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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 41.0° F  Fair
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Amaro is an herbal forest in a liqueur
Secret mix
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With its distinct sense of place, layered complexity, history and tradition, amaro is surely the wine-iest of spirits. An herbal liqueur commonly offered as a digestif in Italy and in upscale Italian restaurants, amaro is refreshing after a fine meal.

Better yet, it's a wonderful tool of the mixologist's trade, adding richness to a wide range of cocktails. Its flavors range from bitter, to fruity, to nutty, to spicy, to musky.

Amaro's mix of herbs (perhaps juniper, anise, mint, thyme, cinnamon, saffron, elderflower or even wormwood) is usually secret. The liqueur can also include roots, bark, flowers or orange peels, which are infused with grape brandy and simple syrup and then aged in casks or bottles, resulting in a beverage that is typically 16%-40% alcohol by volume.

While the exceptionally bitter Fernet Branca has a cult following in the hipster-mixology scene, a light amaro such as Amaro Nonino, one of my favorites, is stunning after dinner or in many killer cocktails.

Umbrian tartufo amaro, meanwhile, is flavored with black truffles, showing off their earthy character beautifully served neat. CioCiaro, which is one of the darkest amari, has a plummy/fig character that I love with rye and bourbon.

For true beginners, start with a beloved Italian refresher: the Aperol Spritz. Aperol, a very low-alcohol amaro with a citrus twang but minimal bitter character, and prosecco are a match made in Venice. Combine two parts Aperol to three parts prosecco, build in an old-fashioned glass with ice, and add a splash of soda water and an orange slice.

Try amaro in cocktails or straight up at Nostrano, L'Etoile or Merchant to experience this fine beverage in its element.

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