Amari, Vermouths, and Quinquinas - Part 1 of 2

by Charley Zimmerman

Developing this year's cocktail list, the bar team at Old Vines turned to three categories of spirits that remain unfamiliar and misunderstood to the cocktail-consuming world: amaro, vermouth, and quinquina.

This month, we will take a look at each, to help break down the mystery of these deliciously nuanced spirits. 


Amaro is a bittersweet, herbal liqueur that derives its name from the Italian word for "bitter." Amaro is made by infusing a neutral, distilled spirit with a mixture of herbs, roots, barks, spices, fruit peels, and botanicals. Amari can be composed of more common ingredients, such as cardamom, chamomile, cinnamon, citrus peel, fennel, ginger, and licorice, or they can contain less known ingredients like artichoke, bay laurel, cinchona, gentian root, saffron, quasi wood, and wormwood. 

Not all Amari are exclusively bitter. Some can be rather sweet upfront, with a pleasant underlying bitterness, while some can be so bitter as to taste almost medicinal -- and although that may sound disagreeable, it would fit with Amari's history. Created in monasteries and abbeys throughout ancient Italy, Amari was believed to have restorative properties, and was thought to even have protection against evil or plagues. Considering their range of ingredients, this thinking doesn't seem too outlandish (at least, the medicinal part). Amari is typically served as a digestivo, an after dinner drink. With its low alcohol content, a small amount is believed to have medicinal benefits in aiding digestion after a large meal. While there may not be any exact science to back that up, it's worth taking a shot. 

Amari varies widely in its range of styles, and there are hundreds of different kinds out there. Here at Old Vines we have five favorites that we keep on hand at all times. Ranging from sweetest to most bitter, they are:

Montenegro Amaro: The most palatable of the Amaro we stock, Montenegro is characterized by the sweetness of tangerine, held up by coriander, vanilla, and cinnamon. While sweet at first, the lingering finish is balanced by bitterness and botanicals. Montenegro is definitely a staff favorite. 

Cardamaro Amaro: The only wine-based Amaro available in the States, Cardamaro, despite it's name, is not a cardamom-flavored Amaro. Instead, it gets it's Moscato-based flavor comes from the cardoon, a relative of the artichoke, and blessed thistle. It is light, herbaceous, and comparable to some styles of sweet vermouth. As such, here at Old Vines, we often swap sweet vermouth for Cardamaro (see the New Vingroni). 

Averna Amaro: the original recipe for Averna can be traced back centuries to the Benedictine Friars of ancient Sicily, where it was used as an herbal tonic. Averna has an outstanding spicy citrues characteristic, with a prominent menthol aroma. It's a well-balanced Amaro, with a caramel sweetness, a menthol freshness, and a lingering bitterness. 

Cynar: Produced by the Campari group, Cynar ("chee-nar") is a mix of thirteen different plants and herbs, the most unique of which being the Artichoke. Noticeably darker in hue, Cynar has a resolute, aggressive bitterness that makes it a more appropriate substitute for Campari in certain cocktails. 

Fernet Branca: Named after the "fernet" style of amaro, Fernet Branca is sharply bitter, syrupy in texture, and not for the faint of heart. Fernet Branca boasts more than 40 different herbs and spices, among the known are aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myyrg, red cinchona bark, and saffron. The closely-guarded recipe hasn't changed since it was created in Milan in 1845. 

Amari are an incredible group of spirits, and though their far-ranging tastes make it hard to believe they are all related, they all share a common backbone: bitterness. And while "bitter" is not the flavor profile most people seek in their drinks, the world of Amaro begs to be explored. You might find you'll be pleasantly surprised. 

Charley Zimmerman
May 18, 2017