Wednesday, January 19, 2011

amaro: campari, rabarbaro zucca

Campari, Rabarbaro Zucca

Like I said, on Okay Check It Out twenty-eleven is the year of the amaro. We've talked about amari before. I'm using it as more or less synonymous with "potable bitters," which some people object to - Campari isn't considered an amaro, for instance, and furthermore anything that isn't Italian shouldn't really be called one.

But there just isn't another good word. "Potable bitters" is a little bit shit, and it's a jargony term that only exists because there's nothing better. So I'll use amaro. The distinction between what technically really truly is and isn't an amaro will never ever be important, I promise.

What I mean by amaro, then, or by potable bitter, is, to recap, a liqueur with significant levels of bitterness -- or alternately, a low-proof bitter with added sweetness. It all depends which angle you look at it from. We're not talking about Angostura, is the point. You can use an amaro by the dash, the way you do Ango - and you can use Ango by the shot, the way you do Campari - but traditionally you don't.

There's a wide range of flavor in this category - potentially as wide as in "liqueur" itself, but in practice most amari are some combination of fruity, herbal, minty, anisey, or medicinal, in addition to their bittersweetness.

I mean to cover one a month, but we're starting with a doubleshot because Campari is the best known and most widely available amaro, and Rabarbaro Zucca is quite similar to it. Both are kind of fruity - not compared to Aperol, and not as much as the bright red color of Campari would make you think, but fruitier than many other amari. Though Zucca means squash/gourd/pumpkin, that's just the name of the family that's been making Rabarbaro since 1845, and rabarbaro means rhubarb. It's delicious stuff. Not exactly the same as Campari by any means, but closer to Campari than any other amaro I've had.

It's ridiculous the way you hear people describe the flavor of Campari - seriously, google it and you will find multiple cases referring to it as a cherry liqueur, with which it has nothing in common but its bright red color - so I won't add to that. Campari doesn't taste like anything else, really. Amari have so many different ingredients that you mostly wind up with something that tastes like itself. What does curry taste like, coconut? Yes and no - it may have coconut milk in it, but if you got "curry tastes like coconut" fixed in your head, you'd be awfully confused by your dinner.

What is true of Campari - and Rabarbaro - is that it's quite sweet. A lot of people, especially newcomers to the category, don't realize this at first, because there is this persistent notion that bitterness and sweetness are opposed. But the truth is that once you get used to the flavor of amari, the limiting factor on drinking something like Campari sweet isn't its bitterness - it's its sweetness. It's simply too sweet to drink straight up, as sweet as limoncello or maraschino.

You can drink any amaro with club soda or tonic, and that's my default for trying a new one out - it's the perfect way to experience the flavor of a new amaro without being distracted by whether or not it's working with the rest of your cocktail ingredients.

The most common Campari recipe is the Negroni - equal parts Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth (Punt e Mes is my favorite when using Campari; Noilly Prat and Dolin are both much superior to the Martini & Rossi in your supermarket). This was my gateway not only to Campari but to cocktails: I wasn't even sure I liked it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it, because nothing else had tasted like that. The age of Negroni novelty is ending, if it hasn't ended already; wiseass twenty year old kids will be mixing up cocktails in their dorm rooms that they read about on blogs now, instead of making do with rum and Coke or Canton and Sprite like I did, just like they're jumping into sous vide and mail order molecular gastronomy kits instead of wrestling with the Joy of Cooking for a few years. That's just how it goes. But for me, the Negroni was far outside my drinking experience, my tasting experience.

The Americano is a lower-proof Negroni, substituting club soda for the gin. Campari also works well with ginger (I love it with Buffalo Rock Southern Spice ginger ale), pineapple (you can't quite tell in the photo, but I often drop a pineapple core into my Campari bottle), all citrus juices, gin, genever, and whiskey. I've never really gotten it to work nicely with tequila, but I can't say I've tried too hard either - I don't do a lot of tequila drinks.


  1. Try a negroni with mezcal, zucca and cocchi di torino (equal parts). It is called a Desert Negroni and is quite amazing.

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