Monday, October 15, 2012

Boston Cocktail Summit Weekend, Part V: Amari and More

My Saturday afternoon at the Boston Cocktail Summit started with the session Do You Speak Amari?, with the energetic Francesco Lafronconi, National Directory of Mixology and Spirits Educator for Southern Wine and Spirits of America, and an internationally renowned mixologist.  Francesco took us through the wide world of Italian Amari, providing a bit of background and history, and a LOT of tastings.

The word "amaro" (plural "amari") is of course Italian for "bitter."  According to Francesco, the term itself is generic with no particular legal definition.  "Amaro" generally refers to a liquer flavored with bitter herbs and spices and sweetened with sugar.  Amari are general around, or slightly over, 30 proof, and have less than 10% sugar content.  The based spirit used to make amari is often distilled sugar beet molasses (due to it being inexpensive), but neutral grape brandy or, less commonly, wheat grain alcohol might also be used.

Amari originate from the use of bitter herbs for medicinal purposes as far back as Hippocrates in the 5th Century B.C.  The amaro industry came up in the 1800s, however, spurred on in part by industrialization and Italian unification.  The 1950s brought a boom in amaro advertisement in Europe, which helped make them a ubiquitous part of Italian drinking culture.

Amari are often served before dinner as an aperitivo, or after dinner to help digestion.  This stems from the fact that amari are said to have the therapeutic effects of stimulating the upper digestive function and causing gastric secretion that, within about 20 minutes of consumption, stimulates the appetite (Franceso also mentioned, rather amusingly, that drinking amari helps combat flatulence, making them excellent drinks for distribution in air travel).  Amari are traditionally served straight up or on the rocks, or even with seltzer, giner ale, ginger beer, or cola.  Often, a citrus garnish is added.  In cocktails, amari are usually a modifier, often paired with citrus in sours, used as a float, or even added to ice cream to create a tasty frappe.

After giving us our background, Franceso led us through a tasting of 15 amari, providing details and tasting notes on each.  Here are a few notes I took:
  • Both Zucca and Cynar are sometimes consumed by adding a splash to wine.
  • My favorite amaro today for the moment is probably Cardomaro, possibly due to my affinity for Piemontese wines.
  • Amaro Nonino is popular with ginger beer or champagne.
  • Amaro Dell'Erboista is reputed to be the most bitter of all amari.

Francesco leading us through a tasting

The spread of available amari

Our tasting layout

After filling up on amari, I headed back over to the Park Plaza for How to Order a Great Wine Every Time, with Master of Wine Sandy Block.  Sandy took us through a tasting of 10 different wines, offering tips on how to pick a winner when facing an unfamiliar list.  Some of his tips included:

  • Look for wine on the list from a rising area, which currently include Spain, Portugal, Greece, and South Africa.
  • Avoid simply asking for a recommendation or what the server likes.  For one thing, palates are very different when it comes to mind, but also, a servers motives might be skewed by the fact that they have certain items they are incented to promote.  Instead, ask for information about specific wines or about the difference between wines on the list.
  • Look for older vintages on the wine by the glass list, as they often imply a more deliberate choice.)
One type of wine I had not had before that I enjoyed in particular was the South African Chenin Blanc.  This type of wine is available in both sweet and dry variations (the one we had was a dry).

After adding wine to my tasting repetoire for the day, I jumped back to the Royal Sonesta and sat in on a seminar that hit on something similar but different, the session When Apples Go Cooler than Cool; Fresh New Ideas from the North.  So what was this all about?  In short, apple ice wine (aka ice cider), a relatively new kind of product from Canada.  Boisset Family Estates Stephane Rochefor briefed us on Boisset's product Neige Apple Ice Wine, a tasty dessert wine with a nice sweet apple taste balanced with acidity.

Neige, which was first produced in 1994, was the first commercial apple ice wine.  It is produced in a similar fashion to traditional ice wine using either the technique of cryoconcentration, where pressed apple juice is kept outside in freezing winter temperatures producing a concentrated syrup that is then fermented, or cryoextraction, where actual frozen apples are pressed and fermented.  Prior to Neige, people had been making ice ciders non-commercially for a few decades, but because the quality was not very high, they had gained somewhat of a bad reputation. 

There are six different versions of Neige ice ciders (as they are called in Canada), three of which are available in the U.S.  The different versions use different blends of apples, and some use cryoextraction rather than cryoconcentration.  Neige was an interesting product, and one of the surprise dicsoveries for me from the Summit.  I'm looking forward to trying some Neige with an appropriate cheese or after dinner; I think it has potential.

To wrap up the Summit, I swung by the Beam BBQ for a while, where there was a bith of BBQ, some Beam products to sample, and eventually a Prince tribute band.  The event suffered some logistical issues from all appearances, and I was a little disappointed with the selection of Beam offerings that were actually available, but to be honest I was pretty taped out at that point anyway.  Consequently, I called it a bit of an early night, and began resting up for next year.

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