If you ask Lance Winters, owner and master distiller of St. George Spirits, what inspired the recipe for his recently released aperitivo, he will tell you that it was his hippie upbringing. Growing up in the Bay Area, he remembers his folks burning sandalwood incense and little balsam fir sticks in a teeny clay teepee.
“There was a part of me that I think was just a tiny pyromaniac that loved the idea of burning something in this little house,” says Winters. “But these are warm, sweet, comforting, spicy smells, so I came back to those smells and thought, if judiciously applied, those could be some wonderful aromatic components to aperitivo.”
Initially, Winters was chasing after a great recipe for a fernet, but after a few years of toying around with botanicals, what he ended up with was a red bitter liqueur that matched its Italian brethren in bitterness and sweetness, but had more going on in the mid-palate—something he’d found was notoriously lacking in its Italian counterparts.
“I wanted to be able to have more of a story where your palate is engaged for longer, rather than just getting smacked and deserted,” he says. “I want to smack you in the mouth and then explain to you what’s going on after.”
And thus was born Bruto Americano, an aperitivo liqueur that’s made with the traditional bittering agent, gentian, and California Seville oranges, alongside an aromatic core built on the bark of a California buckthorn, called cascara sagrada. This bark marries sandalwood aromas with woody cinnamon notes, and when paired with balsam fir, well, it puts Winters right back at home.
Aperitivo liqueurs, like Campari or Aperol, are known for their signature red or orange color, relatively low alcohol and bitter orange and herbal flavors that are balanced by an even sweetness. You’ll find these two brands in Negronis and spritzes in bars across the States. The next step up, alcohol-wise, clocking in between 30 and 60 percent ABV, is amaro. Originally conceived for its aid in digestion, amaro is made with a neutral spirit that can be infused with an endless spectrum of herbs, roots, spices, citrus and dried fruits—the exact recipe for which is known by the distiller—sweetened and aged. These liqueurs are usually served neat or on the rocks at the end of a meal. A subset of amaro, fernet, tends to be a bit higher in alcohol and fiercely bitter with a menthol edge. Within each of these categories, there is a wide range of expressions based on the botanicals in the blend (typically dictated by region) and the sugar content.
The rise of the Negroni, the spritz and bartenders’ love affair with Fernet Branca has spurred a wave of American versions of both Italian-style aperitivi and digestivi. While some producers are approaching these liqueurs with a template in mind—whether it be Fernet Branca or Campari—the recipes of all of the Italian brands are carefully guarded secrets and, thus, impossible to replicate. So, rather than just attempting knockoffs of Italy’s beloved brands, the best of the American renditions of these liqueurs offer a whole new range of flavors and textures.
“Our idea of making aperitivi and amari it is not to come close to another recipe and to tell people, ‘Oh, this tastes like Campari, this tastes like Aperol, or this tastes like Fernet, this tastes like Braulio,’” says Francesco Amodeo of Washington, D.C.’s Don Ciccio e Figli. “Each one has its own style.”
Some of the uniqueness of these efforts has to do with the dedication to using fruits and herbs familiar to the American palate, many of which are grown in the States. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, High Wire Distilling uses black tea leaves from an old plantation on nearby Wadmalaw Island to flavor its amaro; in Brooklyn, St. Agrestis has built a good amount of sarsaparilla and peppermint into its botanical blend, giving it an unmistakable root beer flavor. And in Santa Barbara, winemaker Doug Margerum is using late harvest red grapes to make the base spirit for his Margerum Amaro amaro, flavoring it with herbs from his garden and then aging his barrels outdoors in the California sun as a means of maderizing (heating and oxidizing) the amaro to attain the flavors he wants.
Francesco Amodeo of Don Ciccio e Figli comes at this with a bit more experience. He’s a sommelier by trade, but he’s also a third generation liqueur maker whose family has been making spirits on the Amalfi Coast since the late 1800s. When he launched his Washington, D.C., distillery in 2012, he had a recipe box to draw from, but, even with these crib sheets, he’s developed his own methods.
Rather than blending all of the botanicals together at the outset, Amodeo makes his bitter liqueurs—currently the portfolio includes two aperitivi, three amari and a fernet—by keeping certain components separate, infusing them on their own in order to be able to have more control over the flavor of the final product. His Cinque Aperitivo begins with a neutral grain spirit that Amodeo purchases from a distillery in Connecticut. From there, he macerates the spirit with 12 different botanicals, rooted in classic combination of gentian and bitter orange. He then makes another infusion using the leftover mash from his mandarin orange liqueur and adds it to the base until he achieves the desired expression of orange. The result is stunningly fresh and vibrant.
Admittedly, as delicious as many of these new American aperitivi and digestivi are, they still face an uphill battle in the American market. Not only is the allure and use for these liqueurs so intimately tied to Italy, but there is serious brand fidelity among bartenders for Campari, Aperol and the myriad amari currently in the market. How, then, do the American versions, which tend to clock in at a slightly higher price point, compete?
The simple answer is that they must offer flavor profiles that the current crop of Italian liqueurs do not. “We try to do an aperitivo that, when you taste it, you go, ‘Oh, that’s Don Ciccio,'” says Amodeo, “because the flavor that you’re going to get from us, you’re not going to get it from them.”