broVo Amaros: Fulfilling Mixologist's Fantasies

broVo Amaros: Fulfilling Mixologist's Fantasies

by Neal MacDonald, editor

Bottom Line: after an exhaustive tasting, we can definitely declare: if you want to elevate a citrus cocktail, use broVo No. 1. If you want to elevate an herbal cocktail, then use broVo No. 4. Both of these are fantastic in their own ways. If they suffer at all, it is that they suffer in the same way every bitters liqueur does: they’re complex, particular, and designed for specialty, dedicated uses. Imbibed alone, there is little point… but as an accent in a cocktail it is the fireworks on a first-date kiss.

Mhari Voelsgen and Erin Brophy of broVo Spirits’ “lady-made liquor” up in Seattle are doing something very, very interesting. They’re working with well-known bartenders and “mixologists” in the Pacific Northwest area to develop specialty releases of amaro liqueurs.

Great, you say. But what the heck is an amaro liqueur? And even if I knew that, why would I care if they were specialty releases from mixologists or ordinary releases from marketing executives of big companies?

Far from shooting liquors, bitters liqueurs are a revelation to the cocktail enthusiast Rather than delicate and sweet fruit-forward liqueurs (think limoncello or similar), these are instead designed for a more astringent or drying, “anti-sweet” quality and instead packing a more savory punch. Ingredients often include roots and even tree bark. The Germans make their own style of bitter liqueurs, often called Krauter liqueurs, and the most well-known of those is Jagermeister. Amaros are Italian bitters liqueurs usually made from a base of grain or sometimes brandy (clear eau-de-vie or grappa) but infused with a number of herbs and spices. Added as tinctures in a cocktail, they can make a stupendous difference in the outcome of the flavor and provide a balance and complexity to an otherwise overly sweet concoction.

Right out of the gate, we should note that the amaro has a distinct audience because of the strong and unusual flavors. Working with amaros is usually done either sipped as an after-dinner drink (“digestif”) or used as an ingredient in cocktails. The most famous of these is the Negroni, which is often made with Campari (an Italian bitters liqueur that’s so bitter it’ll make your friend pucker from 5 feet away when you drink it). But because these liqueurs use such a wide range of spices and other ingredients, they allow the producer to make highly individualized recipes with very distinctive tastes. That freedom leads to wide variations in products with adoring fan bases who will settle for nothing less than a particular label.

To us, and knowing that broVo specializes in rather intense liqueurs designed specifically for the elite cocktail, this seems like a highly appropriate company to collaborate with bartenders aiming for highly particular tastes. We’re lucky enough to get to try their No. 1 and No. 4 versions (named for John Euding of Seattle and Patrick Haight of Snoqualmie respectively). Both were said to be inspired by rhubarb liqueurs. The No. 1 is citrus and anise while the No. 4 is hibiscus and citrus. We received a bottle of each to try out and we thought to compare it to the famous Italian Fernet Branca (itself know for a spicy and minty flavor). All should be very lightly sweetened and spice-dominant. How will Seattle fare against Italy?


Neat with and without a touch of ice

This is the classic preparation as a digestif: the spirit unadorned.

Fernet Branca

broVo No. 1

broVo No. 4

The taste is a dry, earthy, somewhat chocolate and mint tinged taste followed by a very bitter finish. It is somewhat reminiscent of Jagermeister but more complex and pleasing. A little ice improves the liquor greatly but it has a complete absence of sweetness, which takes some getting used to. Our gathering declared 3-stars but the average came from a slew of 1&2’s vs 4&5’s. It’s a highly divisive spirit.

***

 

Brisk aromas of cinnamon open the spirit raising shouts of “Christmas” and “Grandma’s house!” There’s also a deal of orange and a trace of ginger on the palate. Offhand, this might be a very interesting replacement for Grand Marnier or triple sec. There’s a sweetness as well, plus a spicy finish. It sings for a hot toddy or other warmed drinks. We predict this will be highly versatile. Once again, a divisive liquer with an average of 3-stars but those disliking Fernet Branca liking No. 1 and vice-versa.

***

Yet a third set of flavors: cardamom and spice on the nose along with a hint of citrus. Tasting it is like an Indian chai tea and a peppery finish. Perhaps a bit of pine. There was a feeling that this demanded a particular kind of cocktail to complement the spicy finish. And yet another wave of divisive opinion… some who hated the first two finally warmed up while others preferred the former.

***

 

What we learned

First, amaro styling as “bitters” is true… these are drying spirits all the way but also complex. And it is true that they’re very distinctive. We had highly divisive opinions—everything from loving to hating it—which is suitable for something so specialized. The reason we’re at 3 stars overall is because we have people at the 1-2 range and the rest at the 4-5 range. All kinds of flavors; all kinds of styles. There was seemingly a flavor for everyone: mint à cinnamon à pepper. Overall, the No. 1 had the broadest appeal but both the Fenret and the No. 4 had fans. So far, we’d have to say we’re far more excited to see how the broVo amaros will work in cocktails than the Fernet.

Negroni

This is one of the signature cocktails of the amaro world. In this round, we poured a drink with Campari just to use the most famous of the Negroni amaros. A very similar cocktail to this is also known as The Hanky Panky. It’s essentially a perfect Martini with a bit of Campari.

1 ½ oz gin (we used North Shore No. 6)

¾ oz sweet vermouth (we used Noilly Prat Rouge)

¾ oz bitters liqueur (usually Campari)

 

Fernet Branca

broVo No. 1

broVo No. 4

Campari

For those who liked it, they claimed it smelled of mahogany lined wooden rooms and cigars… “it tastes like old-man wealth!” For those who didn’t, declarations of peroxide and curatives for sore throats. One person declared it was like “making out with an older man” and whether this was good or bad, we never could determine. Whatever the case, those who liked were greatly outnumbered by those disliked.

With the citrus and cinnamon this version turns to an excellent, summertime cocktail. A little soda on top of made it positively “gulpable.” Our favorite comment: “It tastes like something you drink after sex and a cigarette before you put your clothes back on.” For some, too intense with the cinnamon.

***

The variations and opinion are striking. The majority did not like this particular version feeling it was overwhelming, too much of vermouth, and—in one notable case—“drinking what’s leftover after all the ice melts.” But to others, it tasted “like a jazz club in New Orleans in a nice suit” with a smooth, simmering finish. Detractors slightly outnumbered adherents in this version.

**

On the whole, the Campari version was interesting as an experiment with opinion ranging from “infused rubber bands” to interesting. Few, however, would agree to order again. We, personally, often struggle with Campari. But the interest in the unusual flavor plus one fanatic was enough to raise the average.

**½

What we learned

A fascinating trend is developing. Where some spirits and cocktails inspire a “good” in the sense of “just fine” rating to get a 3-star rating, the amaros are universally achieving their 3-star average with high and low scores. There is no consensus: none. There is only argument and personal taste. Will this continue?

 

Mai Tai

One of the recommended servings from the broVo team was in tiki drinks. This is non-standard but also kind of an exciting twist. We took them at their word and used a classic Mai Tai recipe (which is a stiffer drink than the chain restaurants would have you believe) and added a component of amaro where we though appropriate. For this, we compared to a classically prepared Mai Tai to see if the original could be improved. We used a recipe from Art of the Drink:

2 oz aged rum (we used Bacardi 8)

1 oz lime juice

½ oz orange curacao

¼ oz orgeat

Dash grenadine

¼ oz simple syrup

Float of dark rum / Float of Amaro

 

Fernet Branca

broVo No. 1

broVo No. 4

Original

For us, the mint just isn’t working… not at all. It’s like giving Trojans to a Catholic priest. There’s a floral, licorice taste. One person though it tasted like “something left out in Hawaii to spoil.”  Nobody thinks this is better than original version.

Original has a lot more almond while this is more orange and citrus. It’s certainly a little spicier. With the sweeter amaro, the finish is very sweet… some thought a little too sweet. While the majority like the original better… many find the No. 1 version more interesting and only one person found it unpalatable.

****

Sweet with spicy back… not really a Mai Tai but many don’t find it offensive per se. Just too sweet; it overpowers everything here. The spicy finish is as contra-indicated as the mint. Doing well here would require changing the Mai Tai ingredients.

After all the bitter drinking, the sweeter Mai Tai was greeted with loud acclaim. A fantastic drink. “This is a pineapple spider drink!” puzzlingly squealed one person. Another announced that they’d “get tired of their husband before they’d get tired of the Mai Tai” (surely a newlywed). The original sets a high benchmark for the amaros.

**** ½

What we learned

We’re finding that certain signature ingredients in each amaro call to certain types of drinks. True to form, the broVo ladies were right on by recommending No. 1 for tiki drinks… we found this to be an improvement on the classic Mai Tai, which is about as high as praise can get. The no. 4, not so much and certainly not the Fernet. A true bartender’s spirit? .

 

Pick-Up

A beguilingly made drink title if ever there was one. To us, this looks very much like a replica of the rye-whiskey Sazerac cocktail, which is one of our favorites. Again, we compared to a classically prepared version to see if it was improved. We used the recipe from Vintage Drink.  Note: at this point, we abandoned our star rating.

2 parts rye whiskey (we used Bulleit Rye)

1 part amaro

3 dashes absinthe (we used North Shore’s Sirene)

1 slice lemon

 

Fernet Branca

broVo No. 1

broVo No. 4

Original

The best description was that the Fernet “put a funky twist on the Sazerac.” It had the interesting result of making former Fernet haters somewhat receptive while former adherents run screaming (“Someone put Listerine in my Sazerac!”)

This turned our Sazerac into an Old Fashioned. It’s good… but not what we ordered (we think the No. 1 would make a fine Old Fashioned). The ratio of whiskey is off quite a bit… with an increased proportion of whiskey, the cocktail becomes nice (if not Sazerac-y).  

Excellent! Here, the spicy pepper really adds a zing to the Sazerac. Once again, we thought the proportion of whiskey was a little light. We remade the thing with much reduced amaro and it was delicious. Everyone loves it. Everyone agrees it’s better than the original version.

WINNER

It’s a beautiful use of whiskey that we’ve always loved. Once again, our throng declared the wealthy old man had come again! Others called it a “Party in a glass.”

 

What we learned

We’re finding that the broVo ladies know what they’re doing. They said tiki drinks were for No. 1 and it improved the Mai Tai. They said the No. 4 would work in a Sazerac and it’s better than the original. These liqueurs should be a mixologist’s dream.

 

Test Flight No. 2

This was a cocktail recipe right off of the broVo website, very similar in style to the Hanky Panky / Negroni but with an addition of tequila, which adds another herbal element from the agave. It also called for a highly herbal gin.

1 ½ oz modern gin

½ oz amaro

½ oz vermouth

½ oz tequila (we used El Agave Blanco)

½ oz lemon juice

Fernet Branca

broVo No. 1

broVo No. 4

Here was the most divisive drink of the night. To some: nothing good to say. It was nothing but a margarita gone bad. To others—particularly those who sip tequila straight—much love. There was no reconciling the two.

 

More division but the best that can be said here is that it made the tequila “interesting.” The orange was otherwise too “orange-y” and the tastes altogether puzzling.

 

There was a lot of acclaim here—the pepper seemed to complement the tequila very well. We’ll do no more than quote our favorite comment of the event: “This is the best thing I’ve put in my mouth since last night!”

WINNER

What we learned

And as if we needed the reassurance, the broVo recommendation comes through again: the No. 4 performs brilliantly in this drink complementing the tequila.

 

In Summary

Hosting a tasting devoted to amaro is like a college level course in flavor notes and mixology. After this, it’s easy to understand first why so many people love drinking cocktails but second that amaros in general are highly specialized spirits calling for specific uses. With the broVo take, we think they’ve crafted something much more appealing to the modern palate. Where Fernet Branca and Camapri had their uses and their fans, both broVo amaros had much broader appeal and easier mixing sensibilities. Citrus = No. 1 while herbal = No. 4. It was that simple of an equation. In those settings used in proper proportions, it was easy to see classic cocktails taken to an entirely new dimension of taste and enjoyment. Judging these spirits in a competitive setting tasted neat and keeping counsel only with one’s self is very likely a fool’s errand; multiple styles imbibed in throngs is a far, far different experience and clearly the way to enjoy. 


2013-12-03
Published by Proof66.com