Is Cynar The Most Interesting Spirit, By Far?

Lil' Cuppa Cynar

It’s not espresso.

Pour Cynar into a cute little espresso cup and you could easily fool anyone.

This stuff looks like murky coffee, and, sure, they both share a bitter taste quality, but that’s as far as the similarities go.

I scan my cabinet for the best glassware for this tasting and decide that my highly prized Illy espresso will do well to serve me both this bitter liqueur and a hefty dose of nostalgia that I’m craving.

Intermezzo was a European coffeehouse in the Brookhaven neighborhood of Atlanta. A bit isolated on Peachtree Road, with free parking in the back lot, a massive outdoor seating area, and dark wood paneling throughout.

It felt especially interesting when the doors of the lower-level loggia opened out onto the busy sidewalk and street.

There was always classical music playing softly in the background–until you went to the restroom and got an earfull of charmingly weird Italian language tutorial tapes.

The pastry case was always full of decadent sweets. I’m pretty sure I fell in love with tiramisu here. And gnocchi. And coffee.

The beverage menu was a book of the myriad offerings, and over the years those books became worn, stained, and tattered, much like the ceilings of the establishment.

I would sit at the bar sometimes and gaze at the dozens of bottles shining on the back bar. I was only vaguely interested in them then. It didn’t occur to me at the time, around 2000 when I was a smarmy goth girl, that there would be anyone who could possibly know how they all tasted. Who cares?

More often, I would find a hi-top table in a dark corner, stick my nose in a book, and chain smoke Parliament Lights with my trusty snifter of Drambuie, add three ice cubes. At the end of the night, I would have a collection of work, fragments of poems, ideas for stories, jotted on a stack of napkins.

At the time, this coffeehouse was my only exposure to Italian culture. The food, the vibe, the drinks were all refined and attractive to me. I had no idea that such an important staple of the Italian diet was hidden in plain sight.

And that staple was sitting on a shelf just behind the perpetually weeded bartender: amari.

Had I known that Italy has been producing some of the most luxurious, interesting spirits for a while, and that the botanicals used in those elixirs are the same ones used in many healing traditions for body and spirit renewal, I would have been immediately interested in tasting and learning more about them.

But I didn’t know anything. I mean, I was drinking Drambuie straight for chrissakes. And I had no idea I was drinking a scotch-based liqueur; I just liked the challenge of drinking it.

Yes, I could have used some spirits knowledge back then, but I had some real anger issues and was a decidedly difficult person to deal with. I fed my temper with the fire water that is Drambuie. At 40% alcohol by volume, it’s like drinking mildly smoky, sickly sweet scotch whisky. It’s not great.

If I had been introduced to bitter liqueurs and acquired a taste for them, I imagine that I could have healed my own heat issues much sooner, aided by the boon to my digestive flora from their effects.

Instead, I made it much more difficult by binging on shots of high-proof alcohol that only added fuel to my raging trash fire of emotions.

bottle of cynar amaro

A bottle of cynar amaro

So as I wipe down these neglected little vessels and pour out the first tastes, I’m struck by how much this amaro looks like espresso. It looks right at home in this tiny cup that my then-boyfriend who worked as a barista lifted from the joint when he got fired.

That’s where the comparison ends, however. The first sip of this herbal liqueur is syrupy sweetness, a surprisingly full mid-palate range of botanical textures, then a long, lingering bitterness on the back of the tongue. It’s fun stuff. Also, it is great.

Yes, I continue pouring ¾ and 1 ounce pours a time or two, but at 16.5% alcohol, I’m kind of only drinking thimblefuls of wine, ok?

My absolute favorite way to enjoy Cynar is in a Collins, the true test of a summery beverage pour moi (I did not absorb anything from the Italian tutorial tapes). Here’s the recipe:

Pour 1 ounce of Cynar into a tall glass of super tart, fresh lemonade over ice and enjoy the louching effect. Sip and savor.

Why a Collins? Well, lemonade is my current go-to non-alcoholic bevvy. It’s one of the few drinks that truly refreshes me when it’s hot. And, this is New Orleans, so it’s mostly always hot.

I want everything I enjoy neat to mix well in a Collins. The old me would go for a spritz, but I lost interest in bubbles with my pregnancy. C’est la vie.

Your world will expand when you add Cynar to it–and so will your palate.

Want to learn more about the plants that go into spirits like Cynar? There’s tons to explore so stay with me as I piece together a unique look at the spirits that excite me in the coming weeks.

Does the fact that this is an artichoke liqueur strike you as odd? I’ll dig into the ingredients and the marketing history of this product soon, too.