Popularizing Two Local Amaros

Oakland Spirits Co. and Richmond’s Falcon Spirits Distillery are having fun with the bittersweet liqueur known as amaro.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

The human tongue evolved specifically as a tool to detect — and reject — bitterness. Most naturally occurring toxins and poisons inherently taste bitter, so our primitive ancestors learned the hard way, through fatal trial and error, to avoid bitter-tasting (hence poisonous) plants. The survivors passed on their revulsion for bitter tastes to their descendants, and this gustatory warning system still protects us to this day.

Yet we’ve also come to learn, in the intervening millennia, that some bitter-tasting plant compounds are good for us, and that if we reject all bitter foods, we’re missing out on many ingredients that trigger beneficial biological responses.

So long-ago apothecaries began devising concoctions formulated to make medicinal bitter ingredients tolerable to the human tongue, generally by mixing therapeutic bitter roots and barks with tasty herbs and flowers in a sweetened alcohol. Originally sold as curatives, these elixirs eventually became popular just for their taste alone, and by the 19th century matured into the scrumptious digestif known today as the amaro.

An amaro is defined as any bittersweet liqueur, but it is especially popular in Italy, which is why the entire category is called amaro, the Italian word for bitter. Globally, Campari is the most popular of the amaros (or to use the proper Italian plural, amari), but there are dozens of regional varieties and styles.

Americans have long famously shunned bitter tastes, but a younger wave of sophisticated drinkers has just rediscovered amari, and now there’s a growing demand for locavore amari.  Two local East Bay distilleries have taken up the challenge.

“Millennials are the first American generation to really embrace bitterness as a concept,” said Mike Pierce, cofounder of Uptown’s Oakland Spirits Co. “Humanity has been trained to avoid bitterness, because it indicated poison. But amaro, high-IPA beer, tonic water, and bitters are all newly popular, as bitter is now everyone’s favorite flavor. It’s a great opportunity for spirits producers like us.”

Oakland Spirits Co, better known simply as “Osco” and already famous for its avant-garde seaweed gin, has now launched an entire amaro line, with the first release already on the shelves and others in the works.

“Our amaro brand is called Oakland Aero Club, which was a competitive ballooning team in the late 1800s, believe it or not,” laughed Pierce. “Each of our amari will honor a pilot for the OAC; our first release, ‘JC Mars,’ is named after the first pilot to beat San Francisco in a hot-air balloon race, in 1909. We love telling the story of Oakland through all our spirits.”

Pay attention to every sip of JC Mars, and you’ll notice sassafras, myrrh, wormwood, lemon peel, grapefruit, honey, cherries — a kaleidoscope of bitter and sweet.

“It’s a sunny-day-summer amaro,” mused Pierce. “In Italy, they might think we were crazy for this flavor combination, but it’s pure California.”

Falcon Spirits in north Richmond — near the site of the former Giant dynamite factory — has also just added a new line of amari to complement this highly regarded local distillery’s award-winning gins.

“Our Amaro Apolomado hits every part of your tongue — the front, the sides, center, and, of course, the back, where the bitterness receptors are,” explained Farid Dormishian, a former UC Berkeley biochemist who founded Falcon in 2013 and is now its owner and head distiller.

“I became familiar with amaros about 30 years ago when I was traveling in Italy, and I knew the time had come to make our own.”

The flavor of Amaro Apolomado is based on artichokes — which is a traditional amaro style in Italy, as most famously exemplified by Cynar — but that’s just the beginning.

“I’ve sourced 25 different herbs, roots, flowers, and fruits from the East Bay and nearby in Northern California to make a truly local amaro,” noted Dormishian. “It’s very intense, much more herbaceous than, and not nearly as sweet as standard amaros. You only need to add a dash to any cocktail — it’s that strong.”

Just hitting shelves now is his latest release, a lighter amaro for pre-meal sipping called Aperitivo Aplomado, also locally sourced but focused on gentian, orange peel, and chamomile.

Find out more online at OaklandSpirits.com and FalconSpirits.com.