When we were in New York in January, we had a fantastic dinner at Gramercy Tavern with a couple of friends. It was a serious splurge for us; we ordered two bottles of wine and did the six-course tasting menu. It was some of the most incredible food I've ever had. As we dug into the ridiculous assortment of desserts they brought us, the waitress asked if we'd like a digestif. We waffled a bit, not sure what to order, and she offered to bring out a couple of amari.
Amaro has been on my radar as a potential cocktail ingredient, but the reason I hadn't bought any was because there were just so many. I would see them in recipes: Amaro Montenegro, Amaro Averna, Fernet Branca, Amaro Nonino, Cynar, Ramazotti. There was no way I could buy them all, and I had no idea which one would be the best to choose.
That night at Gramercy Tavern, our waitress brought out two: Amaro Averna and Amaro Nonino. We drank them straight up. It was absolutely perfect after our big meal. They were both sweet enough that they worked after dessert but bitter enough to be great digestifs. We agreed that we liked the Averna a little better, which worked out well, because it's the cheaper of the two ($30 vs. $50). As soon as we got back to Boston, we bought a bottle, ready to whip it out after dinner parties to impress our friends.
Averna is made by soaking herbs, roots, dried fruit, and citrus rind in a base of grain alcohol. Caramel is later added for flavor and sweetness. Its flavor is described as "exotic spice, wood, maple syrup, cinnamon, and dried orange peel." Supposedly the recipe comes from the Benedictine monks of St. Spirito's Abbey in Caltanissetta, Sicily. (You may recall that the Benedictine monks have a history of making tasty liqueurs.) They had been making the herbal elixir for years when a rich textile merchant, Salvatore Averna, gave a generous donation to their Abbey in 1859. To thank him, they gave Salvatore the recipe. Realizing he had a seriously delicious secret on his hands, he created the company Fratelli Averna in 1868 and began selling Amaro Averna to the public. His son later took over the business and expanded it, selling Averna all over Europe. Currently, the fourth generation of Avernas is running the business, which was acquired by Gruppo Campari in 2014.
Amaro AvernaPrice: $30
Alcohol Content: 29%
Popular Cocktails: The Black Manhattan is one of the few that's currently widespread. It's traditionally consumed on its own.
Much as I enjoy drinking Averna straight, I've also started experimenting with it in cocktails, and I'm really liking the result. My go-to right now is the Black Manhattan. There are a lot of versions of this cocktail out there. My favorite so far is the one below, which I found in a Reddit thread about what cocktails to make with Averna. It replaces half the sweet vermouth in my favorite Manhattan recipe with Averna, and half the Angostura bitters with orange bitters.
I think I like the Black Manhattan better than a traditional Manhattan. It's less sweet, but the Averna leaves lingering flavors of raisins and dark fruit. When you taste them side by side, the Averna makes for a deeper, smoother cocktail, blending the rye and vermouth together better into a harmonious whole.
Black Manhattan2 oz. rye
1/2 oz. sweet vermouth (I like Punt e Mes)
1/2 oz. Averna amaro
1 dash Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass and stir until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass or coupe. Garnish with a cherry or orange peel if desired.
Recipe adapted from Reddit user murrayhenson.