Choosing Amaro Ingredients
An abundance of choices…
Choosing your ingredients for an amaro or another herbal liqueur can seem pretty daunting. Walking into an herbal supply store with walls covered in herbs and roots that you’re not too particularly familiar with can be pretty overwhelming if the powerful smell doesn’t get to you first. What exactly is hyssop? How bitter is something like gentian root, anyway? It’s easy to get paralyzed by choice.
To make amaro, you’re going to have to build both a physical and a mental library of ingredients.
If you’re totally green to what exactly are common ingredients in amaro, I highly recommend cracking open Amaro by Brad Thomas Parsons. I’m going to say that if you’re reading this blog anyway then to go ahead and buy it. Read about what known ingredients are used in your favorite amari and tally them up.
I am also going to Super Highly 100% Advise you to double check every ingredient that interests you on resources like Cocktailsafe.Org. Thank you, very much.
Once you’ve got an idea of what you’re looking for, head on down to your local herbal supply and go to town!
Get to chewin’!
It’s time to find out exactly how bitter that gentian root is! The best way to know how it’s going to taste, is by knowing how it tastes!
Pretty much any resource can tell you that a particular herb is “earthy” or “grassy”, or that some root is “spicy” and “bitter”. Lots of things are spicy and bitter, it’s the subtleties between spiciness and bitterness that we’re after here.
Break out a notebook, pop some ingredients in your mouth, and write down the flavors that you taste. Really chew on them for a minute! Some of the more subtle flavors in an ingredient don’t always reveal themselves right away. You don’t need to be a sommelier here; there’s no secret flavor code you have to follow. As long as your notes make sense to you.
After chewing on all those herbs for a while your mouth is going to start tasting like an arboretum, but hey, you’re going to be able to describe to someone what myrrh tastes like! (Finally!)
I generally find the best way to write a recipe is to work backwards. What kind of liqueur are you trying to make?
Just spitballing to myself here:
I want something with huge mint character, a healthy amount of bitterness, earthy and piney, and maybe a little vegetal. High alcohol content, low sugar content, not citrus forward. And some cardamom flavors really lingering for a while.
Now we work backwards.
Let’s break this description down by type of ingredient. I generally categorize my herbs and spices into three groups.
1) bittering ingredients (mostly roots)
2) flavoring ingredients (mostly herbs and spices)
This obviously isn’t a perfect breakdown. There are plenty of exceptions and overlap, but it’s a good starting point.
Something quick to keep in mind, I generally use between 30-50 grams of botanicals in a 700 gram spirit infusion. This is not a hard and fast rule though, just what has worked best for me.
Bitterness is more often than not going to play the structural foundation of your liqueur. Most of the depth of flavor really comes from your root and bittering ingredients with every other flavor category complimenting and reflecting off of the foundation that bitterness has built.
I generally use between 30%-60% roots and other bittering agents in an amaro recipe, by weight. Just keep in mind that different bittering agents are going to have a wide range on how much you need to use to be effective.
For our liqueur we know that bitterness is going to be a huge focus; not just in quantity but also in character. maybe something spicy & classically bitter like Gentian, but also some cola-like character that sarsaparilla offers. Great!
These are your “Top End” flavors. Your herbs and spices are what keep an amaro interesting, with flavor melding and changing over time, telling the narrative of your liqueur. This is where your craftsmanship of recipe design is going to really get a chance to shine. I typically use between 30%-60% of flavoring ingredients by weight depending on what kind of amaro I am trying to make.
I generally try to keep a less-is-more attitude when it comes to picking my flavors. What is the path of least resistance for the flavors I am looking for? Can I get that with one ingredient (i.e. peppermint)? Or do I need multiple flavors working in harmony (i.e. baking spice flavors)? A very good companion for this process is The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen A. Page.
Try to keep this easy on yourself when you’re just starting out. I usually only throw one or two new ingredients in a batch of amaro alongside ingredients that I am very familiar with.
Now, for our Amaro, we want something very minty, earthy, and vegetal…
Spearmint is minty, but a lot less minty than peppermint (.5% menthol compared to Peppermints 40% menthol content). I’m going to have to use quite a bit more spearmint, but I’m also going to be pulling the general grassy flavors that spearmint will also provide. This is great for the type of liqueur I’m trying to make.
Next for earthy and pungent, I might pick something like rosemary, but be careful! A little rosemary goes a long way.
As for vegetal, I’m again going to take the path of least resistance and throw in a vegetable. In this case some artichoke! (I love me some cynar, after all…)
I throw citrus into its own category. No other kind of ingredient can do what an orange or grapefruit peel can do for a recipe, so they deserve some special attention. Citrus peels are also high in oil content so too much can easily lead to louche. I generally use between 5%-15% citrus by weight in an amaro recipe.
Alright, so we want our liqueur to have some citrus, but we want it to be “earthy”. Grapefruit is too bright a flavor for this recipe, so let’s choose bitter orange peel.
Sweetness and Dilution:
Taking what we talked about it my Amaro making article, we know that sugar can be quite a balancing act.
I can tell you that in order to get a good idea of what kind of range is possible with a liqueur to consult Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold. He has a chart dedicated to the alcohol and sugar content of many liqueurs. I usually just find a liqueur on the chart that is the most similar in terms of sweetness, mouthfeel and alcohol strength and work backwards from there.
Just go buy Liquid Intelligence.
The chart is on page. 136.
And that’s basically it.
That’s all there is to it. Over time you will start to build groups of ingredients that you know work with one another. The only real thing you can do from here is just practice by making more amaro.
(And keeping good notes while doing so!)