Book Review: Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs

Brad Thomas Parsons is no stranger to bitter herbal liqueurs. He took the craft cocktail scene by storm with his 2011 book Bitters: A Spirited History Of A Classic Cure All, and taught the common drinker how to properly use those little brown bottles behind the bar. Not happy with showing only one side of the spectrum, he now delves into drinkable bitters in his new book Amaro: A Spirited History Of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs. It is a guide to the complex area of aperitifs, fernets, and herbal based spirits that explains how these once medicinal tonics have become some of the most consumed alcoholic beverages around the world.

Parsons first explores the origins of these pungent beverages, which can be traced back to the medieval age where monks and friars were experimenting with the restorative powers of herbs and other botanicals. In preparation for the large list of examples in the book,  a short course on how to appreciate the various styles goes over the many ways one can drink them. The list itself is broken into sub-categories for ease of reference, and includes plenty of tasting notes, exploratory histories, and information about ingredients and recipes.

A large section of the book focuses on the vast amount of cocktails being made with these restorative tonics around the world. The negroni and other classic amaro-based drinks are covered, as well as a whole series of modern-day concoctions that include spirits such as mezcal and single malt whisky. Parsons also injects his own musings and stories into the descriptions of the 91 individual recipes that explain the inspiration behind many of them.

The book ends with a do it yourself section that explains the finer points of making your own amaro at home, and a how to guide for using herbal liqueurs in the kitchen. The DIY portion offers four seasonally inspired recipes that are easy to follow, and mimic different styles of amari. Parsons walks the reader through some of the uncommon ingredients and the best way to acquire them, and discusses the materials you will need and some different techniques to use. The kitchen section offers several amaro-based recipes that focus on dessert items, which plays towards the digestif aspect of these liqueurs and shows the versatility their flavors have to offer. Many of the ingredients are easy to find, and the instructions are simple to follow, which allows the reader to play around with different styles of amari.

Overall, this book is a wonderful introduction to the world of herbal liqueurs. Parsons guides the reader through a dizzying amount of information that demystifies the complex world of amaro, and describes the best ways to enjoy them. He also provides a human element throughout the book that pulls the reader into the lives of those that make and enjoy these eclectic beverages, and sets it apart from a typical cocktail recipe guide.

A / $26 / BUY IT NOW FROM AMAZON

Tasting Report: Tre Bicchieri Italian Wines 2017

It’s hard to believe but it’s been a long four years since I’ve attended Tre Bicchieri, a celebration of the best Italian wines as judged by Gambero Rosso, a massive trade group that is pretty much the final word in fine Italian wine.

Tre Bicchieri, or “three glasses,” is the highest rating the group offers in its annual judging, after which the winners hit the road and us lucky Americans get to try the wines — some of which are not even imported here. Thoughts from the San Francisco tasting follow, along with some mini reviews of wines tasted at Henry Wine Group’s pre-Tre Bicchieri event, which included both winners and non-winners, as well as some Italian spirits, which are not part of the Tre Bicchieri program.

Quick thoughts on everything tasted follow.

Tasting Report: Tre Bicchieri 2017

2012 Vite Colte Barolo del Comune di Barolo Essenze / A- / approachable, with clear vanilla notes
2013 Tenuta Il Falchetto Barbera d’Asti Sup. Bricco Paradiso / A- / well-rounded, strawberry and spice notes
2015 Tenuta Il Falchetto Barbera d’Asti Pian Scorrone / B / very fruity, heavily extracted berry notes
2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Amarone della Valpolicella Campo dei Gigli / B+ / more fruit than a typical Amarone; fades to notes of vanilla and ginger
2012 Brandini Barolo Resa 56 / A- / classic structure, dense fruit and spice
2011 Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barolo Liste / A / a powerhouse of dense tannin, licorice and spice; dark chocolate; very long finish
2012 Casa E. di Mirafiore Barolo Paiagallo Casa E. di Mirafiore / B+ / earthier, with tannic grip; approachable but at the expense of longevity
2012 Velenosi Rosso Piceno Sup. Roggio del Filare / A- / heavy barnyard nose; dense fruit beneath
2012 Velenosi Offida Rosso Ludi / B+ / very fresh fruit; some light vegetal notes on the finish
2013 Colle Massari Bolgheri Rosso Sup. Grattamacco   / B / somewhat astringent
2011 Colle Massari Brunello di Montalcino  / B+ / similar to the above; meaty and extracted
2013 Poggio al Tesoro Bolgheri Sup. Sondraia / A- / hugely tannic, dense and powerful; a slow emergence of fruit
2012 Poggio al Tesoro Dedicato a Walter / B+ / cabernet franc; traditional and chewy, with lingering tannin
2012 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. / A- / bold and heavy with cherry; chewy with lightly dried fruit
2013 Allegrini Palazzo della Torre / B+ / bold fruit, raisin, and cherry notes
2013 Allegrini La Grola / B+ / heavy corvina here; workaday bottling that works well
2011 Donnafugata Contessa Entellina Milleunanotte / A- / punchy, with lots of earthy tannins
2013 Ornellaia Bolgheri Sup. Ornellaia / A- / lush and unctuous, loaded with layers of depth
2014 Ornellaia Bolgheri Rosso Le Serre Nuove / A / this second label is drinking better than its big brother today, balancing fruit and tannin with a focus on fresh berries
2013 Giulio Accornero e Figli Barbera del M.to Sup. Bricco Battista / A- / very bright, nice acidity and fruit
2013 Donna Olimpia 1898 Bolgheri Rosso Sup. Millepassi / A / outstanding – chocolate and spice in a lush body that’s ready to go but will drink well for years
2011 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. Vaio Armaron Serego Alighieri / A- / aged in cherry wood casks, and you can taste it along with vanilla, spices, and baked fruits
2011 Masi Amarone della Valpolicella Cl. Costasera Riserva / A / a beauty – layers of fruit and dark spices abound
2012 Masi Fojaneghe Rosso Bossi Fedrigotti / A- / a new wine from Masi; bold and spicy, with cinnamon notes
2013 Podere Sapaio Bolgheri Rosso Sup. / A- / menthol and mint up front, then tannins; chocolate and vanilla on the finish; lots of longevity here
2014 Settesoli Sicilia Mandrarossa Cartagho / B+ / very concentrated; black and blueberry notes meet chocolate and vanilla
2012 G. D. Varja Barolo Bricco delle Viole / A- / huge fruit, some bacon notes, finish of drying spices
2012 G. D. Varja Barolo Baudana / A- / similar notes, light on its feet; dustier finish
2015 G. D. Varja Langhe Riesling / B+ / quite refreshing, honey and lemon notes are heavy
2013 Marchesi Antinori Tignanello / A- / earthy nose, bold fruit underneath
2013 Marchesi Antinori Chianti Cl. Marchese Antinori Ris. / B+ / drinking tight today; some astringency
2014 Rocca di Frassinello Maremma Toscana Baffo Nero / A- / pretty florals, lush fruit
2011 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano / B+ / bold and chewy with heavy licorice notes
2011 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino 25 Anni / B / overwhelming tannin, core of cocoa and prune
2012 Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino 25 Anni / B- / similar, with a funkier edge to it
2015 Pala I Flori Verminton di Sardegna DOC / B / very dry, quite herbal; some dialed-back blackberry notes in time (95% cab franc)
2015 Cantina Terlano Classico DOC / A- / fresh, with lots of fruit and herbs
2015 San Salvatore Falanghina Campania IGP / A- / nice acidity, fresh citrus notes
2006 Movia Puro Rose / B+ / 100% sparkling rose of pinot noir; made completely naturally and bottled on the lees; disgorged underwater, upside down, to remove the cap; a wild ride of sour fruit with a touch of mushroom [see photo at right]
2008 Movia Lunar 8 Ribolla / A- / slightly sour, some funkiness
2014 Movia Ribolla / A- / fresh and tropical
2013 Movia Pinot Grigio / B / light on its feet, lots of honey notes
2015 Cos Pithos Bianco / B+ / new world in style, green apple is strong
2014 Movia Sauvignon Blanc / A- / a real eye-opener, with notes of gunpowder, mint, and grapefruit peel
2014 Suavia Monte Carbonare Soave Classico / A / super fresh tropical notes; mango, slightly sweet
2010 Castellare I Sodi San Niccolo / A / fresh and floral, lots of berries with immense depth
2011 Castellare I Sodi San Niccolo / A+ / gorgeous with its supple fruit, layers of earthiness lending beautiful balance
2011 Il Marroneto Brunello di Mont Selezione Madonna / A / soft and pretty, velvety tannins
2013 Orma / B+ / more fruit focused, a bit jammy
2012 Monchiero Carbone Roero Riserva Printi / B / a bruiser, quite tart and overpowering
2009 Ceretto Barolo Bricco Rocche / B+ / softer than I expected, with fading tannin
2015 Fattoria Del Cerro Chianti Colli Sensei / B / very simple
2015 Fattoria Del Cerro Rosso di Montepulciano / B / notes of tea leaf and coffee
2013 Fattoria Del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano / B / classically structured
2012 Fattoria Del Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva / A- / a solid upgrade to the standard bottling; powerful
2011 Colpetrone Rosso di Montefalco / C /
2010 Colpetrone Sagrantino Montefalco / B /
2014 La Poderina Rosso di Montefalco / A- / clear earthy notes, bold and powerful
2011 La Poderina Brunello di Montalcino  / A- / licorice, cloves, dark fruits galore
2010 La Poderina Brunello di Montalcino “Poggio Abate” / A / mint, intense cocoa, gunpowder, and leather; long finish
2013 Tenuta San Leonardo Terre di San Leonardo / B+ / soft, easygoing, nice grip with some leather notes
2009 Tenuta San Leonardo “Vila Gresti” Merlot / A- / fresh violets, raspberry notes
2010 Tenuta San Leonardo Carmenere / A- / expressive, loaded with tart fruit
2010 Tenuta San Leonardo “San Leonardo” / A / bold and subtly earthy, with tobacco notes; epic length
2008 Tenuta San Leonardo “San Leonardo” / A / barely softening up; on point

Spirits/Vermouth

Sibona Barolo Grappa / B+ / 2 years in barrel; lots of grip, quite spicy, with black pepper notes
Sibona Port Aged Grappa / B / a letdown, quite flowery
Santa Maria Amaro / B+ / unctuous and bittersweet with cocoa and caramel notes
Poli Cleopatra / B+ / grappa of moscato, aged one year; perfumed with peaches and lingering florals
Del Professore Vermouth / A- / great citrus tones, spicy with cola and wonderful depth
Varnelli Amaro Dell Erborista / A- / unfiltered; all estate-made, sweetened with honey; unique and worthwhile
Varnelli Amaro Sibilla / A- / very fruity; bit bitter finish with lingering chocolate

Drinkhacker’s 2016 Holiday Gift Guide – Best Alcohol/Spirits for Christmas

Our ninth year is under our belt, and that means our ninth annual installment of the Drinkhacker holiday gift guide — our “best stuff of the year awards” — is here. As always, the list gives you the lowdown on some of the best-rated products we reviewed over the last 12 months, with at least some eye toward availability and affordability. (Though, as you’ll see, some selections can cost a pretty penny…)

As always, the offerings below comprise a small selection of our favorite wines and spirits from the last year, and there are many other worthwhile products on the market worth considering. Feel free to sound off in the comments with suggestions for alternatives or questions about other categories or types of beverages that might be perfect for gifting.

Again, happy holidays to all of you who have helped to make Drinkhacker one of the most popular wine and spirits websites on the Internet! We look forward to providing our guidance on the world of wine, beer, and spirits as we begin our 10th year on the web and approach our 5,000th post! Stay tuned for the appropriate festivities come the big anniversary in September 2017.

And don’t forget, for more top gift ideas check out the archives and read our 2015201420132012201120102009, and 2008 holiday guides.

of-1920-rendering-jpegBourbon – Old Forester Whiskey Row Series – 1920 Prohibition Style Bourbon ($60)  As inventory pressures continue to pound bourbon country, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find solid “giftable” bourbon bottlings on the market. Rarities like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection sell out before they ever hit shelves. This year I’m naming to my top pick something that you ought to have more luck finding, but which is just as good as anything else out there: Old Forester’s most recent Whiskey Row expression, meant to mimic bourbon made during its “medicinal” Prohibition days. Other top tipples: Col. E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood ($70 on release, $500+ now), Blood Oath Pact No. 2 ($100), Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection Brandy Cask Finish ($100, often available for less), and, for the budget-minded, 1792 High Rye Bourbon ($36).

Scotch – Compass Box The Circus ($300) – You want to wow your loved one this year? Give them The Circus, a blend that comes complete with its own infographic outlining all the whiskies inside. It’s a complex but truly outstanding whisky worth every penny. Other top picks for 2016 aren’t going to come cheap, including Chivas Regal Ultis ($200), The Glenlivet Single Cask Edition Pullman Water Level Route ($350), Chieftain’s Linkwood 1997 17 Years Old Oloroso Sherry Finish ($90), and your best bet for an easier-to-find bottling, Glenmorangie Milsean ($130 on release but easy to find for $100 or less).

Other Whiskey – Booker’s Rye “Big Time Batch” ($300 on release) – You know who nailed it this year? Jim Murray! The crazed whiskey critic is known for his outlandishly goofy “best of the year’ picks, but he hit it perfectly with his pick of the first ever release of Booker’s Rye. The bad news: It was already a cult hit, and whatever’s left on the market is going to cost you at least $600 a bottle. More sensible options include Redemption Aged Barrel Proof Straight Rye 8 Years Old ($90), High West’s latest release of Bourye ($80), and Clyde May’s Alabama Style Whiskey Special Reserve 110 Proof ($70), which is lightly flavored with apples in the “Alabama style.”

oregonbarrelagedginbottleworkGin – Big Bottom Oregon Gin Finished in Oak Whiskey Barrels ($38) – We’ve been drowning in gin this year, which means there’s plenty of solid and unique bottlings to choose from on the market. My top pick is this one from our pals at Big Bottom, which is aged solera-style and is perfect for wintertime sipping thanks to a fun holiday spice character. For unaged expressions, check out Graton Distilling D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin ($40) or Spain’s Gin Mare ($38).

Vodka  Stolichnaya Elit Vodka ($47)  It’s more than just a fancy bottle; Stoli Elit is very good vodka, too. Beyond that, check out Vikre Lake Superior Vodka ($35) or Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom Vodka ($35), one of the best citrus vodkas around.

Rum – Angostura Caribbean Rum 1824 12 Years Old ($60)  Great rum needn’t break the bank. Angostura 1824 is a top-notch 12 year old with all kinds of versatility. Plantation Rum Extra Old 20th Anniversary ($43) and Ron Zacapa 23 ($48) both make for awesome alternatives.

martell-blue-swift-largeBrandy – Martell Blue Swift ($50) – Martell wasn’t the first to put brandy into whiskey barrels to develop a more sophisticated, deeper flavor, but it is doing the best at it at the moment. This expression is gorgeous and cheap when it comes to Cognac. Another great, budget option is Gilles Brisson’s VSOP, a steal at $35. For the other direction, consider Hardy Noces d’Albatre “Rosebud” ($2250), one of the most exquisite sips I had this year.

Tequila – Tequila Herradura Seleccion Suprema Extra Anejo ($340) – Tons of great tequila hit this year, but I have to give the nod to Herradura and its extra anejo bottling of Seleccion Suprema, a luscious experience that every tequila lover needs to try. A smattering of top agave alternatives across the price board includes Pasote Reposado ($59), Mezcalero Release #16 Don Valente Angel Mezcal ($96), Milagro Tequila Select Barrel Reserve Anejo ($100), and Asombroso Ultrafino The Collaboration Barrel 1 ($2500).

cynar 70Liqueur – Cynar 70 ($37/1 liter) – Cynar gets a proof upgrade and a flavor boost in this new edition, which I think is an even better rendition of this classic amaro. I also can’t stop raving about Grand Poppy ($30), another amaro. Iichiko Bar Fruits Yuzu Liqueur ($11/375ml) is also highly worth picking up, as is Few Spirits Anguish & Regret Liqueur ($30), a unique spiced liqueur.

Wine  A smattering of giftable picks for the wine-lover in your life, with California showing incredibly strongly in 2016.

Need another custom gift idea (or have a different budget)? Drop me a line or leave a comment here and I’ll offer my best advice!

Looking to buy any of the above? Give Caskers and Master of Malt a try!

Review: Brodsky Herbal Flavored Whiskey

BrodskyHerbalFlavoredWhiskeyImage

Here’s a crazy concept. A Stamford, Connecticut medical doctor with Eastern European heritage decided to distill, age, and bottle his own herbal-flavored whiskey as a spin on the digestif/amaro formula. Brodsky, aka “The Original Brodsky,” is a wild idea that is frankly unlike any other whiskey you’ve had — or even any amaro, really — but I’ll let the creators of the spirit describe it:

Brodsky Flavored Herbal Whiskey is infused with 8 botanicals traditionally used to promote digestion. Brodsky Whiskey takes the Eastern European health remedy approach of using bitter flavoring in spirits, predominantly dandelion, as a digestif. It has no sugar added nor any ingredients other than whiskey made in the Bourbon style, specifically, mash greater than 51% corn, distilled to 160 proof in Connecticut. The distillate is cold soaked with a bag of 8 organic botanicals which were traditionally used for their “medicinal” properties to help digestion. All botanicals are removed after 1 week, and the distillate is aged 18 months in used bourbon barrels. Future batches will be produced in new bourbon barrels and aged 2 years. The whiskey is bottled from a single barrel, uncut and unfiltered at barrel proof at 100 proof.

If you like bitter spirits — and I mean bitter spirits — you’re going to love Brodsky. Everyone else, read on.

The nose is almost innocuous, with notes of cinnamon, vanilla, and orange peel. The alcohol is evident on the nose, but not overpowering. On the palate, it’s a whole different story. The body starts off with a quick hit of citrus, but the fruit is washed away almost immediately by heavy, overpowering, tongue-disintegrating bitterness. Triple down on Fernet and you’re in the ballpark, though here the flavors lean toward licorice, tree bark, and raw cloves. This lingers — scorching the palate with alcohol and attacking the mouth with raw, bitter notes and some intense, peppery heat — before finally a touch of relief arrives in the form of pure cinnamon notes.

The decision to create this spirit with no sweetness whatsoever is a bold one, but even as an avowed amaro fan, I find it difficult to drink much Brodsky on its own. Then again, those lunatic bartenders who have become accustomed to doing shots of straight Angostura bitters may find this a breath of fresh air. Tread lightly.

100 proof.

C+ / $40 / facebook.com/originalbrodsky

Review: Grand Poppy Liqueur

Los Angeles-based Greenbar Distillery is the home of TRU organic vodka, Crusoe rums, and Bar Keep bitters… plus this truly unique product, a bitter liqueur made (in part) from poppies.

Distilled from molasses a la rum, the finished product has quite a list of odd botanicals inside, including California poppy, orange, lemon, grapefruit, bearberry, California bay leaf, pink peppercorn, dandelion, blessed thistle, burdock, rue, artichoke, gentian, geranium, and cherry bark. The spirit is sweetened with cane sugar before bottling. Of special note, all of the ingredients (including the molasses) in the spirit are organic.

The nose offers an essence of lightly sweetened tea plus a smattering of savory herbs, including cloves, mint, mown grass, mixed florals, and a hint of tobacco. The palate sweetens the tea up a lot, at least up front, giving it a brown sugar/molasses spin before settling into heavier notes of more straightforward, earthy black tea. It takes some time for this all to fade and for the enchanting finish to emerge, which offers heady notes of jasmine, more florals, and a gentle but chewy and enduring gentian-driven bitterness reminiscent of a milder amaro.

What elevates Grand Poppy over, say, a typical bittersweet liqueur, is how beautifully all of these flavors come together, moving from sweet to floral to bitter, ending on a pretty combination of all of the above. Grand Poppy is hardly a household name but, well, here’s hoping this helps it become one.

40 proof.

A- / $30 / greenbar.biz

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

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