To understand, you have to understand my first experience with amari. I was at Peter’s house, I’d been eating some aged provolone and drinking red wine, and I walked into the kitchen and someone handed me a glass of Cynar and told me to try it.
I did so.
I wanted to claw out the lining of my esophagus. Even the memory of that taste makes me shudder, and it’s been 5 years.
To understand, you also must understand that I will continue to try things I dislike if they are interesting. Often, I will come to like them – not the way I like things that taste good, but differently: a complicated affection, rather like loving a pyromaniac younger brother. As deeply as I’d hated that first taste of Cynar, something in it spoke to that part of me.
So it was that I found myself at Lidia’s in the Strip District of Pittsburgh, facing down a row of 6 glasses, each half-full of brown-gold liqueur: Amaro Nonino, Amaro Nardini, Averna, Amaro Montenegro, my old nemesis Cynar, and Fernet Branca. (If you want to try these locally, you should be able to order a glass at Lidia’s. More globally, try a good Italian restaurant with a full bar. If you are lucky enough to live somewhere without draconian liquor laws, you may be able to find them in a specialty shop.)
My first fear was that I’d hate all of them. My second was that they’d be so similar that I would be unable to distinguish one from the next. My third fear was tasting Cynar again.
I needn’t've feared.
Nonino is pleasantly anise-noted, cinnamony and orangey. Even if you are like me and not a huge fan of anise, Nonino is worth a try. Nardini I loved, but can scarcely recommend to others: it tasted of eucalyptus, and left a stripe of flavor/sensation horizontally across the center of my tongue. I have never in my life had this happen before, and I was intrigued and enamored instantly. Averna and Montenegro blend together in my mind, at this remove: the former chocolately, the latter herbal, but both easy to drink and appreciate — the Averna is even a little boring, compared to the others we tasted.
And then it was time to face the Cynar. I took a sip. I did not want to claw out the lining of my esophagus, but as the flavor hit me, I realized that this should probably never follow red wine as immediately as it had that fateful day. There’s something in it that clashes horribly with the tannic notes in red wine, some dreadful alchemy only possible in a living throat. I can’t call it my favorite of the amari we tasted, but if someone gave me a bottle I’d be content to drink it. We talked a bit about the artichoke on the label, and how it makes Americans think it is artichoke liqueur, even though there are no artichokes in it. (After the tasting, I went to a state store to look for more amari, and…it’s not just the fault of the label on the bottle. There, on the shelf tag, was “CYNAR ARTICHOKE LIQ”. I am surprised they manage to sell any of it.)
The last, Fernet Branca, was probably my least favorite — not bad, but neither pleasant like many of the others nor intoxicatingly interesting like the Nardini.
Overall, the experience was one of the more interesting of my life so far — educational, epicurial, entertaining. My thanks to Peter and all the other participants, and especially Lidia and Dave for their hospitality and generousity.