When National Artichoke Day, March 16, comes up on the calendar, we can’t help but look to the bar and reach for the iconic bottle emblazoned with the thistle-like vegetable. “Some guests are nervous to try it when they see the artichoke on the label, but I assure them that while Cynar has notes of artichoke, [it’s] light and by no means overpowering,” says bartender Tara Jagodzinski, who works at a Detroit cocktail bar with a focus on low-ABV drinks. “The viscosity and the way the different flavor notes hit your palate can only be explained by trying it.”
With its low-ABV status and dynamic bittersweet profile, Cynar has become an essential amaro for bartenders to use in creative cocktails, which can serve as Trojan horses for those unfamiliar with the sometimes-intimidating category of amari. The name—pronounced chee-nar— comes from Cynara scolymus, the Latin botanical name for artichoke, and cynarin, a natural acid in artichoke leaves that can inhibit the taste buds that detect sweetness. Italy, aside from being the world’s largest producer of artichokes, has a long cultural history with the thistle-like vegetable. Antioxidant proprieties in its leaves, stems and roots have been used for centuries in extracts to aid digestion and other ailments; the vegetable is also purported to be an aphrodisiac.
Amaro styles are often categorized by region (Alpine, Sicilian) or by ingredient (like rabarbaro, whose key ingredient is rhubarb root). Artichokes and other members of the thistle family, like cardoons, are the defining ingredient in the carciofo style of amaro, resulting in a slight vegetal quality and a distinctive bitterness. “Cynar is my favorite amaro to introduce my guests to the category,” says Sam Miller, a bartender at a Salt Lake City cocktail bar. “What makes Cynar unique is its versatility. It’s the perfect combination of bitter, sweet, herbaceous and vegetal, and is perfect neat and in all styles of cocktails.” Artichoke leaves—the only ingredient made public among the 13 herbs and botanicals that go into Cynar—go through a cold-water extraction known as percolation to create a flavored tincture that’s blended with alcohol, sugar and water.
Created in 1952 by Angelo Dalle Molle, a Venetian entrepreneur and patron of the arts, Cynar had within a decade spread beyond the Veneto region thanks to creative marketing and advertising efforts—including a popular series of commercials and print ads featuring actor Ernesto Calindri with the tagline “Contro il logorio della vita moderna” (“Against the strain of modern life”). While it has been positioned as both a digestivo and a tonic, the low-ABV nature of Cynar has made it a popular component of aperitivi, especially when lengthened with soda water. This lower ABV coupled with the liqueur’s unique bitter, sweet and savory flavor profile (“layered” is how Jagodzinski describes it) have helped make it a contemporary bartender favorite in drinks that span a spectrum of styles.
“I love Cynar because it is great by itself but outstanding in cocktails,” says Guido Martelli, general manager of an Italian American restaurant in Philadelphia. “It’s so versatile behind the bar. It’s approachable for someone unfamiliar with the category but loved by enthusiastic amari drinkers.”
Using Cynar in Classic Cocktail Templates
Whether as a base or modifier, Cynar has an affinity to work effortlessly in countless cocktail applications and styles, from a classic stirred drink to a more adventurous aperitiki creation. And its flexibility lends the ability to complement spirits ranging from bourbon and rye to rum and agave. “I like to use Cynar in cocktails where people least expect it,” says Jagodzinski. “[It’s] going to elevate and balance with most any flavor. The bitter notes in Cynar offer little adrenaline rushes to your taste buds, while neutralizing your palate and getting it ready for the next flavor.” Here, we put Cynar’s dynamic reputation to the test in several classic styles.
“Cynar highballs are outstanding,” says Martelli. “It’s a rich, luxurious spritz that still quenches your thirst.” While a Cynar & Soda is a favorite low-ABV aperitivo in Italy, a Cynar & Tonic presents an added layer of complexity that doubles down on bitterness. “It’s a great drink for anyone who loves bitter on bitter,” says Jagodzinski, who recommends adding a squeeze of fresh lime as a final flourish. “The bitter and citrus together offer a complete reset of your taste buds, making it the perfect start to the next cocktail or a great meal.”
Just because you’re not breaking out the cocktail shaker or mixing glass, it doesn’t mean your drink can’t be fancy, and there’s no denying the visual appeal of a classic julep. A refreshing Cynar Julep still packs a mound of crushed ice and a bouquet of fresh mint, but adds a depth of flavor with herbaceous and bitter notes complemented by bright pops of acid from fresh lime and grapefruit. “The herbal backbone of Cynar pairs perfectly in a julep, and grapefruit juice is one of my favorite citrus combinations with Cynar, especially in crushed-ice cocktails,” says Miller.
When it comes to a well-made sour, it’s hard to deny the visual appeal of a layer of aromatic froth, and a Cynar Sour is no exception. It delivers on the flavor front, too. “Cynar in a sour is exquisite. It rounds out all the flavors, making it easy to drink, and offers bitter while staying sweet, making it a cocktail for most any palate,” says Jagodzinski.
“At our bar, we have tested over a dozen amaro sour variations over the years and Cynar is always at the top of the list,” says Martelli. “It has enough backbone to stand up to the lemon and egg white.”
“Call me a traditionalist, but my favorite way to enjoy Cynar is in a stirred cocktail,” says Martelli. A cult favorite among the modern amaro classic cocktails, Stephen Cole’s Bitter Giuseppe uses Cynar as the foundation of a bold yet bright drink that, much like Cynar itself, can be enjoyed as an aperitivo or an after-dinner digestivo. “The Bitter Giuseppe is such a cool concept,” says Miller. “I love adding small amounts of citrus to stirred cocktails to help the flavors pop. It shows how Cynar can be used as a bitter alternative to vermouth, or used as a lower-ABV base spirit.”
A 50/50, typically a cheekily named equal-parts combination of two amari or an amaro and a spirit, has become a favorite symbol of hospitality among bartenders. Cynar, as demonstrated in the Rye-Nar (equal parts rye and Cynar), is a favorite amaro to put into service for this exercise. “Because of Cynar’s versatility, it’s a perfect component for a 50/50,” says Miller. “It pairs well with bourbon, rye, rum, vermouth or cordials, and is always a part of my amari blends.” Jagodzinski notes that in a 50/50, Cynar tends to soften the heat of its partner spirit and create a smooth finish.