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

Violet Liqueur Roundup: Creme Yvette, Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette, The Bitter Truth Violet Liqueur, and Marie Brizard Parfait Amour

Should you desire an Aviation, a Blue Moon cocktail, or a classically layered Pousse-Cafe, you’ll need one rarity in your bar: violet liqueur, a liqueur which is a lovely shade of purple and which is made, yes, from flower petals.

A staple spirit of, oh, the late 1800s, violet liqueur had long been off the market as these exotic cocktails fell out of favor — but the mixology surge of the last decade and change has brought violet liqueur back with a vengeance. Today you’ll find at least three brands vying for your attention, along with various forms of Parfait Amour, which are purple-blue in color but which mostly don’t contain violets. I have Marie Brizard’s on hand to compare to this field, though perhaps a full Parfait Amour roundup is in order down the road.

Let’s get violet!

Creme Yvette – Off the market for 40 years, this re-released expression of one of the most classic violet liqueurs is now made in France and imported by Cooper Spirits, which also owns St. Germain. It’s a blend of violets with blackberry, cassis, strawberry, and raspberry — and the only spirit in this group that does not contain artificial coloring. Port wine red in color. All that fruit does however give Yvette a heavy cough syrup character on the nose, although the body is less overpowering than the aroma would indicate. Strawberry and cassis are the dominant flavor notes, with the violets playing a secondary role. It’s a fun little collection of flavors, but if using this in a cocktail, keep in mind the extra fruit character you’ll be adding and dial down any other fruit liqueurs in the mix. 55.5 proof. B+ / $30

Rothman & Winter Creme de Violette – This is probably the most commonly encountered violet liqueur you’ll find, not just because the bottle is classy but because it is made only from violet petals and sugar, so you won’t find any fruit overtones here as you do with Creme Yvette. Brilliant purple in color. Intensely floral on the nose, with overtones of pine needles and funky dried potpourri. Gently sweet on the body, with some hospital overtones, driven perhaps by the underlying spirit, but overall it’s quite gentle but again, more focused on dried florals than fresh ones. 40 proof. B / $23

The Bitter Truth Violet Liqueur – Like Rothman’s this is a straight violet blossom liqueur, plus sugar. Similar in color to Rothman, but a bit closer to blue. Fresher, cleaner floral notes here, more distinctly violet than Rothman’s. The body again shows off that medicinal character, along with some earthiness, but the fresh violet notes manage to hang in until the end. Overall, roughly the same level of sweetness as Rothman & Winter’s, but a fresher, cleaner overall flavor. See full review here. 44 proof. A- / $30

Marie Brizard Parfait Amour – While blue-purple in color, Parfait Amour is often lumped into the violet liqueur category, but most expressions don’t contain violets at all. Rather, Parfait Amour is built on an orange-heavy base of curacao — Brizard’s is flavored with orange blossoms and vanilla. Again, a similar color to the two previous spirits, but another shade closer to blue. Aromas of fresh orange peel almost immediately take a different direction once you take a sip — toward overwhelming vanilla and almond notes, with triple sec-like orange character layering on after those more dessert-like characteristics fade. The finish finds floral elements finally emerging, and lingering on the palate for quite awhile, adding ample complexity. For a more nuanced drink, use this in lieu of blue curacao in just about anything that calls for it. 50 proof. A- / $20

Review: Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur

Hey, it’s something from Indiana that’s not whiskey from MGP! Bloomington, IN is the home to Cardinal Spirits, and Songbird Craft Coffee Liqueur is one of the company’s most noteworthy products.

What’s in the bottle? Let me allow Cardinal to explain:

Most coffee liqueurs taste one dimensional – like sugar. But ours tastes like coffee, plus all of the complementary notes you get from freshly-roasted coffee, like caramel and chocolate. That’s because we make this spirit with a ton of freshly roasted coffee from our friends/neighbors at Hopscotch Coffee in Bloomington (for our Kentucky version of this spirit, we use coffee from Good Folks roastery in Louisville). Only coffee, Bourbon vanilla beans, cane sugar and our vodka are used to make our Songbird Coffee Liqueur – no flavor extracts or coloring, ever. Here’s a video of how we make our coffee liqueur.

If you like coffee — or coffee-flavored spirits — Songbird is one to seek out. The nose is pure coffee — a real fresh-ground character that feels like a freshly-opened bag of ground beans. Lightly nutty, with overtones of vanilla and sugar, it’s not an overblown espresso but something closer to a fresh, moderate roast. The palate is sweeter than expected — one feels Songbird might have dialed the sugar back a bit; get a drop on your hands and they’ll be so sticky you need to wash them immediately — but in the end the coffee becomes the centerpiece of the experience. With that much sugar, the impact can be a bit like a Vietnamese coffee (sans the milk), but finally the body manages to overpower the sweetness quickly enough with powerful notes of nutty, lightly smoky coffee beans and some burnt caramel character.

Great stuff, and highly versatile on its own or as a cocktail ingredient.

Note: The label doesn’t note this, but Songbird can settle out quite heavily, so shake well before pouring.

49 proof.

A / $25 / cardinalspirits.com

Review: Magnum Highland Cream Liqueur

Turns out Ireland doesn’t have to have a lock on the whiskey cream industry. Introducing Magnum Highland Cream Liqueur, which is made from Speyside Scotch whiskey plus cream sourced from Holland and bottled in what is easily a lock for the best packaging of the year.

We tasted it. But first, how about a little production information:

To create this lively and premium release of Magnum, Scotch malt whisky that has been aged three years in American Oak casks in Scotland is blended with the rich, signature cream from cows that range and graze freely in farmer-owned dairy farms in Holland. The result is an elevation of cream liqueur creating, an entirely new dimension to the category.

Magnum is packaged in a 100% recyclable and reusable stainless steel canister reminiscent of a milk can.

This is a fairly traditional whiskey cream, though the switcheroo of Scotch for the usual Irish whiskey is noticeable. The nose is more butterscotch than the honey notes you typically see in Irish, filtered through a touch of nutmeg and a bit of citrus.

There’s an immediate lick of lemon and orange peel on the tongue, before the expected butterscotch, milk chocolate, vanilla, and toffee notes overtake the palate. The body is silky and creamy but not overwhelming, and unlike many cream liqueurs, it has a lasting finish that echoes not chocolate syrup but rather that citrus character, lingering on the back of the palate the way it might with a simpler Speyside malt.

It really does hang in there for the long haul. I find the only way to get rid of it is to switch to another drink or, of course, take a fresh sip of Magnum. Slightly off the beaten path but still well within the boundaries of a traditional whiskey cream, it’s definitely worth a shot for those who’ve grown tired of Baileys.

34 proof.

B+ / $26 / magnumcreamliqueur.com

Review: Ancho Reyes Verde Chile Poblano Liqueur

Ancho Reyes was our liqueur of the year in 2014. But given the range of chile peppers out there, it was only a matter of time before a follow-up came out. The obvious line extension: Pivot from red ancho chiles to green poblanos and release Ancho Reyes Verde Poblano Liqueur.

This is perhaps a more obvious shift than you might think, as the ancho chile is merely a dried poblano, so with this liqueur really we’re just skipping a step. Here the poblanos are merely roasted, giving the liqueur a different foundation.

The bottle is bright green but the spirit itself is a light greenish-brown hue, much less striking than, say, the psychedelically-colored Midori, but still green enough to make a bit of a statement in the glass.

On the nose, it really does come across like straight up poblano pepper, lightly charred and pungent with the unmistakeable aroma of a plate of cheese-loaded chile rellenos. (Chiles relleno? What do I know?)

It’s got some sweetness on the palate to help cut the intensely vegetal note driven by the poblano, but that sugar is quickly tempered by some orangey citrus notes and a reprise of that increasingly intense poblano chile character. The finish is spicy but not overwhelmingly hot, though the peppery spiciness lingers on the tongue for the better part of a minute.

While the original Ancho Reyes works well on its own, Ancho Verde isn’t so lucky, and it really needs the right cocktail to shine, as the green chile character quickly overwhelms the palate without context. I know the right vehicle for this unique product is out there — though to be honest, I’m still looking for it.

80 proof.

B+ / $30 / anchoreyes.com

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

Review: Kahlua Liqueur

In the last 10 years we’ve reviewed nine special edition releases of Kahlua, but never the original “rum and coffee liqueur” from Mexico. That changes today, with this very belated look at one of the staples of classic mixology.

The inky black liqueur offers a nose of well-sweetened coffee, but also offers notes of raw alcohol, driven by what must be a very young rum. Let it fade and tuck into the palate, which shows off fruity coffee notes, some dried figs and prunes, and a finish of roasted walnuts.

Kahlua is quite sweet, particularly as the finish arrives, which has a bit of a Port-like, fortified-wine character to it. The oiliness that’s left on the palate as it fades away is a reminder more of the rum and the sugar in the mix, rather than anything to do with the coffee component.

That said: The dude abides.

40 proof.

B / $17 / kahlua.com

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