As the interest in fine spirits and cocktails has grown in recent years, demand has likewise increased for Italian amaros. The garnet-red Campari has long held a place of prominence, and recently the milder flavored Aperol has earned fans in the cocktail community. Now, the Sicilian herbal tonic called Averna—already the leading amaro in many parts of the world—is hoping to become the next indispensable ingredient in the American bartender's arsenal.
With a recipe dating to the 1860s, Averna is a much different style of bitter spirit than the more familiar Campari. Where Campari is sharp and bright (essential elements for an aperitivo), Averna is deep and rich, with a gentle, slightly sweet bitterness and a full, firm body that makes it great as an after-dinner drink.
These characteristics also make Averna a good cocktail ingredient. As with the Milanese digestivo Fernet Branca, Averna has many talented fans in San Francisco. The last time I was in town I had a fantastic Black Manhattan at Bourbon & Branch that featured Averna in place of vermouth, and the company recently selected Bay Area bartender Duggan McDonnell to design drinks using the spirit.
Now, Averna is hoping to supplement McDonnell's recipes with those from mixologists from around the country. In a competition that runs through March 31, Averna is soliciting drink recipes from professional bartenders and avid amateurs that feature the product; five regional winners will be flown to Sicily to compete in finals. With a grand prize that includes an additional three-day stay in Sicily and a shopping spree, don't be surprised if you see bartenders across the country working up their own Averna cocktails. (And if you want to make a bid for the prize, go for it: details are available on Averna's website.)