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Think of the Black Manhattan, a modern cocktail hailing from San Francisco bar, Bourbon and Branch, as the goth fan of cocktails, dressed in dark clothes and made while listening to The Cure. As the name implies, it’s a sidestep from a Manhattan, and uses amaro in place of vermouth. Yes, it can be dark and boozey because sometimes that’s just what one needs, but what is it about amaro that makes it work?
Amaro is an Italian bitter liqueur. In the cocktail world, there are 2 kinds of bitter, non-potable bitters, also know as aromatic bitters, although the term today describes a specific kind of non-potable bitter, and potable bitters. Amaro is the latter. It’s used to bitter a cocktail, just like your dasher bottle of Angostura, but it can be sipped neat, unlike your dasher bottle of Angostura. The degree to which you can tolerate them depends on how bitter they are. Campari, which is not usually thought of as an amaro, is indeed a bitter, as anyone who’s tried a shot of the red bottle knows. Fernet-Branca also requires a determined attitude when approached neat, but most Italian bitters are quite good sipped either before or after a meal. There are many potable bitters from throughout the world, but amaro is strictly Italian.
The term amaro, as you may surmise, refers to a type of liqueur, not a specific liqueur, just as bourbon refers to a type of whiskey. All amari are variations of a base alcohol infused with various herbs, flowers, and spices. The origins of amaro reach back to ancient Rome, because of course it does. The Romans enjoyed a good party full of free flowing spirits and pleasures of the senses, and amari were consumed by the upper classes who believed it had rejuvenating power.
The Romans weren’t the only ones who thought this. In the 1800s, amaro could be had in Italian pharmacies, and became one of the many alcoholic bottles sold as medicine. The variety of amari rose, and many were produced by monasteries (something common across Europe, not just Italy) or families, and is, to this day, regional. In general, for the most part, northern Italian amari tend toward the bitter, and southern Italian amari tend toward the sweet. Since all are made from local ingredients, each amaro reflects the botanicals and tastes of their original region.
Of the many amari available, we’re looking for one to replace the sweet vermouth in the Black Manhattan, which means, as specified in the original recipe, Amaro Averna, a sweet, flavorful, complex bitter from the village of Caltanisetta in Sicily, where it’s been made since 1868. OK, not that old when it comes to herbal liqueur, but still old enough to establish Averna as a Sicilian staple, consumed after a meal, along with fresh oranges and digestion helping herbs like fennel. In fact, we often enjoy Averna the same way, but not today.
Today, we’re matching Averna with James Oliver Rye, one of our long time favorite high-proof whiskeys made here in Oregon. A Black Manhattan could be made with bourbon, but we’re going for bitter and spicy, and, unless it’s a strongly rye influenced bourbon, it may be overwhelmed. So, spicy rye whiskey it is, and Averna, but the Black Manhattan also gets bitters, so we add both Orange Bitters and Aromatic Bitters from RAFT Syrups. These are both new products, and they bring their own local character to the dark party. The RAFT Orange Bitters are perfect for this cocktail, tasting strongly of orange in a way Regan’s doesn’t, but still with an herbal side that puts it somewhere between Regan’s No. 6 and Angostura’s very orange-ey Orange Bitters. The RAFT Aromatic Bitters, on the other hand, are exactly what you expect. Aromatic bitters, but with an unexpected, and very welcome touch of nutmeg/cola flavor we don’t notice in other brands. Together, they round off this amazing cocktail with a bit of orange to salute the Averna, and the aromatic bitters traditional in a Manhattan. All told, this is a magnificent cocktail, one as suitable for happy hour as it is for an after supper treat, just remember, it’s best made while listening to Disintegration and brooding over the kind of rain that falls on Winter days when it’s dark before the work day ends. Yes, this is the kind of cocktail that can be totally a Portland thing.
Stir with ice, and serve up. Garnish with a brandied cherry.