Fernet may get most of the attention of late, but the world of amari, or bittersweet Italian herbal liqueurs, is extraordinarily diverse. Styles range from the lighter, bright notes of Amaro Nonino, to the bittersweet herbal citrus of Averna and Ramazzotti, the vegetal sweetness of Cynar, the alpine style of Braulio, and the intense, sharply bitter eucalyptus of Fernet Branca. Somewhere on the outside of the spectrum falls Cardamaro.
Unlike most of the others, which are made by steeping neutral spirits in herbs, barks, and botanicals, Cardamaro distinguishes itself with its wine base, making it feel more like a vermouth. Based on the recipe of a Piedmont vintner, Cardamaro begins as a Moscato wine, which is infused with a variety of botanicals including cardoon, and blessed thistle, two ingredients common in Piedmontese cooking. Since it’s essentially a dessert wine that begins sweet and finishes dry, with a viscous sip imbued with dark fruit notes, it’s well-suited for a digestif, or, as many bartenders have found, for mixing with cocktails.
At Wink and Nod in the South End, a cocktail called the Syndicate is made with rye, dry vermouth, Cardamaro, and Peychaud’s bitters. The Sinclair in Harvard Square mixes a Jim Reeves cocktail, playing the sweet notes of the Cardamaro off tequila, with spicy hot-apple shrub, Jerry Thomas Bitters, and grapefruit. If you ask, The Hawthorne in Kenmore Square will mix a drink highlighting Cardamaro using rye, Lustau sherry, and orange bitters.
You might think of Cardamaro as a bridge to blend other spirits in a drink, like in the Rubber Band Man from Shaher Misif, bar manager at Highball Lounge in the Nine Zero Hotel on Boston Common, where it binds the flavors of spiced rum and a cognac, another wine-based spirit.
Mixing it with an unaged spirit, like a pisco, gives it a little more weight, says Misif. “Pisco, Cardamaro, and a little Cocchi Americano makes for a beautiful, elegant cocktail,” he says. On the other end of the spectrum, with a stirred, spirit-heavy cocktail, you can do an equal split of Cardamaro and a heavier amaro to tone down the bitter character.
“In many instances it’s a great way to mix spiritous cocktails,” says the bar manager. “It creates a delicate texture for cocktails.” Sometimes other amari can be too powerful and overwhelm a drink. “With Cardamaro you can make something more elegant, and little softer in texture,” he says. “You get the bitterness, but still the velvety texture you’d get from a dessert wine or fortified wine.”