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Bitter Is Better

As amaro’s popularity soars, local distillers give it a distinctly Bay Area flavor.


A Potent Pour
Oakland Spirits Co.’s J.C. Mars is one of a new crop of amari distilled in the Bay Area.

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From left: Gentian Amaro, Bruto Americano, J.C. Mars, and Fernet Francisco. 

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At St. George Spirits in Alameda, master distiller Lance Winters makes a liqueur called Bruto Americano, which translates loosely from Italian as “crass American.” Though the name wasn’t originally intended as a reference to the president-elect (it is now), Winters likes to think it will provoke a similar response. 

“It gives people a pretty good excuse to drink,” he says. 

Bruto’s bitterness likewise isn’t a nod to the political climate. It means that it’s an amaro, St. George’s contribution to a broad category of Italian-inspired spirits whose shared trait is a willingness to bite. Like most amari, Bruto derives from a witches’ brew of herbs and aromatics, in this case including gentian root, oranges, balsam fir, and the bark of the California buckthorn tree. Its crimson tint comes from the scales of the cochineal beetle, the same colorant that Campari used before switching to artificial dye. Prior to releasing the amaro this past spring, Winters thought of calling it Suco di Insetto (bug juice), but he settled for a label that alluded cheekily to his and distilling partner Dave Smith’s motivations. “The idea was that we were these kind of unorthodox Americans, riffing on a traditional Italian spirit,” he says.

Winters and Smith were also tapping into trending regional tastes. These, after all, are bitter times, and not just at Bay Area bars and restaurants, where bracing liqueurs like Fernet-Branca, Lucano, and Averna have exchanged their cultish standing for a place on a growing number of cocktail menus. Local distillers have also gotten into the spirit (so to speak), churning out amari with a distinctly NorCal twist. 

In Uptown Oakland last month, Oakland Spirits Co. founder Adam Nelson debuted his first batch of amaro, Oakland Aero Club, a bright, complex liqueur distilled with coastal sage and myrrh and embittered by yarrow and wild artichoke leaves. Recently, Lo-Fi Aperitifs, whose products are bottled in Napa, launched a chardonnay-and-muscat-based gentian amaro using grapes from E. & J. Gallo Winery and drawing on input from brand consultant Claire Sprouse, a partner in San Francisco’s Tin Roof Drink Community. These local amari join a list that also includes the San Francisco–made Fernet Francisco, a rhubarb-infused Fernet-Branca riff that first hit local shelves last year.

“There’s almost a Wild West spirit to today’s amaro making,” says Brad Thomas Parsons, a spirits writer whose book Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs was published in October. “People are taking the tradition into different territory, looking for a fresh sense of place.”

One of the defining characteristics of amaro is a lack of rigid definitions, not to mention an absence of rules and regulations. Unlike other Italian-born products like parmigiano reggiano and balsamic vinegar, “amaro” is not a protected designation; anyone, anywhere, can make it. Almost nothing is off-limits for steeping or maceration: Seeds, spices, citrus peel, roots, and tree bark are all fair game. Embittering ingredients vary widely, as does the strength of the liqueurs, which range from palate tinglers to concoctions almost harsh enough to pass as turpentine.

Customs around amaro are similarly fluid. The liqueur’s role as a digestif traces centuries back to medieval monasteries where monks made bitter tonics as elixirs. And yet the strict traditionalist’s insistence that amaro is not amaro if it’s not served after dinner runs up against the fact that it’s now often poured as an aperitif. 

At cocktail hour of late, Lance Winters has been favoring his spin on a spritz, a mix of soda water and Bruto Americano splashed over crushed ice with a twist. But he’s also been downing a fair number of Negronis, replacing Campari with his own amaro, which, he’s quick to add, also works for him as a digestif. “I really don’t believe there’s any right or wrong,” he says. “And besides, in the end, we’re Californians, so we’re pretty much going to drink the stuff whenever we want.”

Gentian Amaro
Part of the fascination with old-world amari is the veil of secrecy surrounding them. But Lo-Fi Aperitifs’ Gentian Amaro is not an old-world spirit. “We try to be pretty California about things and tell people all the ingredients straight out,” says Claire Sprouse, Lo-Fi’s brand consultant. Whenever she presides over a tasting, Sprouse is quick to point out that Lo-Fi works in partnership with E. & J. Gallo Winery. It’s a gesture of transparency meant in part to counter the big-is-bad stigma that permeates much of the cool-kid cocktail market. And for the record, those ingredients include gentian root, cinchona bark, grapefruit, orange oil, and hibiscus flowers.

Bruto Americano
Master distiller Lance Winters spent three years tinkering with Bruto Americano before settling on a recipe that he felt adequately evoked the region. Of the 14 aromatics that made the final cut, the clincher was California buckthorn bark; for Winters, its hints of sandalwood and cinnamon awakened memories of the incense his parents lit during his Bay Area childhood.

J.C. Mars
$32, check for retailers
Working in a genre unbound by many strictures, Oakland Spirits Co. founder Adam Nelson felt free to roam. One place he wandered was the Mendocino coast, where a bitter, floral, sweet, and herbal symphony of scents served as an inspiration for his amaro. The liqueur he created mingles elements of old-world amari even as it captures a new-world sense of place. Like Cynar, a classic Italian spirit, it draws much of its bitterness from artichoke leaves. But Nelson also uses myrrh, a key component of fernet. Peppercorns add pluck, while coastal sage picks up on the grassy perfumes Nelson noted on his hike up north.

Fernet Francisco
The average hipster barfly is apt to tell you that some 70 percent of the Fernet-Branca consumed in this country gets poured in San Francisco. Just don’t ask him how he came upon this information: It’s a well-spread tale with murky evidence to support it. What is clear is that the liqueur and the city have a history, and that Fernet Francisco aims to build upon it. The first fernet produced in the Bay Area, it’s made with a medley of named and unnamed aromatics including spearmint, chamomile, and bay laurel, with rhubarb imparting a hefty bite. Though it’s bracing, it’s not as battery-acid bitter as the original.


Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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