When I was a much younger bartender, I'd always fret when making cocktails that called for Campari – a bitter, viscous Italian liqueur. I just didn't get it. I'd constantly check the balance of these drinks and all I'd come up with was bark, orange, tannin, grapefruit and not much else.
"We all have an innate aversion to bitter tastes," argues food author Jennifer McLagan in her fascinating book, Bitter: A Taste of the World's Most Dangerous Flavor. She also points out that humans are born with this trait so that we don't imbibe nasty, poisonous substances, many of which are very bitter, and some of which could easily kill us.
But as we grow older, our taste buds change. We've discovered, and continue to discover, that some bitter foods and liquids contain compounds that can protect us, cure us and even pep us up.
Thankfully, all I get from Campari these days is a syrupy, rich, biting deliciousness. Which is a good thing, too, because similar liqueurs are emerging all the time; Negronis are the cocktail of the moment, and bitterness is in.
As the Italians do
Bitter, herbal liqueurs like amaro (Italian for 'bitter' or 'sour') have enjoyed a steady resurgence in recent years. Traditionally made in Italy by macerating bark, citrus peel, roots, herbs and flowers in grape spirit, the concoction is then balanced with a generous dose of beet sugar before being aged in barrels or bottles.
Bartenders all over the world have been favouring the punchy, bracing flavours that amari (plural of amaro) can bring to a range of cocktails, even though Italians have been enjoying the stuff as a digestive or aperitivo for centuries.
The new Aussie amaros
Australian distilleries are now moving on the trend as well. Just this year, two separate Adelaide Hills producers have released amaro-style liqueurs in the same vein as Campari and Aperol, with both producers bringing their own uniquely Australian interpretations to the genre.
In 2014, South Australian winemaker Sacha La Forgia was convinced by an Italian mentor to follow his passion for distilling and start his own venture. La Forgia founded the Adelaide Hills Distillery not long afterwards, and his first gin, 78° Small Batch Gin, hit the market early in 2015.
Throughout the early days, 'The Italian' (as La Forgia referred to him) provided advice on getting the distillery up and running. And this week, in an homage of sorts, La Forgia has released a bitter orange liqueur dubbed 'The Italian' to honour his support.
"The recipe was a family recipe from my mentor in Friuli, Italy, but I've added my own Australian twist by using native quandong, ribberies, thyme and Riverland orange," La Forgia says.
The hills are alive
Only a month ago, Brendan and Laura Carter released Okar and Red Okar from their Applewood Distillery in the same region north of Adelaide. In developing the two amaro-style liqueurs – Okar, the more floral and lighter of the two at 12 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV), and Red Okar, the bolder, more bitter expression at 26 per cent ABV – winemaker Brendan Carter drew upon childhood stints spent living in Italy.
"I've always been interested in the Italian lifestyle. The surroundings may be different, but the mentality seemed alarmingly similar to Australia's, particularly our love for certain bitter flavours."
Carter points out that an estimated 90 per cent of Australia's native flora has a slightly bitter, astringent character to it. It's thought the harsh Australian climate plays a role, but he hopes that products like this further encourage wider use of native botanicals – riberries, a native fruit utilised by Aboriginals for thousands of years, feature prominently in both expressions.
"We're trying to align profitability with sustainability so we can start to convince growers that they have a pathway to market for what is remarkably sustainable native produce."
All three products are fantastic for mixing. But when I replaced them for Campari – which I don't think is their intention – they probably lacked the viscosity, punch and bitterness to hold their own in a Negroni. For this, La Forgia suggests adding some orange bitters or thinking of them instead as a refreshing apertivo.
"The aperitif or aperitivo is such an unexplored category in Australia, and The Italian is designed with that occasion in mind. It's refreshing and light and great to drink over ice, in a Spritz or with soda, and it leaves your palate dry and prepped for the main course," he says.
Carter echoes a similar sentiment.
"The all-Australian Negroni applications have all been stunning, but I like to keep things simple. Both the Okar and Red Okar are beautiful neat or mixed with tonic. The simplicity of a lower alcohol drink that I can have at lunchtime, that's a huge one for me, and then you can play around with the array of craft tonics available."
For something a little different, I tried the The Italian and the Red Okar in an Australian Boulevardier (basically a whisky Negroni) with the Starward Malt Whisky and Maidenii Sweet Vermouth. The extra palate weight of the whisky added some much needed body to the whole, and its fruitiness created some amazing harmonies with the native and exotic botanicals.
No doubt there'll be numerous applications for these versatile liqueurs, but given they've just been released in small batches, best to move quickly to try them out for yourself.
Are you a 'bitter' person? Let us know in the comment section.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.