Bitter Is Better: Brooklyn’s Bottle of Amaro Is Our Newest Amore
Stocking your bar cart for fall and winter? Don’t forget the amaro. After a summer featuring the Aperol Spritz as the star of the bar, along with a millennial-driven desire for decreased sugar and more sophisticated, uncommon flavors, bitter — as they say — is the new black.
Amaro (meaning “bitter,” in Italian, and the plural of which is amari) is a catch-all term for a class of liqueurs with roots reaching backward to Ancient Greece, and a long tradition in Europe, most notably in Italy. A liqueur made from distilled spirits, such as grain alcohol, wine, or grape brandy macerated with herbs, roots, barks, spices and flowers to make tinctures which are then combined into proprietary blends, sweetened, and often aged for a relatively short time, amaro’s flavor profile varies widely depending on where, and by whom, it is crafted.
Our favorite in the bitter category right now is a relative newcomer to the scene: St. Agrestis amaro out of Brooklyn. New York.
Founded in 2014, this local producer offers a unique bitter that is the brainchild of two devotees of the bitter imbibible, Nicholas Finger and Fairlie McCollough. The pair toured Italy for three months exploring the personalities of that country’s regional amari in preparation for the creation of their own brew, intended to represent their home region. To further their signature concoction’s Brooklyn identity, the producers age it for a minimum of two months in barrels sourced from Van Brunt Still House, a craft whiskey distillery located in neighboring Red Hook, Brooklyn who in turn, source wheat, rye, and corn from upstate New York farmers.
Its presentation is a feast for the eyes: The clear, apothecary-style bottle showcases its deep, jewel red color. The white label and the simplicity of the graphic — merely a stamp of a woman cloaked in what could arguably be called a toga, holding a flask or vial in one hand, and a branch of leaves in the other, along with the wooden stopper, keep the pharmacy vibe going, calling to mind the drink’s heritage as a grandmother-brewed healing potion, a pharmaceutical sold at the soda fountains of drug stores, and an elixir peddled off the back of carts by snake-oil salesmen.
Its name, St. Agrestis, also nods to a humble and uncomplicated character. Agrestis, from Latin, can be translated as “rustic or rural,” and the brand’s website defines the word as “of the field, of the wild.” While there is, to our knowledge, no such saint as St. Agrestis, we would argue that the experience this fragrant and delicious draught offers is nothing short of heavenly.
Before we wax rhapsodic about the virtues of the St. Agrestis profile, we’ll offer a brief primer on the many roles of bitters from behind the bar. First, there are two kinds: The first is for dashing. Consider this a condiment. It’s strong, aromatic essence seasons cocktails by the drop. No doubt you've seen and tasted the most famous of this type, Angostura bitters hailing from Trinidad and Tobago. Dashing bitters act as partners to our favorite spirits and mixers. The second, meant to be enjoyed in greater portions, straight up, on the rocks, or in cocktails, can be divided into two categories: Aperitifs and digestifs. Alcoholic beverages that precede and follow a meal, respectively, they are the parentheses to an evening spent in the company of family and friends. The aperitif is the yin to the digestif’s yang.
The word aperitif is French, and derives from the Latin aperiere,meaning “to open.” Simply put, this drink is intended to render the body receptive to digestion. Lore has it that taking an aperitif stimulates the salivary glands, triggers the production of stomach acids, and relaxes the diaphragm. It is a liquid appetizer. The aperitif should be light in alcohol, since overindulging before a meal hinders digestion. Since overly sweet drinks limit the appetite for savory foods, the ideal aperitif is dry — think Gin, Lillet, Vermouth, Dry Sherry and Dubonnet. An aperitif can be served straight up, or on the rocks, but is often mixed into a cocktail such as in a Campari and Soda, Kir, or Martini.
It’s opposite, the digestif, is generally of a higher proof to encourage relaxation, befitting its role as penultimate act of the meal, followed only by coffee. This end-of-meal amaro is purported to diminish bloating, discourage and relieve wind. The higher alcohol content and notched-up sweetness of the digestif supposedly settles the stomach, and some say, re-stimulates the appetite by stirring up digestive juices, leading to relief in the case of overindulgence.
In general, the profile of a top-shelf digestif is perfectly balanced, encouraging one to drink it unadorned. Old-school Italians prefer sipping it solo, at room temperature, in small cordial glasses. While there is no rule against mixing a quality digestif amaro, purists only stretch so far as to allow a chilled glass with perhaps a twist of orange rind, or warming it slightly in chill months, or adding one or two cubes of ice. These same purists frown heavily on adding it to coffee, and advise keeping the courses distinct.
The very best way to experience St. Agrestis amaro is in its most stripped-down form. Perfectly structured and bracingly bitter in all the right ways, St. Agrestis’s stands on the shoulders of its Italian ancestors, but presents as distinctly American. Its secret formula begins with a neutral base spirit used to extract the essences of each in a mélange of 20 all-organic botanicals, including citrus, seeds, herbs, roots, and spices. The tinctures are then combined, and allowed to rest in the whiskey barrels that impart the notes of their former inhabitants, the American whiskeys. Once married and infused, organic cane sugar is mixed in to bring harmony and round out the bitter nature of amaro.
With its engaging nose, St. Agrestis amaro calls to mind tart, green pie apples and huckleberry jam, along with spiced red wine, evoking warm holidays at home. The flavor palate veers in another direction. The perfect confluence of herbal, vegetal, woody, spicy, and floral notes, leaning on sarsaparilla and spearmint, conjures up whispers of root beer and dark cola, with dark and smoky vanilla undertones, a lingering, round cherry melt, and a refreshing hint of menthol.
As nighttime falls earlier, and as the flannels and sweaters emerge from the cedar chests, turn your thoughts to warm home gatherings filled with congenial conversation and relaxed cheer. When it’s cold outside, no one wants cozy evenings to end. Encourage your guests to linger after dessert for some quality cigars, and a few hands of cards. Why not start your own custom of capping winter evenings off with the perfect seasonal digestif, St. Agrestis amaro, followed by a fortifying cup of steaming coffee? Your hosting cred will rise exponentially.
St. Agrestis amaro can be purchased for about $40 at many retailers and distributors such as Chambers Street Wines in New York City.