The Averna was my very first Amaro. We were at a restaurant in South Philadelphia called Le Virtu, sitting at their beautiful bar with friends after dinner one Saturday last December. I didn’t know very much about the Amari then except that I’d read that the Italians liked to say that they were “Italy’s gift to the world.” This made me smile because that sounds just like something an Italian would think and say. With a last name like Camerieri, I should know! I remember loving the Averna, and thinking that this was another one of those transformational cocktail moments for me. You all know how I have them from time to time.
As it turns out, the Averna seems to appeal to most people. And with good reason. Although it’s very dark in color, and the characteristic bitterness is certainly evident, it has a sweet caramel, almost coffee-like flavor and a smooth finish that makes it very easy to drink. Serve it over ice after a meal and it’s hard not to keep refilling your glass. The Averna was first produced in Sicily in 1868 by a textile merchant named Salvatore Averna, who’d been given the recipe some 10 years earlier by the monks of St. Spirito’s Abbey to thank him for having generously donated money to them. Once again, it was a secret recipe that was said to have been created first at the Benedictine abbeys in Normandy. Its approachable flavor and claims as a tonic with “great health benefits” made it very popular, and Salvatore Averna became rich and successful as a result. It remains popular today and widely available. It’s often the Amari recommended by bartenders to customers who are new to drinking them.
I’m shifting gears here in a major way, but stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this. Two weeks ago, the world mourned the loss of Leonard Cohen, a musician and poet who bared his soul in a such a plainspoken, matter-of-fact way that he was able to reach a multitude of people. Although he covered a wide range of topics, where he really seemed to excel was when he touched on the subject of loss. Who among us can’t relate to that? My youngest son is a huge Leonard Cohen fan and he asked me to create a cocktail in his honor so we could have a toast to him. The only thing he required it to have was bourbon; the rest was up to me.
I chose Rebel Yell bourbon because it has depth and it’s very smooth, but with just a bit of a raw edge. It reminded me of Leonard’s voice. He was a ladies man, so an Amaro was definitely in order here. I went with the Averna since it appeals so universally to people, in much the same way as Leonard’s music does. I wanted a sweet vermouth next and so I decided on the Punt E Mes, my favorite, as you all know. It’s usually the bottle that I reach for, but in this case the choice was a bit more deliberate. It’s rich and dark, tasting of raisins, figs, and licorice with all kinds of complexity and layers, much like the long life that Leonard Cohen lived. My final piece to this puzzle was DRAM Apothecary black bitters, whose flavors of black pepper, black berries, black cardamom, and black tea added even more depth to the drink, as well as an almost haunting quality. This brought me back again to Leonard’s voice, and the darkness all musicians and poets have within that pushes them to hone their craft and share their beautiful vision with us. I called the cocktail You Want It Darker as a tribute to his final album, released just this past October. My son gave me the thumbs up. I hope Leonard Cohen would too.
You Want It Darker
1½ oz Rebel Yell Bourbon
½ oz Punt E Mes sweet vermouth
½ oz Amaro Averna
2 dashes DRAM black bitters
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass filled ⅔ full with ice. Stir with a long-handled bar spoon until cold (about 30-45 seconds). Using a Julep strainer, strain into an old-fashioned glass over ice, preferably one large cube if you have it. Express an orange peel over the drink and drop it in. Put on some Leonard Cohen music… sit back and enjoy!
I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you for reading; I’m truly grateful to all of you. I will still be posting tomorrow about gift ideas for the cocktail lover in your life that you can buy right here in downtown Haddonfield!
Leonard Cohen photo from popmatters.com.