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Aperitivo or Amaro: Why Choose?

April 15, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

Aperitivo or Amaro: Why Choose?

April 15, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cynar’s ability to glide between pre- and post-dinner drink formats has made it an icon of the modern bar.

Among the myriad bottles of amaro one might encounter behind the bar in restaurants and cocktail dens around the world, one stands out from the bittersweet crowd. “Cynar has been one of the most reached-for bottles present on my backbar for quite some time,” says New York City bar owner Max Green. Whether it’s the bitter liqueur’s ability to play in both the aperitivo and digestivo worlds, or simply the eye-catching crimson label emblazoned with that iconic artichoke, drinkers on both sides of the bar are drawn to the versatile green bottle—a definitive example of the style of amaro known as carciofo, so named for its key ingredient, the artichoke.

In season, artichokes are bountiful throughout Italy, and the distinctive-looking vegetable has a long cultural history; its oft-discarded leaves were used by ancient Greeks and Romans in tinctures meant to aid digestion. Today, dried artichoke leaves are the only publicly shared ingredient of the 13 botanicals in the formula for Cynar. (The brand’s moniker is derived from the plant’s Latin scientific name, cynara scolymus.) In the spectrum of carciofi, however, Cynar is notable for its restraint when it comes to the flavor of its key ingredient. Its profile is more herbaceous and vegetal, featuring notes of caramel and dried-fruit sweetness with a finish that’s slightly tannic and pleasingly, lingeringly bitter.

In comparison to other amari that date back to the 1800s, Cynar—created in Venice in 1952 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Angelo Dalle Molle—is a decidedly modern affair. It quickly broke out beyond the Veneto region and became popular across Italy, thanks in part to a series of television commercials starring the Tuscan-born actor Ernesto Calindri; the ads spanned two generations, from 1966 through 1984. One famous spot sees the actor casually seated at a lone café table in the middle of a busy traffic circle, placidly reading a newspaper and sipping a glass of Cynar. Unfazed as cars zoom past, he utters the company’s famous catchphrase: “Contro il logorio della vita moderna” (“Against the strain of modern life”).

The motto continues to resonate, as Cynar has gone from Italian caffè staple to dynamic cocktail ingredient thanks to contemporary bartenders, who have been attracted to its unexpected usability in drinks across categories. The amaro’s dark brown color belies how easily it steps into aperitivo cocktails, while its bitter backbone also holds up in stronger drinks and even on its own, as an after-dinner digestivo.

Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy, a Manhattan variation that pairs Cynar with sweet vermouth and rye.

That versatility is one reason Dan Sabo, a Los Angeles–based hotel food and beverage director, turns to it again and again. “It hits so many notes—sweet, bitter, vegetal. Plus, it plays well with others,” he says. “It’s just a terrific Swiss Army knife of a modifier.” Sabo likes to accent the “genetic cousins” connection between artichoke and agave by pairing Cynar with tequila; he tag-teams it with bourbon or rum, too, and is particularly fond of using it in shaken citrus drinks.

Cat Cannon, co-owner of a Pittsburgh hospitality group, also finds herself reaching for Cynar to counterbalance citrus-forward cocktails, where the amaro contributes a grounding verdancy and gentle bitterness. “I absolutely love the vegetal-ness of Cynar,” she says. “Its specific herbaceousness makes it incredibly approachable for guests that are just exploring the amaro category, who might not be huge fans of things that are incredibly bitter.”

Norfolk, Virginia, bartender Josh Seaburg similarly praises the amaro for its accessible “gateway” appeal, exclaiming, “Cynar contains multitudes.” The memory of his first experience with Cynar, at a New Orleans cocktail bar, lingers: The inverted Manhattan spec with the incredibly long name—Growing Old and Dying Happy is a Hope, Not an Inevitability—had Cynar standing in for the standard sweet vermouth, along with a splash of Herbsaint and a pinch of salt. “It was wild to see how a low-proof bitter could take on such strong flavors and still play a balanced starring role,” recalls Seaburg.

Many have discovered the power of Cynar to bolster bitter riffs on new-look standards like the Daiquiri, julep and flip, but it’s also a key component in several certified modern classics. Take Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy, a now-iconic rye Manhattan variation created in 2005 that amplifies the classic sweet vermouth with Cynar, or Chicago bartender Kyle Davidson’s 2008 creation, The Art of Choke, which made lasting waves with its unexpected combination of white rum, Cynar, lime, demerara syrup and green Chartreuse.

“The Little Italy cocktail demonstrates how Cynar can work well in a stirred and boozy situation,” says New York–based bar and beverage consultant Stacey Swenson. “And The Art of Choke was one of those cocktails that is impressive because it doesn’t look like it should work on paper—but it absolutely does, and it doesn’t really seem to fit into any category.”

Green points out that Cynar’s low proof and rich flavor make it a flexible choice for the start of your evening, at mid-soirée or as a satisfying nightcap. “We often have the perception that red is before dinner and brown is after dinner,” he says. “Where in reality, bitter is bitter, whether you have it before or after a meal.”

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Tagged: amaro, aperitivo, Cynar