About a year and a half ago, I had my first shot of Fernet Branca, an especially astringent member of a bitter family of spirits called amaro. It was powerful, herbaceous and bracing.
I absolutely hated it.
Apparently, my initial reaction is a typical one.
"A lot of people don't like them at first," says Brian Woehrman, GM at LockKeepers. This upscale restaurant has been serving fine Italian fare in the Cuyahoga Valley since 1992. And because amaro (plural: amari) has its roots in Italy, it only makes sense that it should serve a fine collection of bitter spirits as well.
"We're a soda pop culture; we're drinking sweet stuff all the time," says Woehrman, adding that he has made it his mission to shake off the tyranny of sweetness. But he understands the challenges that lie ahead. "The human body is predisposed not to like bitter things. You've got to train yourself up. Once you do, it can be pretty rewarding."
Amaro, which means "bitter" in Italian, was first made for medicinal purposes: Many recipes date back to pharmacies and monasteries of the 19th century. But it turned out that preserving a mixture of herbs, roots and spices in alcohol made for delicious after-dinner drinks as well.
These days, digestivos like Averna and Ramazzotti are found in bars all over Italy and, increasingly, in the U.S. There's some debate over whether to include aperitifs like Aperol and Campari in the amaro family, but Woerhman includes them all on LockKeepers' bar menu.
Italy's varied climate and the complexity of amaro recipes — a single amari can contain 40 to 100 ingredients — make for a wide variety of beverages. "There are 20 diverse regions for wine in Italy," says Woehrman. "... that's the same for amari."
And because some recipes do include sugar syrup, not every amaro encountered will be the Fernet-style punch. LockKeepers' chef Alberto Leandri, who hails from Venice, has a favorite that illustrates this well: Amaro Nonino. Woehrman describes it as having a "luxurious, silky" flavor with a "mellow honey character." The initial sensation is one of bitterness, but that is followed with a non-cloying sweetness that makes Nonino a joy to sip.
It's not the hottest seller — "I comp more than I sell," Woehrman admits — but there's a solid mix of young people interested in craft spirits and old-school Italian clientele. "The modern wave of mixologists are bringing it back. People are getting more sophisticated in their drinking."
All of the above has helped at least one amaro-based cocktail to take off at LockKeepers: the Aperol Spritz. A blend of Aperol, sparkling wine and club soda, the spritz is a refreshing summer beverage. Punch Abruzzo, a thick, sweet amaro enjoyed hot or cold, will be featured in some hot chocolate or coffee drinks in the colder months.
One frustration Woehrman faces is lack of availability. Of the thousands of amari made in Italy, only a small portion make their way into the U.S., and fewer make it into Ohio thanks to the state's byzantine liquor control laws. "I'm trying to stock everything available in Ohio," he says.
Yet 2017 could still end up being a banner year for amaro in Cleveland. Owners Frank and Malisse Sinito are opening two new restaurants downtown, Marble Room and Il Venetian. The plan is for both restaurants to feature LockKeepers' extensive amaro selection.
I plan to be at both when they open, and at some point I'll probably order a Fernet. I sip it over ice now: It grows on you.