Near the beginning of Amaro: the Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, Brad Thomas Parsons positions Barnacle, Renee Erickson’s closet-like amaro shrine, as one of three premier amaro bars in the US. This shouldn't come as much surprise to cocktail followers in this city: even outside of Barnacle and its stock of 40 or so amari, Seattle bartenders have been spinning cocktails esoteric with these bitter digestivos for a few years now.
Niche culinary books frequently seem unnecessary: an ingredient or subsection of ingredients gets plumped with thick pages, glossy photos, big font, and plenty of white space to feel like a vital tome, even if only in hand. But this niche is startlingly vast, deserving of a compendium, and Amaro offers just that, exploring the varieties, histories, arguments, stratifications, and recipes that can make amaro an obsession, as it is for many a cocktail geek.
Parsons doesn’t even reach the first recipe—a page in praise of the Americano—until a third of the way through the book’s 270 pages. He spends 20 pages offering context, then another 60 introducing the different categories and varieties of amaro, with tasting notes on each. Sure, most seasoned sippers have tried Jagermeister, Campari, Fernet-Branca. But less know Cappelletti Vino Apertivo from Contratto Apertif, or that there are myriad fernets beyond Branca (Parsons lists 11).
Amaro works in a few ways. First, as a nicely various guide to amaro cocktails. Need that negroni recipe? You got it. Want a recipe for the Walrus and the Carpenter–born Mustache Ride? Parsons has you covered: bourbon, Cynar, lemon, maple simple syrup, allspice dram.
Parsons also takes the pulse of the current amaro craze. Learn, for example, that Jager is moving from its (long) midlife crisis and regaining its place as a respectably complex amaro. Or that American bartenders' amaro amore is so intense that Italians are looking to the US for cocktail innovation.
Parsons, who's first book Bitters: a Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All covered similar territory via bitters, is a natural fit for this material. And his descriptions—both in page-long essays and in descriptive paragraphs for each drink—are biographical, informative, and witty enough to keep even the modestly curious engaged. That is, the index is not your only entry point—you can comfortably and sequentially flip pages.
But flip is mostly what you'll do, because beyond the classics, most of the drinks' ingredient lists range well beyond the scope of even an impressive home bar; those 60 pages of amari are exuberantly tapped. Want to make an Elena's Virtue, a mai tai-like ode to amaro? Great, you just need Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, Amaro Montenegro, Tucaca liqueur, Luxardo amaretto, and a handheld smoke gun to self-smoke your Amaro Ramazzotti. So for amateurs Amaro is more probably for knowledge than know-how.
But if you live in a craft-cocktail haven like Seattle, that's okay because the book is still fun and useful for those exploring the bitter side of things. Parsons, a former Seattleite and Seattle Met contributor, includes recipes from local (non-Erickson) haunts like Rob Roy and Essex, along with plenty of shops—Specialty Bottle, Dandelion Botanical Company—for those who want to dig in at home, and even make their own amari—he offers four seasonal recipes.
Indeed, the book begins, as many a Seattleite’s amaro interest does, with Parsons sitting at Barnacle’s bar, happily weathering his two-hour Walrus and the Carpenter wait, awed at the amaro wall. And he carries that awe handsomely to the page.
Amaro: the Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs goes on sale October 11.