Coffee gets combined with stuff all the time: coffee and cream, coffee and cookies, coffee and professional ambition, coffee and teenaged ennui. This week, we want you to try something new: combining amaro liqueur and coffee. Amaro is a general term for a kind of flavorful European spirit that is gaining popularity in the US, and which is just complex enough to make it a fun challenge to combine with coffee's own infinite complexities. But instead of handing you another recipe, I sought out the wisdom of a few bartenders to keep you ahead of the curve and explain how to build your own coffee & amaro cocktails at home.
Amaro is an Italian digestif, traditionally served neat in a small glass. Much like coffee, amari come in a wide range of flavors, and different brands have made themselves famous for different flavor notes—Fernet-Branca is bold and minty, while Nonino is more delicate and tamarind-like. Amari recipes are often well-guarded secrets, and producers use specific blends of herbs and spices passed down through generations. Much like the same bean coming from two roasters can taste vastly different, no two amari—even with the same ingredients—taste quite the same. This is what got me excited about the liqueur: finding a way to highlight its natural flavor profiles while still creating something new.
I originally thought two such complex and flavorful drinks like coffee and amaro would be difficult to combine, but Lindsay Matteson, the head bartender of Amor y Amargo in Manhattan's East Village, convinced me they’re actually a match made in beverage heaven. “They're two sides of the same coin,” Matteson tells me, and she should know—her bar's Double Buzz weekend coffee cocktail program is helping to push forward new and exciting coffee & amaro recipes each weekend. “They’re both after-dinner drinks because that bitterness helps settle your stomach. They’re a perfect complement to each other.”
So how do you combine these complicated flavor profiles? Start with your goal in mind: Do you want an herbaceous cocktail, or something sweet? A hot drink or cold? After that, it becomes a matter of finding ingredients with the flavor profile you’re looking for. Matteson encourages people to “think about what [each] ingredient has—taste it on its own, break down the flavors, [then] think of flavors that complement that.” Instead of a firm category like a “whisky cocktail,” think about what each ingredient adds to the cocktail.
In that same vein, Matteson also recommends tasting all your ingredients in the state you’re going to use them—because, as we know from brewing coffee, temperature plays a huge role in the flavors we taste. Cooler temperatures bring out bitter flavors, and amaro is going to taste very different heated than at room temperature. To work out the proportions for your ingredients, start from a template—like the recipe for a Negroni—and sub in coffee for one of the ingredients, like the vermouth.
There’s a trend in cocktail bars to make drinks with fewer ingredients in order to streamline bar flow, but coffee complicates that idea. While the two bitter profiles of amaro and coffee complement each other well, the flavors are intense enough that they need to be tempered with others to achieve the ultimate goal: balance. Finding that balance is where things get fun. To learn more, I had a few drinks with Drew Garison, creative director of award-winning Dallas cocktail bar Parliament, and he made me two very different cocktails.
One followed Garison’s recommendation to simplify everything: he added a few drops of coffee tincture to banana liqueur and an amaro. The result was a complex flavor profile that kept me coming back for the next sip, and the next, in a drink that seemed to change form each time I tried it. The other was an adventure, a throwback to the tiki drinks currently enjoying their own resurgence in popularity: cold-brew coffee, pineapple juice, rum, dry vermouth, and fernet. “It doesn’t make sense on paper,” Garison said of the combination, but the drink was balanced and refreshing. “As intense as those flavor profiles are, [this] goes to show you how versatile [coffee and amaro] are.”
I took the knowledge Matteson and Garison shared and tried to build a couple of cocktails. The first combined Averna, dry curaçao, brewed coffee, and pineapple juice; the result was too sweet, but on the right track. The second I started with a vermouth wash, then filled the glass with Nonino, bourbon, brewed coffee, and a twist of lemon. It still wasn’t perfect, but it was more balanced.
For many, amari is a brand new realm of complex beverage, and like coffee, the flavor profiles make the possible delicious combinations endless. Start by visiting the best liquor store near where you live, and do a little research online for the type of amari you might want to stock for your home bar. Like most good things in life, prices vary depending on how fancy you want to go, but a standard bottle of Fernet runs around $30, while Averna amaro should be more like $20. Mix and match, try stuff out, and visit a nice cocktail bar in your area for inspiration.
Matteson’s final advice: “Don’t be afraid to try things together. You know what you like—we all know what we like. Trust that.” Happy drinking, and tell us what you came up with.