Think bitter is better? Italian liqueur amaro finding a home in Denver at this LoHi restaurant.

Three glasses of hand crafted, hand infused and hand made liqueurs are displayed with dried blue gentians on the bar at local restaurant Spuntino at 2639 W 32nd Ave on Sept. 25, 2018 in Denver. They are from left to right: Aperitivo IV, A saffron liqueur, middle and the All Colorado Amaro XV, right. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Elliot Strathmann has always been a curious person. After studying physics and the liberal arts and sciences in college, he dabbled in finance and considered law school. He worked in restaurants and married a chef. “I don’t satisfy easily,” he said. “But when I dig in, I dig deep.” These days, Strathmann is digging in on amaro.

And that’s proven to be a very good thing for him and his wife, Cindhura Reddy, partners in the restaurant Spuntino in Denver’s Lower Highlands neighborhood.

Before settling in Denver in 2013, and buying the restaurant the following year, Strathmann and Reddy circumnavigated the globe. After quitting their restaurant jobs in Philadelphia, they backpacked for nine months through Southeast Asia, India, Egypt, Turkey, and Eastern and Western Europe, extending their budget by working on farms. In Italy’s Abruzzo region, they stayed with a friend’s father in the medieval town of Pacentro.

“After we dined on a large and heavy meal, our various restaurant proprietors would invariably produce an unmarked bottle of dark brown liquid. Always, they insisted we drink,” Strathmann recalled. “It was homemade, and all based around the gentian root — genziana in Italian — which is well-known for its digestive quality. We kind of hated it.”

Gentian is a flowering plant whose root has been used in herbal medicine for more than 2,000 years. Along with cinchona bark, wormwood and angelica root, it is among the most common bittering agents used to make amaro.

Strathmann guesses the amari (plural for amaro) they drank in Italy contained anywhere between 17 and 35 percent alcohol. “They weren’t labeled or tested, but some were softer and sweeter than others. At best, I might have appreciated how they made me feel. But I certainly didn’t enjoy the taste.”

Back then, like many Americans, Strathmann didn’t yet have the palate for the bitter. Nonetheless, he was intrigued by the history, the chemistry and the medicinal properties of the brew.

Brad Thomas Parsons, author of “Bitters,” (Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale, 2011) has written the definitive book on this trendy new digestiv. In “Amaro” (Penguin Random House, 2016) he explained the drink’s healing effect.

“Years of evolution have us hardwired to treat anything bitter as a potential toxin — so when your brain senses bitterness, it kick-starts the digestive system, activating the opening acts of saliva and gastric juices in an attempt to expel what you’ve just ingested.”

Parsons predicted that as Americans learn to appreciate bitter greens, chocolates and even cocktails, “the diverse world of herbal, bittersweet liqueurs that fall under the umbrella of amaro is about to set off a loud, collective ping on drinkers’ radars.”

According to Marketwatch, which covers spirits, wine and beer, awareness of the category also is rising due to “the mixologist-led trend toward more complex and less cloying drinks combined with millennials’ thirst for authenticity.”

Elliot Strathmann, co-owner of Spuntino, is pictured inside his restaurant surrounded by his hand crafted, hand infused and hand made liqueurs that are displayed on the bar at his restaurant at 2639 W 32nd Ave on Sept. 25, 2018 in Denver. The liqueurs are from left to right in the bottles: His Aperitivo IV, left, his All Colorado Amaro XV, middle, and his Saffron Liqueur third from left. Strathmann is an expert at making Amari, which is the plural of Amaro. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post)

Together, Strathmann’s millennial thirst and Reddy’s cooking have earned recognition for Spuntino and its cozy, Italian-style neighborhood fine-dining vibe. Spuntino can be found on many lists of the top Italian restaurants in the city. Most of Spuntino’s dishes feature local ingredients, and the amaro is no exception.

Strathmann says that the more his customers learn about amaro, the more they are rooting for his success. One regular diner brings down gentian root from Breckenridge, where it grows in healthy supply, to Spuntino’s kitchen door.

“Another diner is a botanist,” he said. “She’s happy to share what she knows about Alpine flowering plants, and she has even joined my wife and me on a few of our late-summer foraging trips.”

In the region, Strathmann has found, among other things, artemisias, gentians, wild licorice, yarrow, chokecherries and chokecherry bark. In addition, he grows his own sage, basils, mints, chamomile, artichoke leaves, and a number of other traditional culinary herbs in boxes in front of the restaurant or in his back yard in Lakewood. Whatever he can’t forage or grow, he orders online from Mountain Rose Herbs, which sells all organic and fair-trade products.

“The process is simple,” Strathmann said, “and ingredients are easy to source. There’s no fermentation or yeast, and no temperature-dependent finnickiness.”

Strathmann began experimenting and testing concoctions in 2014 with Jason Randall, who was Spuntino’s bar manager at the time. “We were already making our own limoncello (a lemon-based digestivo) and finocchietto (made with fennel). “Making amaro was a logical next step.”

So far, Strathmann has made 22 amaro batches — each one different; but following a particular idea — such as house-grown and local wild ingredients, or taking inspiration from a historical style.

Typically, he macerates his ingredients for six weeks or longer in a diluted neutral grain spirit. He weighs everything precisely and records the details. He finishes his amari with caramelized sugars, often local honey, and dilutes to their final proof before aging in small oak barrels.

One day, Strathman may bottle and sell small-batch, hand-crafted amaro, but for now he is content to experiment and to teach others about his craft. “If we want to replicate a batch, we should be able to get close,” he said.

Last year, StarChefs magazine scoured Colorado for the most innovative chefs and food and beverage professionals in the state. Spuntino’s Reddy was featured among the chefs, along with Max MacKissock of Bar Dough, Matthew Vawter of Mercantile Dining & Provision and other local stars. For his amari, Strathmann was the sole winner in the Knife and Shaker category, and as a result, both were invited to the 2018 StarChefs Congress, an annual foodie event in Brooklyn. Reddy will cook, and Strathmann will present an amaro workshop for bar professionals on Oct. 22.

(For the full list of chefs, artisans, sommeliers, bartenders and others that made the 2017 StarChefs list of Colorado Rising Stars, go to starchefs.com and search for “2017 rising stars.”)

According to Caroline Hatchett, editor of StarChefs magazine, amari historically come from a “hyper-specific place and culture,” with the herbs, roots, barks and other botanicals foraged seasonally. “Instead of tasting like the French Alps or Piedmont in Italy, Elliot’s amari speak to the Rockies,” said Hatchett. “By building his amaro program intelligently and with care, he’s able to share with his diners a story with an enormous amount of depth and complexity.”

At the moment, Spuntino serves more than 20 traditional amaro brands, including Luxardo, Fernet Branca and Cynar, priced from $7 to $10 per glass. Some amari, such as the commercial brand Fernet Branca, contain as many as 25 or 30 ingredients and recipes are closely guarded as family secrets. Yet other brands are quite simple. Nardini, for example, contains just gentian root, peppermint and bitter orange peel, with grappa as its alcohol base. These, too, can be had at Spuntino.

But when it’s time to make his own version of the popular digestivo, Strathmann likes to just experiment.

“I don’t think the goal should ever be to replicate a commercial brand. Finding my own perspective on the flavors is a whole lot of the fun.”

Spuntino: 2639 West 32nd Ave., 303-433-0949; spuntinodenver.com. Tues.-Thus. and Sun., 5-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-10 p.m. Happy hour at the bar Tues.-Sun. 5-6:30 p.m.

Alpine-style Amaro

Recipe by Elliott Stratmann.
Yield: three 750-milliliter bottles

Ingredients

750 ml 192-proof neutral grain spirit 3 grams dried German chamomile flowers 20 grams ground Turkey rhubarb root 18 grams ground dried bitter orange peel 12 grams ground wild cherry bark 5 grams finely chopped gentiana lutea root 6 grams ground fennel seed 6 grams ground yarrow leaf and flower 6 grams ground true wormwood leaf 6 grams ground true wormwood flower 3 grams ground silver sagewort leaf and flower 1 gram ground peppermint leaf 60 grams dried Oregon sweet cherries Dark caramel syrup, to taste 1.1 liters water

Directions

In a large, nonreactive, sealable, glass container, combine 600 ml water and remaining ingredients; seal. Store in a dark place for 5 weeks. Using a chinois lined with 5 layers of cheesecloth, filter liquid, pressing out excess liquid in cloth; reserve botanicals and cloth. In a saucepan with the remaining water, simmer spent botanicals, covered, for 1 hour. Filter liquid using same method and cloth as with the spirit base. Add to spirit base. To finish amaro, add caramel syrup and water until desired sweetness and proof is achieved. An easier alternative, which wouldn’t yield the classic darker amaro color, would be to finish the amaro with honey. Fifty to 60 proof is ideal for this recipe. Set amaro aside for at least 3 weeks before decanting clear liquid from the sediment.

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