These are strange times in the spirits world.
Studies show that younger generations aren’t drinking as much hard liquor as they used to, wary of losing control and having their foibles forever archived on social media. Vodka and beer sales are down: last month, Molson Coors announced it would cut approximately 500 jobs and swap “brewing” out of its official company name in favor of “beverage.” Meanwhile, funky, earthy, unfiltered natural wine is trending, the market for low or no alcohol beverages is expected to grow 32% by 2022, and people can’t stop talking about a subject formerly considered unsavory: gut health.
All of this suggests that a beverage invented around the time of Hippocrates is poised to have a moment: amaro, an Italian herbal liqueur. Formerly made by monks and sold in apothecaries, amaro is traditionally consumed after dinner because of its purported ability to aid digestion, although modern regulatory boards being what they are, labels aren’t allowed to make that claim anymore.
“In the past, the label would say, ‘good for a cough, good for digestion, good for everything,’” says Matteo Bonoli, the master herbalist of Amaro Montenegro, an amaro brand founded in 1885. “Now, we can’t say that it’s good for you, but when I drink it, my first reaction is feeling better.”
Amari (plural for amaro) come in many forms: sweet, bitter, citrusy, spicy; some more alcoholic (up to 40% ABV, or alcohol by volume, akin to vodka) many less (as low as 15% ABV). Each brand of amaro is made with a proprietary blend of herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables—they’re the building blocks of the beverage, what grapes are to wine.
Anyone who’s been in a dive bar after dark has likely encountered one of the more alcoholic, bitter, menthol-tinged varieties of amaro: Fernet-Branca, the shot of choice for bartenders and chefs because of its supposed hangover-slaying powers. But amaro’s use cases go far beyond a late night shot. “Of course it is great after dinner as a digestif,” says Bonoli, “but we think new consumers should know that it’s just as good as an aperitif, before a meal, or even on its own.”
On its own, Amaro Montenegro tastes like a freshly baked cherry pie in front of a roaring fire: there’s dark fruit, vanilla, wood, and spice. None of these appear on the list of ingredients on Amaro Montenegro’s bell shaped bottle, which amounts to one line (“made from 40 botanicals”) and a brief explanation about a secret recipe being “jealously handed down through the generations.”
Secrecy still reigns at the company’s headquarters in Bologna, Italy, the hometown of Amaro Montenegro’s founder, Stanislao Cobianchi, who shirked his family (they wanted him to go into the priesthood) to pursue his passions for chemistry and alchemy. As a teenager, Cobianchi boarded a ship and traveled around the world, collecting ingredients that he thought might make the perfect amaro. Where did he go? What did he collect? Bonoli can’t quite say.
“We can only share 13 ingredients,” he says, opening a box that contains little jars of cinnamon, nutmeg, marjoram, and other stuff relatively easy to find at the supermarket. “They’re not so exciting.” He pulls out a jar of oregano. “This is a specific variety of oregano. If you go to the supermarket, you cannot find it.” Where is it from? “I can’t tell you.”
The recipe for Amaro Montenegro is so closely held that no one person knows the entire thing—the 40 ingredients that go into the bottle are boiled, macerated, and distilled at a facility in southern Italy, and the people who work there aren’t allowed to talk to their Bologna co-workers. Bonoli, who has a PhD in food science, reports daily to a “secret room” above the main, stainless steel tank-lined production area to taste extracts of ingredients and amaro in various stages: unfiltered, before and after bottling. (It takes nine months to go from a pile of botanicals to the finished product.)
In the research and development lab, a linoleum floored space with smaller tanks and glass beakers, there’s a two door refrigerator with a chain threaded through the handles and a padlock; on the frame of the fridge, there are two more locks. “This refrigerator contains the five botanicals used in the premio,” the essence of Amaro Montenegro, what bullion is to soup, he says. “I have one key, my boss has another key, and a member of the Cobianchi family has the third key. We have to coordinate if we want to open it.”
The secrecy around what goes into the bottle recalls the surprise hype culture that governs how some artists (see: Beyoncé) release new material these days. It also sets the brand apart from a more well known amari: Aperol, now a household name thanks to a robust marketing campaign by its parent company, Campari Group, that turned the Aperol spritz into the pumpkin spice latte of cocktails, both basic and ubiquitous.
“The fact that people are interested in Aperol shows that there’s an appetite for that slightly herbal flavor,” says Edith Hancock, an editor of The Drinks Business, a trade publication. “Most other amari are more bitter and less sweet, which, if anything, is going to be more appealing to consumers over time, because there’s a lot of concern about the sugar content of alcohol and of beverages in general.”
Keen on getting consumers to see amari in a new light, at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans, Amaro Montenegro challenged eight of the country’s top bartenders to come up with new ways of enjoying the liqueur. (The winning cocktail incorporated pomegranate and lavender—antioxidants, relaxing herbs, and a possible digestive aid, all in one drink.) But Bonoli favors a different recipe that may be even more appealing to the youth. “Red Bull and Amaro Montenegro,” he says. “Two fingers of amaro, two fingers of Red Bull. I love it.”
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