Artichoke, rhubarb and truffle aren’t exactly the first ingredients that come to mind when we think about building our next cocktail. And yet, these unlikely vegetables are the bases for a number of amari, bitter Italian digestivos that are starting to appear, not only as after-dinner options, but also on the country’s best cocktail lists.
How did we get here? Well, we have to give some credit to the Negroni, which opened North American palates to the possibility of bitter, even though many don’t include Campari, the cocktail’s most distinctive ingredient, in the amaro family. Still, given the creative spirit prevailing in the cocktail world, it didn’t take long for bartenders to put their own spin on that classic concoction. At Vancouver’s L’Abattoir, for example, head bartender Shaun Layton started playing around with a Negroni variant made with Campari, Aperol and Fernet Branca — that last ingredient being one of the sharpest amaros around and, incidentally, an industry favourite.
“The movement is definitely being fuelled by the bartenders drinking it and suggesting it to the patrons,” says Layton. “People ask for it in a cocktail and, increasingly, instead of having a sweet dessert coffee, they’ll have an amaro after dinner, too.”
As such, the category has exploded, even here in Canada, despite our access to only a fraction of the hundreds of varietals available in Italy. There, amaros are divided into styles — carciofo (artichoke-based), tartufo (truffle), rabarbaro (rhubarb) and alpino (herbal) to name a few — and are commonly drunk after dinner, to aid with digestion. Some styles of digestivo are more popular in some regions than others. My own personal favourite, a sweet and light rabarbaro called Zucca, is big in Milan.
Although I have to max out my duty-free allowance to get my fix of Zucca, many great digestivos have actually been on Canadian shelves for some time, especially in areas with large Italian-Canadian populations. Cynar (an artichoke-based carciofo) has been in Southern Ontario seemingly forever — albeit in small quantities — something that Dave Mitton of Toronto’s The Harbord Room counts on, since he almost always has one or two cocktails on his menu that rely heavily on Cynar. Mitton loves the rich, full flavour balanced out with the herbal notes, and he uses it to add layers to heavy spirit-forward drinks.
In addition, Mitton recommends using it at home in a simple, light Cynar Sour, pointing out that, at 16 per cent ABV, this carciofo is practically a temperance drink. Says Mitton: “You can go ahead and have a couple of these and not wind up on the floor.”