According to conventional bartending wisdom, you can’t run a tiki bar without a bottle of Angostura bitters. Since Don the Beachcomber mixed his first Zombie in 1934, Angostura has brought its signature spice-laden aromatics to countless tropical drinks, doubling as decorative adornment atop mountains of crushed ice. But when it comes to the bitter profile, aside from the Campari-laced Jungle Bird, you’d be hard-pressed to find many drinks in the tiki canon that call for amaro. A look at the cocktail menus at some of the country’s top tiki bars, however, indicates that a shift is underway.
“I have yet to meet an amaro I didn’t want to make work,” says Anthony Schmidt, beverage director of San Diego’s compact tiki den False Idol, where 35 percent of the drinks on the current 20-drink menu feature amaro. While the familiar yellow-capped Angostura remains in heavy rotation at False Idol, Schmidt considers introducing “bittered and spiced ingredients” like amaro “the new move.”
The classic tiki formula, which consists of layers of spirits, spice, fruit notes and aromatic ingredients, is the ideal companion to the inherent complexity of amaro. In addition to viscosity and varying levels of bitterness, amaro can also offer warming background notes of citrus along with tiki-friendly herbs and spices like licorice, allspice and cinnamon.
“Our cocktails are all about layers, and the herbaceous, bitter flavors of amari are the perfect foil to ripe, tropical fruits and round, funky rums,” say Shelby Allison and Paul McGee, co-owners of Chicago’s Lost Lake. In addition to amaro’s natural-born ability to play nicely with rum, Allison and McGee turn to the flavorful Italian liqueurs to lower the proof of a cocktail without sacrificing flavor. Coming in at 16.5 percent ABV, the versatile artichoke-based Cynar has become a gold-star amaro on the tiki backbar. Schmidt is drawn to the ingredient’s “deep, round flavor” and “intense bitterness,” while McGee finds its bittersweet and savory profile especially complementary when used alongside key components of tropical drinks, such as aged rums, coconut, coffee and grapefruit.
Cynar is likewise a key ingredient in Chris Elford’s 2020 Visions, a drink created to ring in the New Year at Seattle’s Navy Strength. “It’s one of the most crushable drinks we’ve ever created,” says Elford. “It reads so sweet, but the bitterness and savory qualities of the Cynar and the acid of the pineapple, grenadine and lemon all balance it out.” Across the street at Rob Roy, Elford, who is well versed in amaro from his time working at New York’s Amor y Amargo, recently added the Volunteer Park Swizzle as a tribute to the drink’s creator, the late and beloved Seattle bartender Marco Haines. This sharp and bitter take on the Queen’s Park Swizzle is spiked with the aggressive, fernet-like amaro Santa Maria al Monte—a 40-percent-ABV amaro made with aloe ferox, juniper, myrrh, rhubarb root and bitter orange peel—alongside a spicy ginger syrup, honey and lime. “Marco understood working with amari at a preternatural, Inception-type level,” explains Elford. “At the end of the day, you don’t have to be an adventurous drinker to like this drink, despite almost every ingredient being polarizing.”
Bartenders are also reaching for bottles from beyond Italy’s borders to add complexity to tropical drinks. Germany’s infamous Jägermeister, for example, makes an appearance in Music That Stays On for Extra Days, a Zombie-like creation that Allison and McGee call “a sessionable take on a notoriously non-sessionable tiki cocktail.” It was only after trying the Flaming Jäger at New York’s Existing Conditions, a simple drink consisting of hot Jägermeister and a lemon twist, that McGee warmed to the idea of taking the German liqueur seriously as a cocktail ingredient. “We use it along with Suze and Campari not only because we want layers of bitter herbaceousness, but because we want this cocktail to hit all the parts of your tongue beyond that up-front bite,” says McGee. “That funny little German amaro turned out to be the exact perfect ingredient that ties this low-ABV Zombie riff together,” adds Allison.
The overlapping spiced profiles of amaro and traditional tiki templates proved the most compelling draw for the team at False Idol. “Tiki cocktails tend to be perceived as sweet or confectionary,” says Schmidt, “but the bitterness lightens the drink and begs guests to have more.” Among the favorites of the many amaro-spiked tiki drinks at False Idol is the Tuscan Toucan, which pairs Amaro Montenegro, a sweet and lightly bitter bottling with notes of tangerine, cucumber and black cherry, with high-proof Jamaican pot still rum, cinnamon syrup and a trio of fresh citrus juices. “Montenegro has lovely mild savory green herb, peppery tasting notes, adding a dynamic twist on the typical baking spices commonly found in exotic cocktails,” says Schmidt. “It adds intrigue. It’s a thing you taste but can’t quite explain. It’s mysterious and lovely.”
As the amaro market continues to expand in the United States, the category is creating deeper footholds in the tiki world. The inherent terroir of many bottles of amaro adds to the sense of escapism and adventure often evoked by tiki and tropical drinks. As Elford explains, “If the purpose of the drink is to transport the mind, why not reach for an ingredient that features spices from faraway places?”