When life gives you lemons (and you're a distiller), you make limoncello. When life hands you a full ton of rhubarb, you make rhubarb liqueur, right? Unfortunately, when BroVo Spirits, a Seattle-based company known for their intense herbal liqueurs, tried to enact their version of this proverb, "the rhubarb just didn't taste very good," according to co-owner Mhairi Voelsgen. "We were stuck with $25,000 worth of rhubarb liqueur and no product we could sell."
After some quick research, Voelsgen learned that many amari (the Italian bitter liqueurs that come in a nearly-infinite number of varieties) have a rhubarb base. That was the inspiration for BroVo's new line of amari.
Rather than just develop their own flavors, BroVo has teamed up with bartenders all over the country to make small batches of customized amari. In Chicago, bartenders Stephen Cole (of Barrelhouse Flat) and Mike Ryan (of Sable) are among the chosen few. Bartender-driven amari have also launched in San Francisco as of this week, and more cities are coming to the lineup.
"I first tried amaro about 10 years ago," Cole recalled. "The first taste was abrasive for my virgin palate, but I really started to enjoy them when I moved from back of the house to the bar six years ago. I love mixing with it. Not two are alike, and they can create complex layers in cocktails like no other product."
Ryan's introduction was somewhat tamer—he first encountered them during his stint at The Violet Hour. "Kyle Davidson [the bartender] had a cocktail called the Art of Choke on the menu," Ryan remembered. This cocktail featured Cynar, and "really encapsulated with amari could do in a cocktail."
Each bartender picked out their own botanical ingredients for their signature amaro. Ryan is the "author" (BroVo's term) for #14, which features chocolate, thyme, cinnamon, angelica, and sarsaparilla, among other herbs. "I am a chocolate junkie, and one of the few bitters we make in-house at Sable is chocolate bitters, with just a hint of sarsaparilla," Ryan explained. "I wanted to expand that. I also wanted to tie in a savory note with thyme, as it is a great flavor pal for chocolate as well as gentian and Angelica."
Stephen Cole authored amaro #16, made with artichoke, dandelion, orris, and burdock root. "I wanted to make a cross between some of my favorites: Cynar, Fernet, and Cardamaro," said Cole. "It has layers that anyone can enjoy by itself or in a cocktail."
According to Voelsgen, the first-batch method of infusing all of these complicated botanicals couldn't have been more low-tech. "We bought knee socks from Target, filled them with the botanicals and then hung them with dental floss," she explained. After all, they weren't planning to run an amari-making factory when they started the project.
The bottles are labeled so that the narrow end faces front. Voelsgen found that most bartenders were looking to conserve room, and so in order to get the most bang for their shelf space, BroVo decided to change things around. For the home bartender, this means a unique look and feel. The label also feature photos of the bartenders who chose the flavors for each recipe.
About the author:Anthony Todd is Food and Drink Editor of Chicagoist.com. Follow him on Twitter (@FoodieAnthony).