That's Amaro

“Amaro” means bitter in Italian and it’s the word used to describe a category of spirits that uses bitter roots, flowers, or barks in conjunction with sugar and a base alcohol (usually grain spirit, but sometimes wine or brandy) to create a flavored liqueur. The recent renaissance of amari like Campari has created a bitter resurrgence in the cocktail world, with bartenders raising the bar far beyond simple staples like a Negroni or a Black Manhattan. Whereas Campari, Cynar, and newer products like Gran Classico are meant specifically for cocktails (I think you'd be reaching for the toothpaste if you drank Campari straight up), traditional amari are meant for sipping after dinner; they're digestivos made with medicinal herbs to help ease your stomach after a big meal. 

For more than one hundred years, different areas of Italy have been producing regional versions of amari; typically from herbs, roots, and botanicals found in that particular locale. Just like Tuscany is known for Sangiovese, and Piedmonte is famed for its Nebbiolo, each region of Italy has its own special recipe (usually heavily-guarded and top secret) for an amaro. I've personally been cutting back on my brown booze consumption as of late, instead opting for a shot of Nonino or Montenegro before bedtime. Let's take a look at our current selection that continues to grow as more and more Italian amari are imported:

LiguriaAmaro Di S. Maria al Monte $36.99 – First created by the monks of the Santa Maria monastery near Florence, the recipe was sold to a Mr. Vignale in 1911, who began producing it for the Liguarian region. The ingredients are 100% natural with absolutely no artificial flavors or colors: Chinese rhubarb, China root, gentian root, orange peel, angelica, juniper, muscat nut, saffron, plus many more herbs are used to create the flavor profile.

BolognaAmaro Montenegro $26.99First produced in 1885 by Bolognan citizen Stanislao Cobianchi, who traveled through the Principality of Montenegro he was struck by the extraordinary digestive powers of a local drink known as Karik. Returning to Italy, Stanislao cloistered himself away in a liquoreria of the Piemont where, after learning the secrets of distillation, he was able to reproduce the flavors of the drink once tasted in Montenegro. Returning to Bologna as an accomplished master of his trade, Stanislao opened a small liquor store and subsequently a distillery in order to produce and market his Amaro Montenegro, made with over 40 different herbs.

Friuli – Nonino Quintessentia Amaro $44.99 – From Distillatori Nonino in Italy's Friuli. This amaro is a grape distillate (brandy) infused with herbs and aged in barrique, which creates a more delicate and round amaro due to the higher quality base. It's also barrel-aged, adding extra richness.

SicilyAverna Amaro Siciliano $29.99Produced in Caltanissetta, Sicily, Averna is named after its inventor, Salvatore Averna, who invented the recipe in 1868. Herbs, roots and citrus rinds are allowed to soak in the base liquor before caramel is added. 

LombardiaLazzaroni Amaro $25.99 – Located in the town or Sarrono, in the Lombardian province of Varese, Lazzaroni has been producing traditional aperitivos, digestivos, and extracts based on guarded family recipes since 1851. Made from a special selection of herbs, plants, roots, and berries from the Alps.

Lombardia – Braulio Amaro Alpino $34.99 – Created in Bormio in 1875 by Francesco Peloni, a pharmacist who specialized in the field of medicinal aromatic herbs, Braulio is made with thirteen fresh herbs sourced from the Valtellina mountain region, including gentian, juniper, peppermint, star anise, wormwood, bitter orange and yarrow. After being infused with alcohol, it is then matured in Slavonian oak for two years, fully integrating the flavors and lending additional complexity. 

Piedmonte Cardamaro Amaro $18.99This secret family recipe was developed over the last century by the Bosca family using a wine base of Moscato, making it more like a vermouth.  Cardoon, blessed thistle and several other botanicals are infused into the base with a bit of sugar added.

BasilicataLucano Amaro $24.99This traditional Amaro from the far flung Basilicata region is made in the most traditional manner.  Using only natural botanicals and following a hundred year old family recipe, the secret ingredient that differentiates Lucano is a closely guarded family secret, but the recipe includes Roman absinthe, wormwood, Clary sage, musk yarrow, holy thistle, sweet orange, gentian, and aloe.

MilanFernet Branca $21.99Fernet Branca is an Italian amaro developed in 1845. The family's secret recipe still has never been disclosed, but what they can tell you is that it is a combination of 27 different herbs picked in four continents and aged for more than a year in oak casks. Fernet is also a specific type of amaro, now considered an entirely different subgroup of more minty, medicinal-flavored liqueurs.

MarcheVarnelli Amaro Sibilla $51.99From Italy's Varnelli family, a producer from the Marche region that has been distilling since 1868. It was created in 1868 by the herbalist Girolamo Varnelli. According to his recipe, the ingredients are an infusion of herbs and roots from Monti Sibillini made on wood fire, pure honey from Monti Sibillini, and alcohol. These ingredients, once blended, have to be decanted and aged for several months.

Varnelli Amaro Dell'Erborista $61.99Rhubarb, dried orange peel, cloves, gentian root, and more are used to take the Sibilla to a new level of bitterness. This is a cloudy and unfiltered spirit that is quite supple, but bitter as bitter can be on the finish.

And this is just a brief overview! There are about ten more I didn't list and there are five more samples sitting on my desk for approval. I can't get enough of this stuff. Every family with its own secret recipe, all the herbs and medicinal properties, and the variety of flavor.....I love it.

-David Driscoll


How Things Change

When we visited the Signatory warehouse last March, I left thinking that our Balmenach and Benrinnes casks were going to be the best-received from this first wave of whiskies. Experience has taught me, however, that things often change when the bottles actually arrive (which is why I'm always in a hurry to open them up and spend a few days tasting through them again). The Balmenach is still hung up in customs, so I haven't been able to check back on that one. The Benrinnes (now in stock, by the way) is just as good as I remembered (maybe even better) and I think we did well in hyping it as a sleeper hit. It's so elegant and ethereal in its flavor and the layers continue to unpeel, like an onion, with vanilla, then fruit, then lovely flavors of sweet barley and, yes, that little hint of sweet tea I remembered.

The whisky that completely caught me off guard this morning, however, was the 2002 Bowmore (also in stock as of now). My colleague Jeff Garneau apparently felt the same way, as he approached me earlier today and said, "WOW! That Bowmore is out of this world." Part of the reason I don't remember the soft and flowing flavors of this Bowmore cask is because the whisky has indeed changed since we tasted it in Pitlochry. This was one of two casks (the Glenlivet 16 being the other) that we chose to have bottled at 46%. Therefore, this is the first time we've tasted the whisky since it's been reduced—and MAN is it good.

Bowmore is always a tricky whisky to sell; mainly because its reputation garners a high price tag, yet the style and quality of the single cask selection can be all over the map. It can be really peaty, or only slightly smoky. Sometimes it can taste like lavender, and sometimes like a dirty engine. It can be sherried and decadent, or light and easy. This 11 year old hogshead cask, however, is my favorite type of Bowmore cask: it's oily, supple, and round with a load of fat fruit in the mid-palate and a heavy dose of smokestack on the backend. It's hypnotic and awe-inspiring whisky, reminiscent of some of my early Bowmore tastings when we first visited the distillery back in 2010. It's soooo much better than I remember it tasting.

More on the other casks soon!

-David Driscoll


A New Hope

Many of us in the industry had been hearing rumors about a single malt whisky coming out of the Pacific Northwest—one that supposedly tasted like its Scottish counterparts. The local demand was apparently outrageous (akin to what Bay Area residents feel towards St. George distillery) and the small releases were selling out faster than the distillery could bottle them. The reviews were solid, the feedback genuine, and the excitement was palpable—depending on who you talked to. The distillery was called Westland and, supposedly, their single malt whiskey was the real deal; not something wildly-different, radical, or new-makey—just plain delicious.

We were all very intrigued. Of course, we wouldn't know anything for sure until we tasted it.

Sometime later this bottle (pictured above) appeared on my desk. Westland had signed on with a California distributor and their whiskey was finally going to be sold statewide; I was finally getting my chance to taste this heralded elixir. The price wasn't going to be inexpensive (around $70, I was told), but the quality was for once going to back up the hype (again, I was told). After years and years of beery, crafty, "interesting", immature, "promising" American single malt whiskey dominating the marketplace, was this the moment I had been waiting for? Was Westland going to be the one domestic distillery to stop fucking around with gimmicky experimentation and make something delicious we could all get behind as fans of single malt whisky? Was their American Single Malt Whiskey going to change the face of the domestic market, offering consumers something double-distilled from malted barley on both a wash and spirit still at their own facility—just like actual Scottish distilleries do—and not simply a hybrid spirit distilled from brewer's mash and run through an alembic column still?


That's right, folks—Seattle's Westland distillery is the "new hope" we've been looking for in the battle for microdistillery quality. The whiskey is indeed delicious, and the hype well-deserved—the Westland American Single Malt is a landmark release for American single malt whiskey. Made of five different types of roasted barley, the flavors are familiar yet not exactly Scottish in nature. There's much more new wood infiltrating the palate, but it's nothing like you'd expect from a Bourbon or rye whiskey. There's absolutely no question—from the first whiff on the nose, to the moment it hits your tongue—that you're drinking single malt whiskey. The soft-fruited flavors of a classic Highland expression come racing in immediately, bolstered by a wave of vanilla from the new oak. The richness maintains its composure all the way to the finish, which is more dominated by the wood and not quite as impressive as the entry. All in all, it's not an entirely mindblowing experience, but it is pretty impressive juice given what we've been subjected to for the last few years.

But then something happens—you keep drinking it and it starts to grow on you; like a song you keep hearing on the radio or a movie on TBS every night that you watch repeatedly. You start craving the Westland—you want that extra dose of new oak that the Scottish selections on your bar don't quite provide. You start thinking about what would happen if more Scottish distilleries aged their malts in new oak, and the lovely combination of fruit, dark cocoa, and vanilla begins to call your name as you sleep. My take on the Westland after having an open bottle for a few weeks is much more heartfelt than it was after my first few sips (which is why spending time with a bottle is so important). What started as simply a positive and mildly-exciting experience has now grown into a more-affectionate relationship.

Had I tasted the Westland American Single Malt five months ago, it would definitely be—without a doubt—the best American single malt whisky I've ever tasted. But as Yoda tells Ben Kenobi in Return of the Jedi: "There is another."

As of right now we have the Westland in stock, so you can try it out for yourselves. If you're searching for exciting new whiskies of quality, this is definitely something you're going to want to check out. In a few weeks, I'll be back to tell you about the other upcoming American single malt that really impressed me recently—and that one will only be sold at K&L.

There is reason to be hopeful about the future. The Luke and Leia of American Single Malt whisky are finally upon us.

-David Driscoll


Visiting Corbin Distillery

Since I was going to be in Modesto this weekend, I figured why not truck it on down to Atwater and meet David Souza at his home distillery. We're planning a big email later this month concerning his new Corbin Cash Merced Rye Whiskey, so it might be nice to have a few photos to help highlight the promotion. Plus, I was just plain excited to see a local Central Valley distillery. My dad and I made the thirty minute drive down Highway 99 and exited into farm country just north of the Atwater city limit. When we pulled into the driveway we could see the Holstein still through the open garage door. That's when I realized I had forgotten my camera and would have to use my iPhone for the rest of the appointment; hence, not nearly as high a quality of photo as I would like. Bummer.

David and Erik were there to greet us and take us immediately over to their makeshift mill, currently grinding down a few sacks of freshly-harvested rye. They've got the science down with their milling, but they're lacking in speed at the moment. David is working on a few solutions to help the scale of production, but it seems to have been working fine so far.

I've seen a hundred different distilleries in my time with K&L, so I didn't need a run down on the fermentation tanks or the still practice—what I wanted to see was the farm. Corbin is one of the only distillers I know of that handles every aspect of their production—from the seed to the bottle. We all hopped in David's truck and drove out to one of his many sweet potato fields where we got a lesson in potato planting.

A twelve-seat plough is used to plant new sweet potato seedlings into the earth. In order to get a seedling you first have to take harvested potatoes, pile them up in rows, and then cover those hotbeds with a few inches of dirt. The potatoes will eventually sprout and produce new vines that are then clipped by hand and placed into little bags. The twelve men on the plough then pull these seedlings from the bag and place them one-by-one into the wheel mechanism that deposits the plant down into the earth.

You can see the already-growing rows of sweet potatoes all around you in Atwater.

Of course, David's family has always used rye as a rotator crop to help replenish the soil once a crop of sweet potatoes has been harvested; which is how why they also decided to make rye whiskey in addition to sweet potato vodka. There are therefore fields of freshly-harvested rye scattered in between the rows of sweet potatoes.

We were lucky enough to see a sweet potato harvest as well. A slowly-moving plough, pulled by a giant tractor, digs about twenty inches into the earth and pulls everything out onto a conveyor belt where hired workers sort through the selection and organize the potatoes by type and grade.

Some potatoes go to market, and some go back to the distillery for distillation purposes. David told us, "Before we founded the distillery, we were selling the extra sweet potatoes for cattle feed, but we would only get about $5 per 1,000 pound container." Distilling the unsalable surplus was a much more attractive idea (and fun!).

After the potatoes are harvested, they're washed and then boxed up by workers on the assembly line nearby. When you talk about "handcrafted" spirits, the Corbin products bring that over-used (and often ill-fitting) term to an entirely new level. Hundreds of Corbin hands are touching these sweet potatoes long before they ever get cooked and fermented.

Visiting a distillery is a great way to put a name and a place to the products we enjoy drinking. Visiting David and Erik at Corbin today, however, was an entirely different experience. It was more about farming than anything else—and, let me tell you, these guys know a lot about farming sweet potatoes. And their spirits are pretty damn good, too. Visiting Corbin is more of a reminder about what's going into your spirits, long before they're ever distilled.

-David Driscoll


Deutschland Über Alles

I always got that growing up as a kid—"So you're German, huh?" No not really.

Yes, my mother is a high school German teacher. Yes, I speak German. Yes, there are always German people staying at our house. Yes, I have a master's degree in German Literature. Yes, I can enjoy the music of David Hasselhoff, but no—I am not German.

I think there's a little Swiss-German action on my mom's side of the family, but there's no real heritage. Culture, however, is more about familiarity and nostalgia than it is purity; it's really a sense of identification and comfort, in my opinion. And when it comes to soccer, I identify with the Deutsche Nationalmannschaft more than my own American counterparts. In 1986, I was in staying with my parents in Mainz—a small town in Germany's Rheinland near Frankfurt—watching a tiny television set when Argentina beat West Germany in the cup final. I remember eating gummy bears and playing with Playmobil toys while the screen flickered away. In 1990, we celebrated with our German friends from Iserlohn when West Germany exacted its revenge on the defending champions and hoisted the Weltmeisterschaft trophy into the air; it was my first real taste of sports-related excitement (something I wouldn't really feel again until the Giants won the World Series).

The party at the Berliner Tor in 2006

In 1994, when the tournament was in the states, our friends Lilo and Dieter came to visit for the summer and we watched Brazil go all the way through (Dieter seemed to know Germany stood no chance against the South American giants). In the summer of 1996, I was a high school exchange student in Germany and I stayed with my mother in a small youth hostel (or jungendherberge) in Bacharach, high upon the riesling-terraced cliffs, sitting in the heat of the common room as thirty or so sweaty Germans cheered their team past the Czech Republic in the Euro Cup final. That was a night I'll never forget.In 2006, when Germany finally hosted the World Cup again, I was there—working on my masters degree at the Freie Universität in Berlin—singing this song before every game:

...and sitting with a devastated crowd in the local Biergarten when Italy defeated the Nationalmannschaft and went on to be the world champion (although my wife and I did travel to Italy the next day and it was a giant party).

For my entire life I have rooted for the German national soccer team—in Germany with Americans, in America with Germans, with a beer or without a beer, as a kid with my parents, and as an adult with my wife. My relationship with the country and the language has continued to forge new relationships in my post-graduate career (a German artist created my wife's wedding ring after I sent him an email in German, and we got the jump on the Monkey 47 gin because I had communicated auf Deutsch with the Black Forest Distillery long before anyone knew it was coming to the states). Even though I rarely speak the language these days, I still keep up with friends I made while abroad and I still love reading Der Spiegel.

Today I am heading over to Modesto with a huge box of wine (magnums only, because Germans like big bottles), some sausages, cheese, and various other snacks where I will join my parents for another Germany/Argentina showdown. And it will be just like old times.

German or not, I'll still be wearing the jersey.

-David Driscoll

My lunch at the Goethe Institüt in 2004