The classic negroni cocktail depends on three ingredients: gin, red vermouth and Campari, the most commonly found amaro. Amaros are bitter Italian liqueurs, with endless variety and regional variation. In fact some might say that Campari is not an amaro as it is clearly part of a pre-dinner aperitivo as opposed to a post-dinner digestivo. Either way, I’m a big fan of the bitter red drinks, and have been wondering why the UK has never developed a culture of locally produced regional spirits. After all, every village in Italy will have its own amaros, and similar drinks exist all over Europe.
So after many years of damson gin, this felt like the year to branch out into some more challenging drinks. I wanted to make a damson amaro that would work as a shot, a bracing after dinner digestif, with a complexity of herbal, piney and bitter tastes, somehow blended with the sour, slightly almond scented damson flavours.
Mark Williams (Galloway Wild Foods) has written a great piece on homemade UK vermouths and amaros using foraged ingredients, and this provided my template. However, I took a major shortcut, and rather than traipsing through the parks of north London to find wild herbs, I bought the various bitter ingredients online. They’re generally available as herbal teas on Amazon, although it’s hard to believe anyone could actually drink wormwood tea, let alone gentian tea. I’ve tried. One sip is enough.
I’m using a 70% alcohol neutral grain spirit for the initial infusion, hoping that after dilution with sweetening syrup that would allow me to create a 30-35% final drink. The strong alcohol also helps with a cleaner and faster extraction of flavours than something like vodka. In comparison, the damson gin starts with gin at around 40%, and once you’ve added sugar and damsons the final product might get down to 25-30%.
Some recipes will very sensibly create a separate tincture for every single ingredient and then blend them carefully, drop by drop, to create the amaro. I didn’t really have the patience for that, so went for a single blend. As you’ll see, that has its downsides!
This helpful Savuer article by Alex Testere recommends 1 tablesoon (3 teaspoons) of bitter ingredients per 750ml. I went over at a total of 3½ teaspoons in 550ml, but then one of my bitter herbs, angelica, isn’t actually that bitter.
I raided my garden for extra things to add to the syrup, including some conifer (although I’m not sure that contributed much), bay leaves, rosemary and thyme.
Most amaro recipes will stop at the point where you mix the infused spirit with the syrup, and let it age for a period (for instance this good article from Thrillist). Here I am instead adding my damsons, and using the same technique as with damson gin of just letting them steep in the alcohol for a few months. As well as giving it that distinctive damson taste, we get the beautifully rich plum red colour.
The result: the good news is that it worked. It’s an interesting and unique drink, and does indeed blend the damson taste with bitter italian liquer flavours. On the nose it’s a bit medicinal. The taste is floral, fruity and then quite bitter, coating the tongue at the end (I’m not really sure what that is, but I’m going to assume its the wormwood or gentian). The bitterness persists however you use it – so for example when mixed in a negroni it is still the dominant taste. In terms of sweetness and strength it seems about right. It certainly has a complexity way beyond something like a Campari or Aperol (and it is around the same bitterness as Campari, or a little less, when tasted side by side), but it doesn’t compare with a refined Italian amaro, where monks have been perfecting the recipe for hundreds of years.
I was quite pleased with batch #1 and learned many techniques along the way. Next up I’ll be trying a gentler recipe (in the style of an Amaro Montenegro) and perhaps a more piney one as well, and having a go at using the splendid sheet on Reddit’s r/Amaro.
Recipe for a home-made, complex, bitter red amaro made with local damsons. Works well very chilled as a shot of digestif or in cocktails like a Negroni.
- Spirit infusion
250ml 70% grain alcohol
1½ tsp wormwood
1 tsp gentian
1 tsp angelica
½ tsp fennel seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
2 star anise
9 cardamom pods
10 bay leaves
Sprig of rosemary
Sprig of thyme
½ tsp dried elderberries
A couple of sprigs of random conifers (from my garden; one is a juniperus squamata blue, and the other I’m not sure, but I definitely avoided the poisonous Irish yew!)
- Mix the spirit with the infusion ingredients
- Leave in a cupboard for 5 days (remove the anise after 2 days)
- Mix the syrup ingredients. The elderberries will make it go quite dark, but don’t worry the amaro clear and red at the end
- Bring the syrup the boil, cover and leave on a low heat for 15 mins (ensuring the sugar is completely dissolved), then take off the heat and leave to infuse longer, allowing it to cool.
- In a larger jar, mix the spirit infusion, the syrup and the damsons. I use 2l kilner jars.
- Leave somewhere cool and dark for a few months. I had a bit of leftover vodka so chucked that in as well.
- Sieve out the liquid, and then pass through a filter (a coffee filter, or a cheesecloth) and bottle
- Strength calculation: Starting with 250ml of spirit at 70% means we have 175ml of pure alcohol. If we mix that 250ml with 300ml of syrup we’ll have a total volume of 550ml, so that’ll have a strength of about 32%.
Where to buy the ingredients
- Grain neutral spirit
- Wormwood, gentian, angelica and similar ingredients are often found as herbal teas, for example through Indigo Herbs or Health Embassy.
Why is the neutral spirit so expensive in the UK? It’s because the spirit duty is currently at £28.74 per pure litre of alcohol, which means £15 of the price of a 750ml bottle at 70% is just tax.