An Amaro Scene Springs Up in Seattle

From Artusi to Barnacle, Brad Thomas Parsons explores Seattle's love affair with amari and the unique culture that's grown up around these bitter liqueurs.

I was living in Seattle and starting to work on my book Bitters when, midway through the writing process, I was dumped by a long-distance girlfriend, left my longtime job and picked up and moved to Brooklyn. I believe “Driving Across the Country with Your Cat While Staring Down the Biggest Deadline of Your Life” should be added to the American Medical Association’s list of Most Stressful Life Events. But I still have much love for the city, and while I don’t see us getting back together exclusively anytime soon, I maintain a solid friends-with-benefits status with Seattle.

Like New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, Boston and Portland, Seattle remains one of America’s finest cities for serious drinkers and cocktail enthusiasts alike and I’m forever grateful that it had such a strong influence on my cocktail education.

On the bitters front, Seattle is where I first met bartender Anna Wallace who drifted into the room like a tattooed Stevie Nicks, and opened an aromatic wooden box filled with a collection of mystical dried herbs and botanicals she used to make homemade bitters. She placed each ingredient in my hand, one by one, to smell and taste. Seattle is also where I found Jamie Boudreau, who has gone on to open the award-winning bar Canon.

Jamie was always experimenting with making his own bitters (which he now sells at Canon) and he shared samples of early versions of concoctions with me and always answered any of my many questions about making bitters. I try to make sure his Canon Cocktail—made with rye, Ramazzotti, triple sec foam and Angostura bitters—is the first thing I drink in Seattle upon landing. Bartender-turned-bitters maker Miles Thomas also calls Seattle home, and some of his early, vintage-labeled bottles of Scrappy’s cardamom and chocolate bitters—made with cocoa nibs from local company Theo Chocolate—remain favorite bottles in my bitters collection.

The city’s drinkers have been supporting popular restaurants opening attic-sized annexes with a handful of barstools next door, where an amaro-laden cocktail and a little nibble can be enjoyed after putting one’s name on the wait-list. Originally envisioned as waiting areas, these kissing cousins have become must-visit cocktail dens in their own right. And while modeled after Italy’s aperitivo bars, the menus and décor make these singularly Seattle.

These aromatic cocktail bitters—concentrated, high-proof flavoring agents meant to be applied in dashes or drops and not consumed on their own—have played a pivotal role in the current cocktail renaissance as an essential ingredient for any serious bar. But when you really want to bring on the bitter flavor, you turn to amaro. Italian for “bitter,” amaro is an herbal liqueur—made from infusing a neutral spirit with a proprietary blend of botanicals such as flowers, spices, herbs, barks and citrus peels—ranging from bittersweet, citrusy, woodsy and herbal, to bracingly medicinal. With a rich history as a centuries-old elixir in Italy, France, Scandinavia and Germany (home of Underberg, one of my all-time favorites), amaro has transformed from stand-alone apéritif or digestif to being drafted as a key ingredient in inventive cocktails.

As cocktail trends go, what is first embraced by the brotherhood and sisterhood of bartenders will soon find its way to cocktail geeks and eventually to the general public. When I was writing Bitters, the inky, herbal Italian elixir Fernet Branca was already on its way to becoming an industry darling as the preferred shift drink, and now, the call for a “brown, bitter and stirred” cocktail is moving past the insider realm and increasingly embraced by more adventurous drinkers.

A lot has changed in just a few years. Now, ornately labeled bottles of amari like Meletti, Braulio, Ramazzotti, Cynar and Amaro Nonino are shaking off the dust of the back bar and making their way front-and-center in many high-profile bars and restaurants across the country from Sotto and Osteria Mozza in Los Angeles to Amor y Amargo and Maialino in Manhattan. At Balena in Chicago, the amaro-spiked cocktail menu even ranks their drinks with a 1-10 scale of bitterness to help you navigate the list and land on the perfect bitter note.

While Seattle certainly doesn’t have an exclusive on bartenders embracing amaro, the way in which they are embracing it is unique. The city’s drinkers have been supporting popular restaurants opening attic-sized annexes with a handful of barstools next door, where an amaro-laden cocktail and a little nibble can be enjoyed after putting one’s name on the wait-list. Originally envisioned as waiting areas, these kissing cousins have become must-visit cocktail dens in their own right. And while modeled after Italy’s aperitivo bars, the menus and décor make these singularly Seattle.

The cramped but buzzy Capitol Hill bar Artusi was originally planned as an expanded bar space for chef Jason Stratton’s Italian restaurant Spinasse, but developed into his idea of what an Italian bar would be like in the heart of Seattle. Stratton also used his chef’s palate to create one of Artusi’s most popular drinks, the Averna Smash, a bittersweet concoction of Knob Creek bourbon, Averna amaro, walnut oil, a muddled Amarena cherry and orange wheel and Fever Tree Bitter-Lemon soda.

In the Ballard neighborhood, Brandon Pettit had long been experimenting with creating his own small-batch shrubs, bitters, ginger beer and liqueurs at Delancey—the popular pizzeria he runs with his wife, writer Molly Wizenberg—but when the vintage umbrella shop next door closed up, the couple turned it into twelve-stool craft cocktail bar called Essex. You’ll find sparkling Americano cocktails on tap and many of the drinks are doctored with housemade amaro (Pettit makes his own Fernet and gentian liqueur) along with small plates of salumi, cheese and housemade pickles. I almost regretted my name coming off the wait-list for a pizza next door with cocktails like the Man-About-Town (bourbon, Campari, lime juice, housemade IPA syrup) and the Safe Passage (Amaro Nardini, Aperol, Castelvetrano olive brine, lemon juice, sparkling wine) holding court on the bar in front of me.

If you prefer oysters over pizza, some of Seattle’s best amaro action is taking place at Barnacle, a narrow enclave that you might mistake for a coat check next door to Renee Erickson’s always-jamming Ballard restaurant, The Walrus and the Carpenter. At 6:00PM on a Saturday night I was told it would be a two-hour wait (and the hostess stressed, a true two-hour wait) for a solo spot at the restaurant’s oyster bar, but grabbing a seat at one of the fourteen stools lining the copper bar at Barnacle was one of my best moves all weekend.

You’ll still have to wait for oysters, but there’s a small menu of pickled, cured and preserved dishes, including tins of sardines and caviar, to keep you busy. Shelves of amari, vermouth, grappa and bitter liqueurs dominate the back wall of the bar. I ordered a Nocino Old Fashioned, made with Calvados, walnut liqueur and nocino amaro, and picked at a plate of complimentary Lay’s potato chips placed in front of me.

Barnacle stocks over twenty varietals of Italian amaro and bartender David Little explained that while the new privatization of liquor distribution laws in Washington state arrived with their own set of headaches, they also opened the door to sourcing more obscure spirits than ever before (even if it now took up to 16 different liquor salesmen to stock his shelves). While frustrating for Little, it’s a boon for curious drinkers.

But Seattle is, of course, just one side of the story. I’ve been fortunate to connect with an equally amazing array of bartenders, craft distillers and bitters makers here in New York, but Seattle remains a touchstone destination for the bitter. My obsession with cocktail bitters has served as a natural through-line to the world of amaro, so much so that I’m currently writing a book devoted to the topic. That seems like the perfect excuse to book a flight for a return visit.

Stay bitter, Seattle. I promise I’ll be back soon.