Review: Cynar 70 Liqueur

cynar 70

Cynar’s a highly-regarded classic of the amaro world. So why produce a new version of this vibrantly bitter, artichoke-infused concoction? Because they can.

Cynar 70 is designed to put the liqueur into a category alongside Jagermeister and Fernet, both bitter aperitifs but bottled at a much higher proof than Cynar or Campari, which have the same bitter approach but hit 33 and 48 proof, respectively.

We’re reviewed the 33-proof Cynar twice (here and here), and today we look at Cynar 70 in true head to head fashion, comparing it side by side against its big brother. Note: The old Cynar isn’t going away, this is just a line extension. The two 13-ingredient recipes are the same; only the alcohol level is different.

It’s amazing what a different amount of alcohol can make to a spirit. Classic Cynar is immediately bitter, with overtones of chocolate, oranges, leather, and tobacco on the nose and palate. Cynar 70, on the other hand, is restrained on the nose — dark chocolate notes hit first, lightly sweet, and not particularly bitter. That classic cinnamon note is even more evident here than in the original Cynar, making it even more engaging right at the start.

The palate of Cynar 70 continues to diverge from its forebear. The attack is not particularly bitter — a striking contradiction to the original. Here, it’s lightly sweet at first — simple sugar, some molasses, a touch of raisin character — and then it builds from there. First more herbs arrive — cinnamon and anise, along with sweeter chocolate and fresh oranges — and then that long-awaited bitterness hits at last. It has a softer entry than the slam-bang punch of classic Cynar, slowly washing over you with its herbal-orange character rather than immediately dominating the experience. That said, it does eventually hit the same bitter high as the original Cynar, gripping onto the tongue and refusing to release, proving itself as a classic and enduring amaro.

The body of Cynar 70 is much creamier, the color considerably darker. Turns out this isn’t a New Coke situation: Cynar 70 takes everything that is great about Cynar and builds upon it while showing off a few new tricks. I was skeptical at first, but it turns out I actually preferred the sweet-then-bitter structure of Cynar 70 to the original in side by side tasting. Definitely worthwhile.

70 proof.

A / $37 (1 liter) / camparigroup.com

Review: Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur

Few Anguish and RegretAnguish & Regret — what a name! — is a spin on a liqueur known as malört. Malört? It’s a liqueur introduced in the 1930s in Chicago by a Swedish immigrant who was obviously pining for his aquavit in some fashion. The name malört is Swedish for wormwood.

Today, Chicagoans still love malört, and a small cottage industry has grown up around it. Few Spirits is part of that, and while it can’t call Anguish & Regret “malört” due to legal issues, the idea is the same: A full-proof grain-originated liqueur that is floral, bittersweet, and unlike anything you’ve likely ever experienced if you don’t live in Chi-town. (The company describes it as “something like Chartreuse but without any sugar,” and that’s not wrong.)

Anguish & Regret, specifically, is an “infusion of a house-made ras al hanout Moroccan spice blend” with no sugar added — ras al hanout being akin to Moroccan curry powder. So, in a sense, curry liqueur.

Now relax a bit: Anguish & Regret does not actually taste like curry. It is, however, quite complex. The nose is sharp and pungent, highly perfumed but not particularly flowery — more grassy, with odd evergreen notes, plus bitter roots and a touch of dried cherry. The nose is closer to a contemporary gin than anything else — or maybe like walking into a Turkish rug shop.

The palate is something else entirely, with a lightly bitter, amaro-like punch up front. This quickly fades, however, revealing more of those herbal notes, which again are pungent and powerful. Here that grassy, evergreen character evolves complicated notes of cardamom, mushroom, Madeira wine, harissa, vanilla bean, and almond extract. It may be unsweetened, but some mild honey notes do come along to smooth out the finish.

All told, this is one of those spirits that gets more complicated as you dive deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. It’s not for every taste, but I found myself enjoying it as a strange spin on amaro, far more than I expected.

80 proof.

A- / $30 / fewspirits.com

Review: Amaro di Angostura

Amaro di Angostura

Bored with Fernet? Hardcore bartenders — and few other people — take things one step further: They drink Angostura bitters as a shot. (Never mind that they are not classified as a potable beverage.)

Now you needn’t be that insane to get the flavor of pure Angostura in a proper beverage, as the Trinidad-based distiller (which also makes tons of rum, of which reviews are coming soon) has released Amaro di Angostura, which adds some sugar and spice to temper the bitters’ classic pungency into something more palatable. Per the House of Angostura: “The blenders combined Angostura aromatic bitters with some neutral spirit and added more spices… until a magnificent herbal liqueur was created – the spirit, spices and bitter herbs were mixed and then left to marry for 3 months.”

Classic Angostura notes on the nose — dark cherries, root beer, cloves, and licorice. The body is far sweeter than you expect it will be (and a much different experience than tippling on Ango straight). Sweet cinnamon candies are at the forefront of the palate, then some of that licorice and root beer come along a bit later. Cherry-infused caramel sauce encompasses the finish, with a lingering, though far from overwhelming, bitterness.

Ultimately this is a far different experience than I was expecting, neither Angostura-light nor a Fernet clone, but rather a surprisingly sweet confection that makes for quite pleasant after-dinner — or anytime — sipping.

70 proof.

B+ / $27 / angostura.com

Review: Braulio Amaro Alpino

braulioBraulio’s an Italian amaro… alpino. Alpino? From the alpine mountains, which gives it a bit of a different spin than what you might be used to.

Braulio originated in 1875, and it’s created with a blend of 13 herbs. Only four are known to the public: gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The rest of the ingredients remain secret.

Well there’s definitely spearmint here (or some kind of mint, anyway), and it’d be safe to bet on cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel, all of which seem to make an appearance on the palate. The nose keeps things heavy on the mint, and the body folds that into a moderate to intense bitterness that takes you to a quite lengthy and bittersweet finish.

All in all, Braulio drinks like a traditional amaro that adds in a big, minty punch. For after-dinner sipping, it hits the right spot.

42 proof.

A- / $32 / domaineselect.com

Review: Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano Bottle ShotAmaro Lucano recently returned to U.S. shores and broader distribution here. Hailing from the small town of Pisticci in Lucania, Italy, the amaro is made from a secret blend of 30-plus herbs and essential oils.

As amari goes, Lucano has a traditional and relatively centrist profile, aptly riding the line between bitter and sweet. On the nose: raisin and prune, cloves, sour cherry, and some wine-like notes to give it a sharper edge. Quite fruity for an amaro, but with a touch of cola note. On the palate, it’s considerably deeper and more complex. More of those cola notes start things off, then comes licorice, notes of drip coffee, bitter chocolate, orange peel, and a melange of macerated and dried fruits — raisin, some fig, and a touch of rhubarb. Floral notes emerge with time and consideration — a bit of violet and lilac, both of which push you through to the moderately bitter but very lasting finish.

Lucano has plenty of complexity but manages to remain modest in sweetness as well as restrained on the bitter front. It’s a well done product, and stands as an amaro that I will certainly return to time and time again.

56 proof.

A- / $30 / amarolucano.it

Review: Amaro Montenegro

montenegroMade in Bologna, Italy, Montenegro (“the liquor of the virtues”) dates back to 1885. Amaro Montenegro is on the sweeter side of amari, with a character that folds lots of citrus, spearmint, honey, and licorice into its classic, bittersweet body. Light on its feet, it offers lightly salted caramel up front, then moves toward some subtle Madeira notes and a bit of root beer character on the finish.

Montenegro is widely considered one of the gentlest amari, and its light color and up-front sweetness bear that out. But Montenegro does have a bracing edge that showcases its bitterness well, making for a classic, cohesive amaro.

46 proof.

A- / $27 / totalbeveragesolution.com

Review: Zwack, Unicum, and Unicum Plum Liqueur

Unicum PlumFour years ago I covered a line extension from Hungary’s Zwack, which confusingly was launching for the first time a spirit called Zwack. Previously, Zwack’s sole product was the bitter Unicum, and “Zwack” was nowhere to be found on the label.

At some point Unicum left the U.S. market, leaving Zwack the company’s sole product in the line available on our shores. Now, Unicum is coming back, branded as “Zwack Unicum,” and a new spirit, Zwack Plum Liqueur, is also joining the group as a third wheel.

We first wrote about Zwack’s launch in 2009. Here’s a fresh look at the full lineup in 2013.

Zwack Unicum Liqueur – This spirit, originally crafted from more than 40 herbs and spices in 1790. Very bitter, it’s a digestif for the Fernet fan, with sweetness a distant afterthought. I compared a fresh sample with a bottle I have from 2001, and based on informal tasting, the formula does not seem to have changed. Pushing past the initial shock of bitterness, Unicum offers a heavy cinnamon note character, with orange peel beneath. Secondary notes include licorice, dark chocolate, dried herbs, and some wood, driven by the six months Unicum spends in oak barrels before bottling. This is a solid alternative to Fernet, offering its own take on the bitter liqueur without reinventing the category. 80 proof. A-

Zwack Liqueur – Alternately known as “Unicum Next” internationally, this is Unicum’s lighter-colored and far sweeter take on Unicum, clearly designed for a younger, more sweet-toothed audience. Slightly syrupy, Zwack is quite fruity, driven as I noted in my original review by cherry notes — though these are more of the cherry jelly variety than the fresh fruit. Tasting today, I also get strawberries, iced tea, and a strong, orange candy finish. It’s quite a different beast than Unicum, one which lends itself to drinking as a shot, using as a mixer, and generally appealing to a more novice drinker. That’s neither good nor bad… but it’s not Unicum. 80 proof. B+

Zwack Unicum Plum Liqueur (pictured) – Take Unicum and age it instead for six months in oak casks on a bed of dried plums (huge in Hungary) and you have Unicum Plum. The nose isn’t immediately distinguishable from Unicum, licorice and spice notes. The body is instantly familiar, but brings more fruit to the table — a Port-like prune character that helps to balance out some of Unicum’s overwhelming bitterness. If you’re looking for something somewhere in between Unicum and Zwack on the bitter to sweet spectrum, Unicum Plum may fit the bill, though I find the bitter Unicum more exciting. Note the lower alcohol level. 70 proof. B+

each $32 (1 liter bottle) / zwack.hu