Dine: The lure and lore of herbal liqueurs

Jagermeister, the bitter, anise-tinged liqueur, pours dark as a memory on the night of a college bender. Named for game wardens, Jager's association with wild animals -- like a drinker's behavior after a couple of shots -- could be why it has had little traction with cocktail aficionados.

Jager is still considered a fratty drink. Yet it's an example of an intriguing spirit that, with its combination of 56 herbs and spices, is among the more sophisticated on the market.

As consumers become versed in the culture of cocktails, herbal spirits are becoming more popular, largely due to Jager's more stylish cousin amaro, Italian for "bitter." The most coveted among these liqueurs is the darling of tattooed bartenders everywhere: Fernet Branca.

Much like Jager, the black booze has been likened to licorice, mouthwash, Robitussin and a punch in the face. Its acerbic flavor is the result of a grape base steeped with a gale of ingredients, which include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe and a good deal of saffron.

The dark spirit debuted in 1845 with opiates among ingredients. (They were eliminated by 1978.) Fernet maintained its illicit stature during Prohibition, when it was sold legally for medicinal purposes. Fernet bitters with low alcohol have long been available outside state liquor stores, mainly at Italian markets such as Pennsylvania Macaroni in the Strip.

Fans claim it's an aid for digestion, which explains its embrace by people who work in restaurants and eat for sport. This perception spurred a revival in the United States, which started more than a decade ago in San Francisco, an epicenter of farm to table, artisan butchery and craft cocktails.

Fernet acolytes cite an herbal bouquet that's more refined than the syrupy herbaceous character of Jager. But Fernet Branca had also implemented targeted marketing that has focused on tastemakers rather than "Jagerettes" and "Jager Dudes," the names for brand ambassadors who had been hired to spread the gospel of Jagermeister.

My most memorable experiences with Fernet Branca have been among chefs, line cooks and the people who pay lots of money to meet them at South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach. Each February for a weekend, eaters traipse through tented sandlots to graze on burgers, pork belly and a mishmash of dishes that surely don't complement each other.

"I neeeed a Fernet" was the refrain of attendees who held their guts at a bar occupied by Broken Shaker, a pop-up by Bar Lab. Here, customers would order a Corpse Reviver laced with it or a Fernet pour for sipping, a less geriatric elixir than pink Pepto for stomach relief.

Staff from Pittsburgh's restaurant industry are also devotees, as indicated by a weeklong angst last month when the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board experienced a brief Fernet shortage.

Justin Severino, chef-owner of Cure in Lawrenceville and formerly at Michelin-starred Manresa south of San Francisco, recalled the first time he drank Fernet a decade ago. Sitting on the patio at Thomas Keller's Bouchon in Yountville, Calif., Mr. Severino sipped Fernet Branca after a day of wine tasting and oysters.

As the cult of Fernet gains followers from California to Connecticut, imbibers are also branching out for their aperitivo and digestivo, the divisions under which amari falls. The result is an increased appetite for herbal liqueurs from Italy and beyond.

Leading the pack is Cynar, a bittersweet brown-hued elixir with flavors of artichoke. Runner-up is Zucca, a more delicate amaro, the base of which is rhubarb.

Herbal liqueurs are created by macerating herbs, peels, bark or flowers, and then steeping the mixture in a neutral spirit that's set aside to age.

These spirits are related to bitters doled in drops that deliver high-octane flavor, a boozier concentration above 40 percent alcohol with little or no sugar. They're sold in petite bottles of Angostura, Peychaud's, as well as mole, grapefruit and other variations from companies such as New Orleans-based Bittermens Inc. Whether it's a bitter in a small bottle or a liqueur such as Jagermeister or Fernet, all must contain a compound tincture, an alcoholic extract of more than one plant.

The flavors among amari vary widely, a result of a flurry of esoteric ingredients connected to the region where they're made.

Spencer Warren, an adviser to Acacia, the cocktail den on the South Side, recommends three levels for initiation.

He suggests Amaro di Nonino for entry-level drinkers, a lower-alcohol liqueur with notes of vanilla and sarsaparilla. For those who seek to broaden their tastes, there's Ramazzotti or Averna. Both offer medium body, about 30 percent alcohol by volume and sweetness to balance bitterness.

Mr. Warren names Nardini as an amaro comparable to Fernet Branca. But of these spirits for connoisseurs, he said, "It's not an easy jump. In addition to bitterness, there's such complexity. It's such a unique class of liqueurs."

Although Germany, Italy, Denmark and most European nations have been selling herbal liqueurs for decades, Americans are just getting in on the craft.

Bittermens, for example, has created the herbal orange Amere Nouvelle and the Amere Sauvage-Gentiane Americaine, an aperitif made from gentian root that's 23 percent alcohol.

One reason there's a dearth of stateside variations of amari is that artisans are just learning to navigate items the Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet added to the Generally Recognized as Safe list -- ingredients such as birch bark. This is especially relevant when it comes to drinkable bitters, a category more strictly regulated than droplet bitters such as Angostura or Peychaud's.

"Culinary spices are safe, of course," said Derek Brown, cocktail columnist for The Atlantic and owner of The Columbia Room and The Passenger in Washington, D.C. "But stuff like snakeroot? There aren't records regarding toxicity levels. In theory, there could be something dangerous about it."

Mr. Brown will serve as an ambassador for those who hope to make herbal spirits in the U.S. with items often found in amari and herbal spirits abroad.

"We're trying to better understand these types of ingredients," he said.

"There hadn't been the tradition or a need until now."

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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