At a Dune watch party in October 2021 I was introduced to Negronis, often referred to as "the gateway cocktail." I learned how to make them at home, and quickly began iterating on variations. Negronis have a number of well-known relatives: swapping the gin for a bourbon makes a Boulevardier, or some people enjoy the artichoke-based liqueur Cynar in place of the Campari. One of my favorite tweaks is to split the Campari component into a bitter liqueur and an equal amount of coffee liqueur. It's a versatile cocktail, and a good way to learn what tastes go together.
I wanted to do more with the Cynar, so I did some research and learned that it comes from a family of liqueurs called amari, which means "bitter" in Italian. They are digestifs, liqueurs meant to stimulate the salivary glands and stomach juices after dinner in order to help digest. Amari were invented intially as medicinal drinks, but over time became a category of liqueur enjoyed mixed or on the rocks. Campari is technically not an amaro, but an aperitif, meant for before dinner. After trying other amari and aperitifs (such as Aperol), I was especially smitten with amari and wanted more.
Laying in bed one night, I realized that I had an old bottle of Everclear that I had purchased for a forgotten chemistry experiment. If I could find the right herbs and maybe some recipes to work off of, I could do an extraction and turn it into a homemade amaro! I started researching the next day and compiled a number of recipes that I found online:
Since I live in Portland, Oregon, there is no shortage of herbalists and apothecaries to choose from. I bought my ingredients from Dragon Herbarium in Hillsdale. They have a solid online shop, in-store pickup, and competitive prices compared to some of the more woo places in town.
Now that I've subjected you to four paragraphs of background like any good recipe site, here's the recipe I created for Amaro Tentativo, which loosely means "bitter attempt." Please read the conclusions section after to learn from some of my mistakes!
Macerate dry ingredients with a muddler, then dump them into a tea bag. Put the bag in a mason jar, and pour the Everclear in to cover. Close the jar tightly and swirl everything around a bit. Put the jar in a dark, cool place and let it extract for two weeks.
Open the jar and fish out the tea bag. Wring it out as best you can to save as much of the extract as possible. Scrape out the inside of the vanilla bean and add the vanilla and zest into the extract. Let sit for four days in a cool, dark place.
Note that I am deliberately not providing amounts here as your extraction might have changed volume. I found that my extraction had dropped down to 450ml from 600ml. Measure your extraction first in milliliters.
I was shooting for a 70 proof, or 35% ABV, final product. There are a number of tools you can use online for estimating how much to use to water things down, but none that I would recommend. I ended up doing proportions like so: 2 parts extract, 1 part simple syrup, and 3 parts water. I do NOT think that the result is 70 proof, it tastes stronger
Once you've made your decisions on proportions, add the simple syrup and water to the amaro in a big bottle. Swirl it around to mix. Unexpectedly, a louche effect occurred in my amaro, and the clear alcohol quickly turned cloudy with the addition of sugar.
The Tentativo turned out intensely bitter and orangey. It's good on the rocks in equal proportions with red vermouth, or in a Negroni. It's a little too bitter to drink on its own. I think I overdid it with the orange zest, and next time will leave it out entirely. When tasting the extract before step 2 there were a lot of subtleties that I think got lost with the addition of orange.
I want to reiterate that I could have done a better job balancing the proof of the liqueur. I believe there are tools you can ude to measure alcohol content in liquids that might be worth a purchase for next time.
Overall though, I consider amaro tentativo to be a success. Amaros have a lot to offer in terms of flavor, and I feel like there's quite a bit of room for playing around. One site I read recommended doing small extracts of individual ingredients in order to plan a blend. I think next time I'll do this as prep work in order to better plan the recipe.