Shake Your Amaro

Frothy and bitter cold, the Caffè Shakerato—Italy’s take on iced coffee—is an effortless way to upgrade your afternoon caffeine fix. Born in Puglia in the 1950s, the simple serve of shaken espresso or coffee with ice is often sweetened with sugar or a flavored syrup (typically almond or chocolate) and served in a cocktail glass. Head north, swap espresso for Campari, and you’ve got the Campari Shakerato, a drink made famous at the historic Camparino bar in Milan. Vigorously shaken with ice and served in a cocktail glass, the method transforms both temperature and texture, rendering Campari’s signature botanicals and bitter profile in a whole new form.

These two drinks represent the primary Shakerato styles you’ll encounter across Italy, but something so simple will no doubt be tinkered with, whether adding milk or even a cream liqueur to your Caffè Shakerato, or dressing up your Campari Shakerato with a lemon twist. Stateside, the Shakerato is often hiding in plain sight. At Melfi’s, a clubby Italian restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, owner Brooks Reitz offers Shakeratos that are brought to life courtesy of a vintage Le Jie double-cup automatic cocktail shaker. But even here, they move beyond the single-ingredient template in favor of extreme-shaken versions of the Negroni and Espresso Martini (they did kindly whip up a Hard Start Shakerato for me when I stopped in for a late-night dinner at the bar). At SRV, a Veneto-inspired Italian restaurant in Boston, bartender John Benevides curates a flight that offers the same amaro in a trio of side-by-side applications: neat, over ice, and shaken with a bit of lime juice.

Amaro is traditionally served neat at room temperature, but as with the category itself, there are no hard and fast rules. I often request my amaro served in a chilled rocks glass; at times, that turns into the bartender offering to stir it over ice, adding a bit of dilution. On a recent trip to Brooklyn’s Grand Army, where beverage director Robby Dow has been experimenting with shaking amari, I realized that there might be a place for the Amaro Shakerato on American bar menus.

“I’ve been infatuated with amaro on its own, but like the modern Garibaldi interpretation from Dante, it’s cool to see simple things become incredible things by switching up a single technique,” says Dow.

Dow’s trip down the Shakerato rabbit hole began one night at Hart’s in Brooklyn, when bartender Leah George Brown whip-shook the alpine amaro Braulio as a nightcap for Dow. “I saw the Braulio sit there in the glass for a while and noticed it wasn’t changing; the foamy head lingered,” says Dow, who was fascinated by the amaro’s ability to effectively become a completely different drink.

When I caught wind of Dow’s experimentation with shaking different styles of amari, I asked Dow if I could tag along on his next round of R&D. A couple weeks later, I showed up at Grand Army before service, weighed down with two tote bags of amari, which we added to the bar’s curated lineup, totaling 22 bottles in all. Most were Italian-born, joined by two domestic offerings and a pair from Mexico. Our goal was to see which ones might be “menuworthy,” focusing on color, taste and texture, but ultimately I was curious to see how a quick shake over ice transformed the expected taste of each amaro. Here’s a look at our takeaways, suggested techniques and the top five, ranked.

For the best chill with minimal dilution, Dow settled on a reverse dry shake. He adds the amaro to a tin filled with standard-size ice and shakes hard for seven to 10 seconds, then fine-strains the mixture into the empty tin and discards the ice. Dow then dry-shakes without ice for 10 seconds and strains directly into a chilled Nick & Nora glass. “It’s simply showing a tasty new way to drink something that already tastes amazing on its own,” he says. Dow leaves his Amaro Shakeratos as-is, letting the beautiful layer of foam serve as its own garnish, but there’s potential to consider an expressed and discarded swatch of citrus, a small twist, or even a complementary fresh herb like mint, sage or rosemary.

Even when different bottlings are within the same category (fernet, for instance), each amaro is going to react differently to the Shakerato treatment. We quickly noticed that almost all the legacy, gateway-style amari we shook up, like Meletti, Averna, Ramazzotti, Montenegro and Lucano (both classic and Anniversario) didn’t improve upon their room-temperature state. None of them could hold their bubbles and the thin layer of beading immediately dissipated. Further, although Averna kept its color, the others all faded like a flat Coca-Cola left out in the sun.

The fernet and vino amaro categories also showed poorly. The Mexican-made Fernet-Vallet and Amargo-Vallet, as well as Grand Army’s beloved Fernet-Branca, looked beautiful and maintained creamy heads long after being poured (the Amargo, in particular, looked like a cherry-red Trinidad Sour), but were ultimately undrinkable. Meanwhile, of the two examples of vino amaro, Cardamaro had a promising start but the amber-honey color faded as the bubbles dissipated into obscurity, while Pasubio’s appearance was beautiful and looked like a red ale with a thick foam, but the chill brought on a sourness that overpowered the brambly, savory nuance that makes that amaro great.

To the contrary, there seemed to be something mystical happening with all of the alpine-style amari we observed; while some didn’t taste as good as they looked, each one filled up the glass with a bountiful, beautiful layer of everlasting foam. We both suspected it might have something particular to sourcing of herbs and botanicals, and I wondered if juniper might be the common thread. When I shared the results with Daniel Warrilow, the Italian portfolio ambassador for Campari America, he didn’t seem surprised. He agreed that juniper was a key factor, pointing out that, in Braulio’s case, its oils remain in the amari after maceration, giving it aroma, flavor and, most importantly, texture.

Of the 22 Amaro Shakeratos we sampled, we narrowed down a shortlist of our personal favorites. In these five amari, the quick shake and chill down honored the original appeal of the neat, room-temperature classic serve while adding a new layer of flavor, texture and complexity.

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