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Bitter liqueurs provide sweet digestive relief after Thanksgiving dinner

Emma Janzen

When the last drops of gravy are soaked up, the turkey’s drilled down to the bones, and the annual tryptophan coma sets in after Thanksgiving dinner this year, consider skipping the unpleasant post-meal antacids and opt instead for a liquid cure. A small dram of Averna, Ramazzotti, Gran Classico or Fernet Branca could be just the trick to help you feel less like exploding at the seams.

These liqueurs, which fall loosely into the Amari (which translates to “bitter” in Italian) category, are composed of an assortment of roots, herbs, citrus peels and spices, often aged for a period of time before bottling. Flavor-wise, they’re not too far removed from nonpotable cocktail bitters like Angostura, which are generally more intense (because of the high proof spirits and higher concentration of bitter elements) and therefore used in only the smallest quantity to balance and complete mixed drinks. Amari are consumed mostly neat, to polish off a meal, and as the Italians believe, to help aid in digestion.

While the “bitter” name suggests the liquid will be mouth-puckering, most Amari fall on the sweet side of bittersweet. Consider the wonderful aroma associated with dark chocolate, raisins, molasses and mincemeat, balanced with savory herbal tea-like tannins and spice, and you have an Amaro.

I put together a spectrum of options to try this year, organized from good matches for beginner drinkers to ones designed for more bold, adventurous types. Most of the recommendations come in around the $20 to $30 price point. You can find them at most liquor stores in Austin, from Specs to Twin Liquors, Wiggys and the Wine Merchant.

Cardamaro: A wine-based Amaro whose flavor profile stems primarily from cardoon, a relative of the artichoke plant. This is the juiciest, most approachable option for newbies to warm up to the category. Soft cherry and grape notes dominate, with only whispers of herbs and very little bitterness. More closely resembles a vermouth than a stout Amaro.

Averna: This Sicilian liqueur springs from the Averna family, who learned the recipe from a monk in 1868. Heavy vanilla, orange peel, and burned sugar provide the sweet nature of the liquid, while slight peppercorn spice, cardamom and smoky tea hints counteract and balance the mix.

Luxardo Amaro Abano: Luxardo produces a medium-bodied Amaro that has more spice than the Averna with heavy pepper and cardamom notes taking the lead. The flavor profile slightly resembles gingerbread, with warm sugary cinnamon and hints of orange floating through the blend. Luxardo Amaro and the previous two Amari fall within the sweeter, richer end of the spectrum.

Cynar: According to the Ultimate Guide to Spirits and Cocktails, Cynar first was sold over the counter in a drugstore more than 50 years ago in Termoli, Italy. Flavor-wise, it is the driest listed here. Cynar is made from artichoke extract but also claims 13 other herbs as part of the recipe. With its woody, vegetal qualities and very little sugar, it might appeal to wine drinkers who favor super dry Cabernet.

Fernet Branca: Fernet has been described as everything from a “punch in the face” to “gargling with Listerine” or “snorting menthol.” These brutish descriptions most appropriately capture Fernet’s startling flavor upon first sip. Yet it’s one of the most popular bitters in the world. In San Francisco, they drink it with ginger ale or ginger beer; in Argentina, with Coca-Cola. While the strong mint, eucalyptus, saffron and juniper flavors dominate, you can grow to love it. Once you get hooked on this acquired taste, you could end up a fan for life.

Finally, if you’re just not feeling the jump-in approach, a great way to ease yourself into becoming familiar with Amari is to drink one in cocktail form. Try substituting the vermouth in a Manhattan with Averna or adding a splash to the traditional recipe. It deepens and opens up the drink, which will appeal to fans of the classic cocktail while acting as a gentle introduction to the bittersweet flavors of the Amaro.

For more Amaro recommendations and recipes for cocktails to mix with them, visit www.austin360.com/liquid.