“You can taste the bitter cyanide,” says André Magalhães, his face breaking into a smile rather than an expression suggesting fear of imminent poisoning. We are at his Lisbon kiosk, Quiosque de São Paulo, downing glasses of Amarguinha, a simple cocktail made with the Portuguese bitter-almond liqueur of the same name. It’s summer, and the drink is the perfect heat killer: the fragrant base, reminiscent of a slightly sweeter amaretto, mixed with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and served over ice. The drink is a refreshing, near-perfect balance of sweet and tart flavors with a distinct—some might say dangerous—aroma.
Quiosque de São Paulo, resplendently red and boasting graceful wrought-iron flourishes and antique signage, is one of several Art Nouveau kiosks that dot Lisbon. The city’s kiosk craze kicked off in the late 19th century and at its peak, it’s thought that Lisbon was home to as many as 67 kiosks. (A recent Google search revealed around 24.) Quiosque de São Paulo is believed to date back to the early days of Lisbon kiosks, around 1892, and like many other kiosks in Lisbon, it serves a short menu of drinks and snacks.
“In the old days, kiosks would just offer shots of alcohol,” Magalhães tells me. “More sophisticated drinks came with the kiosk revival, in the 2000s. The city wanted to revitalize the abandoned kiosks, and gave out lots of leases, but they mostly just sold things to tourists, losing the identity of the kiosk culture here. We took over this kiosk, the oldest and only privately owned one in Lisbon, to revive all those old dishes and drinks.”
A scan of the menu of Quiosque de São Paulo reveals archaic beverages such as vinho quinado (port wine supplemented with quinine), and hard-to-find snacks such as punheta de bacalhau (“salt cod hand job”), a salad of strips of salt cod and onion bathed in olive oil. Magalhães eschews Coca-Cola for a housemade salsaparrilha, a local version of sarsaparilla, and a glass might be paired with a chamuça, a samosalike snack that originated in Goa, India—formerly a Portuguese colonial territory.
Magalhães explains that Portugal’s bitter-almond liqueur was most likely introduced by Arabs, who controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight centuries, and who had several sophisticated uses for almonds. Traditionally, it’s made from grape pomace brandy in which bitter almonds have been soaked for a few days. After straining and discarding the almonds, sugar and water are added to the booze to balance the flavor and alcohol level.
“In theory, it’s related to amaretto and Italian bitter-almond liqueurs,” Magalhães tells me. “But the Italian version is dark in color because they add caramel, while we use syrup. The Italian version also uses apricot kernels, which give it a different aroma.”
Magalhães tells me that the drink has strong links with southern Portugal, where it’s known as licor de amêndoa amarga, “bitter-almond liqueur.” It probably wouldn’t have been widely available in Lisbon a century ago, he says, but it belongs to the family of syrupy sweet liqueurs, with flavors such as sour cherry and anise, that were kiosk staples back in the day.
Today, bitter-almond liqueur is common across Portugal, and like Kleenex or Band-Aid in the U.S., is a product that has become almost entirely synonymous with one brand: Amarguinha.
In recent years, bartenders have used the liqueur in different applications, birthing the Amarguinha Sour (ostensibly a riff on the Amaretto Sour) and even a Mojito. Madonna, per an Instagram story she shared in 2019, drinks Amarguinha mixed with tonic water to celebrate her album releases. But in the heat of Libson summer, Magalhães’ simple way with Amarguinha is best: with some lemon juice, on the rocks, ideally at a kiosk.