with an almost magical ability to assist digestion. No matter how much I eat, no matter how rich the sauce or how fatty the duck, it can calm my stomach. My wife and I take it like medicine when we are afflicted by any sort of dyspepsia, be it the flu or food poisoning. If that weren’t enough, Fernet Branca is also recommended for motion sickness, headaches and hangovers. Since it’s 40 per cent alcohol, it can presumably also be used to disinfect wounds or clean your CD player.
Fernet Branca is part of the family of Italian liqueurs called amari or bitters. In Italy, an amaro is traditionally drunk as a digestif. Like bitters from Germany or France, they are produced by steeping herbs, roots, flowers, bark and spices in alcoholic spirits. The ingredients are limited only by the imagination; some amari contain nuts, fruit peels, vegetables and bits of mineral.
There are several different styles of amaro. The Fernet style is the bitterest because there is little sugar added to this dense concoction of herbs. Vermouth is perhaps the best known because of its pride of place in the Martini. It is lighter — its name comes from the fact that it used to be infused with wormwood or wermut. Campari is another light style of amaro.
Some amari are so heavily sweetened that it is hard to think of them as bitters at all — for example, Limoncello is technically an amaro since it is made by macerating citrus rinds in alcohol and sugar. Between the two extremes of Fernet and Limoncello is the most common style of medium amaro — a viscous digestif liqueur that balances the astringent herbs with a strong dose of sugar.
This bitter drink has its origins in the Middle Ages, when it was common to preserve herbal remedies in wine or spirits. Spices from the east and sugar (which was a rare luxury at the time) were seen as potent ingredients with life-saving properties. Well-educated monks were particularly adept at brewing these tonics, part of the proud tradition which has also given the world Benedictine, Chartreuse and Frangelico. Although these elixirs were supposed to be purely medicinal, they had their recreational side too. By the 14th century, spiced liquor and wine were used not only to aid digestion, but also as aphrodisiacs.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, amaro moved from the monasteries to the pharmacies and apothecaries of Italy, where miracle tonics were big business. Like pharmaceutical companies today, these druggists shrouded their recipes in obsessive secrecy. For example, Fernet Branca was invented by a Milanese herbalist named Bernardino Branca in the 1840s, and since that time the complete recipe of 40 herbs and spices has never been revealed. But it is known to contain rhubarb, tree bark, myrrh, chamomile, cardamom, aloe and saffron. Originally, they marketed this brew as a cure for menstrual pains.
These herbs were blended for medical efficacy, not for pleasure. I will not mince words: Fernet Branca is nasty. It tastes like the gummy paste you find between an old sneaker and its partially-detached rubber sole. As writer Nate Cavalieri memorably put it, drinking it is like being, “punched squarely in the nose while sucking on a mentholated cough drop.” The first time I tried it, I nearly spit it out. But in time you will come to tolerate its unique flavour when you begin to associate it with the opiate-like relief it brings. After a while, it tastes like Brio.
As a matter of fact, some go mad for its flavours. As a fossil from Prohibition days (when Fernet Branca was legal to sell as a medicine), it is still popular in San Francisco’s nightclubs. It is usually drunk in shots with a chaser of ginger ale. In New York City, Fernet Branca has established itself as the drink of choice for off-duty bartenders and waiters — partially because it is revivifying, but also because an ability to stomach it signifies that you are an insider. But this is nothing compared with Argentina, where Fernet Branca (mixed with Coke) has the status of a national beverage — sales there exceed 12 million litres a year. That’s about the same amount of annual sales for Ontario’s VQA wines.
However, if Fernet Branca is too vicious for your palate, there are plenty of other amari with more sweetening and less pain: Amaro Lucano, Averno and, my personal favourite, Amaro Montenegro. All of these began as family businesses based around secret recipes formulated in the 19th century. These medium amari are complex and aromatic, and acquit themselves well on their own or in a mixed drink.
Traditionally, amari are drunk neat out of a tall glass after dinner with coffee. Unlike most digestifs, they actually settle the stomach instead of merely queuing up a hangover. The custom used to be to take amaro before the coffee course, but recently it is used more and more often as an ammazzacaffè or coffee killer: a chaser that washes away coffee’s aftertaste. That’s all well and good, but it’s difficult to guess what is supposed to wash away the strong aftertaste of the bitters. A catastrophic head injury?
In any case, amaro also makes an excellent aperitif if shaken with soda water and ice. Amaro Montenegro is particularly good when mixed with San Pellegrino — the result is a refreshing fizz that tastes like an authentic root beer without any cloying sucrose.
Amaro is also becoming a popular ingredient in mixes — at least among those of us who can no longer stand the alcoholic Slurpees that are passed off as cocktails. The bite of bitters gives a drink complexity and substance. I am fond of mixologist Stevi Deter’s recipe for the Santo Spirito: 2 oz of dry gin, 1 oz of Averna Amaro, and 1/2 oz of lemon juice strained into a champagne flute with Prosecco to top. This recipe highlights the profile of the Averna, but renders it into a more approachable form for those who have not developed a taste for unvarnished bitters. It’s not unlike a very, very dirty martini.
There may be a promising future for amaro in North American cocktails, but for me, their first place will always be as a cure for hangovers and upset stomachs. I believe in holistic medicine and my credo is simple: let booze be thy medicine and medicine be thy booze.
Averna Amaro Siciliana ($24.10)
The original recipe for this heavy amaro was given to Salvatore Averna by Benedictine friars in 1859. Averna quickly established itself as the drink of choice for Italian nobility: in 1912, King Vittorio Emanuele III permitted Averna to carry the House of Savoy’s coat-of-arms. Averna has a dark, thick appearance, not unlike iodine. It is quite sweet beneath a pronounced flavour of burnt orange, burnt sugar and a little burnt rubber.
Amaro Montenegro ($23.95)
This lighter, amber-coloured amaro is named after Elena of Montenegro (1873-1952), the Queen of Italy. In an article from a 1900 edition of the New York Times, Queen Elena was described as having a face like a Byzantine Madonna but, “an expression of languor and seeming lack of initiative.” Her namesake is likewise mellow, with a pleasing blend of walnuts, cinnamon and marzipan. It is well-balanced and delicious.
Ramazotti Amaro Felsina ($22.95)
This is one of the oldest commercial amaro, dating back to 1815 when Dr Ramazzotti created this tonic in Milan. It contains sweet oranges from Sicily, bitter oranges from Curaçao, anise and oregano. The resulting brew isn’t as smoky as Averna or as candied as Amaro Montenegro, but it is more complex than either. Expect notes of lime leaf, pistachio, mint and a whiff of Vicks VapoRub. Topped with a long, tangy aftertaste.
Rossi D’Asiago Limoncello ($21)
Rossi D’Asiago’s lemon liqueur is surprisingly bitter (which is a compliment when it comes to amaro) although this is mitigated by a streak of icing sugar sweetness. There is no actual lemon juice so it is not sour — the flavour comes from lemon zest, giving it a refreshing citrus pop. This is the only amaro that really suits tonic water and ice: the resulting cocktail is perhaps the best consolation for a hot summer afternoon.