Viva Amaro Montenegro!
Living la dolce vita may have always seemed like it's the exclusive domain of those residing in the country shaped like a boot, but with the arrival of Italy's most popular amaro here in our bars the good life now belongs to us all.
Around since 1885 (which makes it a year older than that all-American favorite, Coca-Cola) Amaro Montenegro has had the hearts of generations of Italians, filling their glasses day after day and offering a liquid respite from the world around them. And now New York's most innovative bartenders are reaching for it to see just how they can inject a little Italian style into their evenings.
Across the city they're being inspired by the B-Team (some of which include Chris Lowder, Sother Teague, Pamela Wiznitzer, and captain Jason Littrell) who know that recipe creation with the most popular Italian Amaro can easily take you from delicious aperitivo to digestivo and brighten up everything in between. Littrell spent some time sharing his passion for Amaro Montenegro and explained why it's one brand he's happy to get behind and drink even when he's not out talking about the brand.
SS: What is it that you love about Amaro Montenegro and how are other bartenders responding when you share it with them?
JL: We can always count on the juice. It’s just that good.
SS: What’s the B-Team?
JL: A collection of extraordinary bartenders who have different expertise and influences in the bartender community. Every member operates with prolific intelligence and they are extremely good examples of what New York bartenders have to offer. Sother runs Amor Y Amargo, Chris is in charge of all the bar training at Nomad and Pam is another facet of what’s modern and classic at the Dead Rabbit; a bar which we can all agree is legendary.
SS: And while they are in their own bars pouring Amaro Montenegro and then out visiting fellow bartenders to share their love of their favorite amaro, what do you do?
JL: My role is to be the coach of the B-Team. It's great! I don’t have to crack any skulls because everyone is so motivated. Working with the members of the B-Team has been stimulating and enlightening. They never stop surprising me with the ideas they have and the things they want to do. If you get them all in the same room together a lot of interesting concepts come from that. Of course many of these ideas will never see the light of day, but it is fun sitting in a conference room trying to come up with them. There is always a lot of giggling going on. They, and I, are working with Amaro Montenegro for all the right reasons. We do it because we love it.
SS: It’s always such a pleasure knowing that you are working with something you love. How are you using Amaro Montenegro?
JL: More than I care to admit. It’s something I can organically go out and order. Sometimes I catch myself ordering it even when I’m not on the clock. I personally enjoy the lower proof because bartenders tend to drink a lot and this is something you can enjoy a lot longer.
SS: In Italy they are still keeping with tradition and mostly just enjoy Amaro Montenegro after a meal, but we hear that American bartenders are making it an integral part of their cocktail programs.
JL: It has been interesting to see how people use it. Some use it like a sugar - it has roughly the same Brix value - some use it as a base. No matter how they use it Amaro Montenegro holds its own – whether it is being offered as a sipping spirit, utilized as a cocktail component or featured as the base of a cocktail.
SS: Are there particular kinds of bars that are pouring it in one of those three ways you just mentioned?
JL: You know, we’re not aggressively reaching out to temples of mixology. It’s an every person, every day thing. There’s even this one place where they just put a bottle of Amaro Montenegro on the table after every meal because it’s a good digestivo and perfect after every meal.
Bartenders who have known what it is have always been extraordinarily loyal to Amaro Montenegro. They are loving it for themselves (with the lower abv it’s easy to have a few shots behind the bar or with customers while you’re working) and they’re also loving it for their bottom line (it fits in just about every bar program no matter the budget).
SS: When they are pouring it for their guests, are bartenders pouring it neat to be sipped or in cocktails?
JL: I’m taking an educated guess here in saying that 80% of what is being served is going into the glass either as a cocktail component or a shot. Not a lot of people seem to be slowly sipping it. That’s definitely something we’d like them to explore more of though; it’s a complex spirit that doesn’t get experienced fully when you just throw it back. But at the end of day we’re not trying to tell people how to drink; like any good bartender we know it’s their drink and they can do what they want with it. We’re just happy to make it available to them.
SS: What should bartenders know about Amaro Montenegro?
JL: It’s Italian. It’s older than Coca Cola. Amaro Montenegro has a cultural legacy in Italy, which is why it has a prevalent position in the market. Plus it is easy to drink. What I like about it is that it is delicious, has a real story and is authentic. Italians drink it. I like that. It’s like Herradura being the tequila brand that Mexicans drink. In Italy it is just something that’s been passed down from generation to generation, the same way we have a relationship with Corn Flakes. For them it occurs naturally in the culture -not just specifically Amaro Montenegro, but amaro in general, though Montenegro is the best-selling amaro in the country.
As far as where it falls on the grand spectrum of amaro we can get our hands on, it’s not the sweetest, it’s not the most bitter. We think you should just give it a try, but if you won’t that’s okay. Bless your heart.
SS: Well maybe they don’t understand the value of having an amaro on their back bar. What else can you share that would inspire them into trying it and stocking it?
JL: The formula has remained unchanged for a very long time. That’s for a reason – it’s good the way it is. A lot of brands change their formulas based on what they think the market wants, but not Amaro Montenegro. The history of the brand is what keeps it interesting and makes me not feel like an asshole when talking about it.
Categorically speaking I like the way that Americans are embracing the possibility of bitter. Bitter used to be an indication of poison, but now we’re getting into an era where we are developing our palates and people are willing to try things they wouldn’t ordinarily try. It’s the perfect time to bring in Amaro Montenegro because it’s not bang your head bitter or bang your head sweet – its right down the middle of what you are looking for. It’s got more citrus influence in it than anything else. I wouldn’t call it bitter until the end of the finish. That’s Amaro Montenegro’s advantage in the market. Plus you can have a little amaro and it’s not going to knock you on your ass. There’s a movement towards lower alcohol cocktails, and Amaro Montenegro is primed to be a part of that.
SS: So where does Amaro Montenegro fit into cocktail bartending?
JL: We love to say “Every Day Since 1885”; its long heritage proves it is versatile and really appealing if it has lasted this long. In Italy it represents a relaxing part of the day that generations have looked forward to. Here in New York they aren’t as familiar with the concept of taking a moment out for an amaro, but they are open even if they are initially skeptical and don’t know what it is.
SS: Well, that sounds like the perfect spirit for cocktail bars because cocktail bartenders are known for educating their customers.
JL: They [guests] see black stuff in a glass and think it’s Jaeger or something like that but once you give them an explanation that it’s an old family recipe from Italy with a lot of citrus notes and a bit of bitter at the end they’re like, “Okay, I’ll try it.” Again, we’re not teaching people how to drink, just giving them options.
SS: With the 40 herbs and spices in the secret recipe there must be a million ways to use it in cocktails.
JL: I use it interchangeably as a sugar. It may not be as sweet as simple syrup but it can still be used instead of simple syrup. It counters acid very well and makes something simple into something much more complex. When I make cocktails I isolate the things I like about spirits and you can use it to either highlight the things you like or tone down the things you don’t. With the addition of Amaro Montenegro in the recipe as long as components are well balanced the end result cocktail could be greater than the sum of its parts.
SS: Obviously one of the most visible components of Amaro Montenegro is the bottle and its stand out label.
JL: The way the bottle strikes the eye conveys that the brand is very antique and has been around for a while. There have been some minor design changes since they first launched in 1885, but the overall design and shape has been pretty much the same. The bottle speaks to its timeless characteristics of what’s inside of it. It looks really old, but ironically enough they never seem to gather much dust.
SS: Do you find that the beauty of the bottle sitting there on the back bar inspires people to taste it even if they’re not familiar with amaro?
JL: Hard to say. Any self-respecting cocktail bar would have more than one amaro just as they’d have more than one, vodka, gin, tequila, etc. which is a broad array of interesting things to look at. I think it’s a compelling bottle, but that’s because I know a lot about it.
SS: Since you know so much about it can you tell us why Amaro Montenegro is really listening to the B-Team and other creative NYC-based bartenders now after generations of going it alone as a digestive in Italy?
JL: Amaro Montenegro loves its bartenders, as their passion for the craft is just as strong as Amaro Montenegro’s passion for making this generations old beloved amaro. The brand has have thrown an incredible amount of support behind us; letting the B- Team do the things they like to do – drink, talk, and make drinks. They’ve embraced these qualities in us as a team and it’s been great working with them for that. I don’t know anybody else who does that. Other people have brand ambassadors but we don’t consider ourselves brand ambassadors. We’re just fortunate to be getting paid to talk about what we like. We’re advocates of better drinking.
SS: And how will you be celebrating the art of better drinking at PDX Cocktail Week?
JL: Pam is doing a session on the Neurology of Taste, talking about the sensory impact of flavor, as it is part of what she is studying at NYU, and we’ll be doing a Monte Nightcap on Sunday night to kick the week off.
SS: The perfect way to say good night.
If you're interested in stocking your bar with Amaro Montenegro, contact them here: email@example.com
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