San Francisco & Bitters: That's Amari

From tonic in the Middle Ages to trendy bar staple in the Bay Area today, amari have undergone a dramatic transformation. Amari (plural for amaro) are the distinctly bitter Italian liqueurs developed to either stimulate the appetite (as with an aperitivo Aperol spritz), or aid in digestion (as with the gut-punching digestivi like Fernet Branca or Barolo Chinato). As Duggan McDonnell, author of The Devil’s Acre so eloquently puts it, the best of these are “boldly flavored and fantastically bitter, with flavors of cardamom, mint, saffron, quassia bark, and rhubarb. Often times, caramel is added to the final blend before bottling to lessen the burden of the medicine on the palate."

In Italy, the taste for bitter liqueurs dates back to the medieval tradition of theriacs (teriaca) when these drinks were consumed for medicinal purposes. But it wasn’t until the 18th century when vermouth was invented in the Piedmontese city of Turin that these bracing beverages were enjoyed in their own right. Unlike modern American cocktails, these Italian concoctions were, and still are, utterly uncomplicated in their presentation and unapologetic in their bitterness. With no more than two or three ingredients max, they are meant to tantalize the palate, to play on the contrast of bitter and sweet. Yet the San Francisco Bay Area bar tending scene has reinvented tradition to develop new and playful uses for amari while California vintners and distillers are crafting new versions of these classic digestivi to showcase their versatility. But what about amari has so captivated the American palate?

In fact, the popularity of amari in San Francisco is nothing new. Between 1860 and World War I many Italians emigrated from their homeland to South America and the United States, largely because of the breakdown of the feudal land system after the Unification of Italy in 1861, and later, to flee the Fascist State. In either case, the Italians brought their amari with them.

 Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

San Francisco was a particularly popular destination due to its Spanish, Roman Catholic roots and by 1940, 18.5% of all European immigrants in the City (particularly North Beach) were Italian. Coupled with the Gold Rush, which skyrocketed the number of saloons in SF to at least 3117 legal establishments by 1890 (not including the speakeasies), it’s no wonder that amari gained the wide adoration that they did. Soon enough, the proto-foodies of San Francisco were embracing pre- or post-dinner amari with the same gusto as their Italian neighbors, and amari migrated from the bars of North Beach and into any respectable bar in the City. Today San Francisco is the second largest importer of Fernet Branca after Buenos Aires, and Fernet is considered the hometown beverage of choice. 

 Photo courtesy of Amaro di Bilaro

Photo courtesy of Amaro di Bilaro

While I love a classic Negroni or a slug of Fernet after a long night in the kitchen, Bay Area producers have reinvented amari as we know them to highlight the numerous possibilities these libations provide, and bartenders have eagerly accepted the challenge to play with this nuance. Take for example, Patrick Bickford and Susan LaRossa, the Sebastopol based couple behind the 'grape to glass' artisanal spirit Amaro di Bilaro. Bickford fell in love with amari upon visiting Italy, where he found a variety of bitter spirits as immense as their varied uses, be it for ‘correcting’ your morning espresso, or awakening the stomach after a heavy lunch. He began collecting his favorite amari and smuggling them back to the couple's New York apartment, where the 40+ bottles soon overwhelmed their makeshift bar.

However, it was not until Bickford and LaRossa moved to California that they began making their own. “We were both working in the wine industry,” says Bickford, “and we considered making our own wine. But we were surrounded by so many other talented winemakers and one day Susan just said to me, ‘You love amari and no one else here is doing that. Why don’t we just make our own?’” 

 Photo courtesy of Amaro di Bilaro

Photo courtesy of Amaro di Bilaro

After two years of testing, Bickford and LaRossa have perfected their recipe and infused their first commercial batch of Amaro di Bilaro. A mix of thirteen botanicals and grape spirit distilled at Spiritsmith nearby, the blend is an unabashedly bitter representation of the “land of wind and fog” from which it derives. “People assume that spirits don’t evoke a sense of place,” says Susan, “but the soul of a spirit is its base and whether you use grain from Iowa or grapes from Sonoma, rosemary from the backyard or commercial herbs, it is going to make a big difference.”

 Photo courtesy of Sutton Cellars

Photo courtesy of Sutton Cellars

More than other spirits, the heritage of making and drinking amari is highly regional. Campari and Fernet are only made in the Lombardy region, while Barolo Chinato is distinctly Piedmontese, using the region’s famous Barolo wines as a base. So what then, does it mean to make amari in a region with no historic underpinning?  Carl Sutton, San Francisco vermouth producer of Sutton Cellars, says, “It means that we are free to be creative. It means that we can be inspired by tradition without being shackled to it.” Sutton's Sonoma dry vermouth is fruity and floral, lighter than its Italian predecessors and truly expressive of the Californian landscape and contemporary tastes.

In the end though, none of this history answers the question: why the Bay Area? Why have amari become so immensely popular in San Francisco when other cities with equally large and historic Italian populations, like Boston or New York, don’t exhibit the same trend? McDonnell posits a few theories.

First of all, he claims that San Francisco has a highly sophisticated palate. As a port city, San Francisco has been exposed to exotic flavors long before inner America and has benefited from the unfettered diversity of a city characterized by strong and diverse ethnic communities. But San Francisco is not singular in this sense. It is however, referred to widely as one of the most ‘European’ cities in the United States and with a thriving café culture 150 years strong, his second theory argues that our palates are primed for tannic brews. As he notes, “Today, the port of Oakland receives more imported coffee beans and bulk tea than any other port in the world" (81).

I would suggest a third, and more temporal explanation. In a time where chefs and ‘mixologists’ get as much fanfare as celebrities and politicians, I believe there is a strong drive amongst San Franciscans especially (self-proclaimed foodies that we are) to align our palates with those of the gastronomic elite whom we admire most. Amari are absolutely not for the faint of heart. However, the interplay of complex flavors lends a depth to almost any cocktail that becomes the barkeep’s paramour. In our zeal to achieve such sophistication of the palate, we follow on the heels of those whose tastes we respect most and are all the better for it because, well, that’s amari.

Salute!


All the Swirl is a collections of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.