An Introduction to Cynar

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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Let's get this out of the way at the start: Cynar doesn't taste like artichokes.

True, this iconic Italian bitter liqueur features a rendering of an artichoke on its label, and artichokes are an essential flavoring ingredient in this distinctive amaro (though saying Cynar is "made from" artichokes is akin to saying potato chips are made from salt), but the edible thistle is only the most prominent name in an array of more than a dozen botanical ingredients that make this liqueur so memorable.

Unlike other Italian amari such as Fernet Branca or Campari, which have histories that date back more than a century, Cynar has only been in circulation since the early 1950s. Traditionally served as an aperitif on its own or with soda, orange juice, or tonic, Cynar has the kind of deep, resolute bitterness that also marks its role as a valued digestivo, a drink that helps salve the effects of a heavy meal.

Until very recently, Cynar was an odd bird behind the American bar, a rarity in many cases that was trotted out as a novelty, both because of its unusual identification with the artichoke, and because of its aggressive bitter edge. Over the last five or so years, however, Cynar has been riding the wave of interest in bitter liqueurs among craft bartenders, and today it's enjoying a bit more prominence in the American bar.

In addition to appearances in drinks such as the Manhattan-esque Little Italy, in which it's mixed with rye whiskey and sweet vermouth, and its role as a substitute for Campari in twists on the classic Negroni, Cynar has turned up in a few more unexpected places. A couple of years ago I was introduced to the Cynar Flip, a surprisingly delicious drink composed entirely of Cynar and a whole egg shaken with ice until chilled and foamy; and bartenders have utilized Cynar's bold bitterness in drinks such as the Cynar Daiquiri, with dark rum, from Washington, D.C. bartender Derek Brown, and in the Art of Choke, a rum-based drink from the Violet Hour in Chicago.

Cynar substitutes remarkably well for other bitter liqueurs in a number of cocktails, and others have been built around its complex flavor. I'll suggest a Cynar cocktail in Friday's "Time for a Drink" column, but until then: have you come across this artichoke-accented liqueur? What Cynar cocktails do you enjoy?

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