If you think you haven't tried Cynar (pronounced chee-nar), you're probably wrong. Local bartenders are building cocktails using this versatile Italian amaro, which packs a powerful punch as Campari's kid brother.
The underrated liqueur is slowly joining the trendy ranks of Fernet and Aperol, lending graceful depth and complexity to cocktails with its bitter, buttery earthiness. Relatively new on the alcohol scene (post Prohibition), Cynar was created in Italy in 1949. Unlike Campari, which begs for scorching hot days and warm summer nights, Cynar is best in boozier autumn and winter, perfect when paired with falling leaves, lit fireplaces, and hearty meals.
Even with just a dash of Cynar, the flavors of classic cocktails enter a new realm. The chemical properties of cynarin, found in artichokes, inhibit taste receptors, making foods and drinks seem sweeter. It works well as the Italians intended: as a digestif served after a meal. After the glut of holiday food, let your Cynar cocktail be both digestif and dessert. Its vegetal flavors and espresso-like bittersweetness build on the decadence of indulgences such as eggnog or chocolate.
And while Cynar is complex on the palate, it's low in alcohol (16.5 percent ABV), making it great for seasoned and newbie drinkers alike. It gives the same warm, fuzzy feeling as whiskey in an Old Fashioned, but without the wince and burn. And, at about twenty dollars a bottle, it's one of the more affordable liqueurs, lending an accessible complexity to any home bar.
I went on a quest to find the best Cynar cocktails in the area and encountered quite a few bartenders up to the challenge. Durham's Alley Twenty Six uses it in its signature drink, the Alley Cocktail, which is a spin on the Manhattan. The Cynar raises the classic cocktail's notes of cherries and butter.
Bartenders Taran Rosenthal and Colin Cushman also effortlessly whip up a slew of newer Cynar-focused cocktails for me. One of the most memorable is Rosenthal's inspired iteration of the Search for the Delicious, a cocktail that began as the Bitter Giuseppe out of Chicago and has been reimagined by bartenders around the country. Try to Google the most commonly used recipe and you'll just be drinking disappointment; everybody's added a new twist of his or her own. Rosenthal's take finishes with silky chocolate notes.
Cushman then serves the better-known Cynar Flip, the result of an involved process that includes an entire raw egg whipped up into a frothy, creamy frenzy. It is the most pleasant surprise of the night and tastes distinctly of Christmas.
Wes Tise, bartender at Durham's Italian restaurant Gocciolina, shows off just how versatile Cynar can be. He starts with what's on the menu, the Italian Buck, made with lime juice, ginger beer, and equal parts Cynar and Amaro Montenegro. The Italian Buck is refreshing in an old-school-Coke-on-a-summer-day way. It's sweet but not saccharine, with a bite at the finish thanks to the ginger beer.
What Tise creates next is the Italian Buck's sexy alter ego: Mexico Burns Red. Its colors are deep and dark, showcasing Cynar's pretty rusted hues. Equal parts Cynar, Aperol, and mezcal, Mexico Burns Red is intensely smoky, as if Tise had bottled a bonfire and served it over ice. With each sip, the flavors transform on the tongue for what seems like minutes. It's the drink that keeps on giving.
At Hillsborough's LaPlace Louisiana Cookery, bartender Jay Jackson doles out several of his own Cynar creations, each better than the last: deeper, more evolved, and more fun, just as a night bellied up at the bar should be. The Empire City's apparent notes of allspice are really the Cynar complementing the Madeira-esque walnut wine and the Wild Turkey 101 bourbon. The Cynar Swizzle is as fun as it sounds, served over violently crushed ice that makes the drink look like a sno-cone for adults. A subtle bitterness eventually follows the initial fruity sweetness, making this a great transitional drink for those interested in trying something new without going wild.
Jackson's last Cynar creation is mind-blowing, with brut cava and Punt e Mes vermouth, garnished with an orange wedge and a green olive. The first sip leaves me fumbling for descriptions beyond "delicious." The sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and bubbly dance on my tongue like Pop Rocks. Jackson helps me find the right words, saying, "It's bittersweet bubbly, crisp, citrusy ... best paired with a bittersweet breakup." And just like that, a new cocktail, the Bittersweet Goodbye, is born.
Next door at the no-frills Wooden Nickel, I visit bartenders Britton Murray and Tony Rignola to see what they can do with Cynar. Murray throws together the Artichoke Slam, which includes mezcal (I sense a theme), lime juice, and jalapeño syrup.
"That's the slam part!" explains Murray. It's amazing, maybe even my favorite so far, but it doesn't quite fit in at the Wooden Nickel. "We're not much of a cocktail bar," Murray says, before he returns to serving beers on tap to patrons watching UNC play Indiana. The smell of the pub's famous poutine tots wafts out of the kitchen and reminds me where I am. I look to Rignola and ask him to make a Cynar drink that captures the essence of the Wooden Nickel. He thinks for a minute before pouring an ounce or two in a pint glass, then fills the glass the rest of the way with Argus Ginger Perry cider.
It's simple and I like it, a great game-watching drink, filling as a pint of cold beer but with more nuance. Murray, ever the explainer, comes back over to tell me Cynar isn't, and likely won't ever be, popular at the Wooden Nickel, though they still stock it. "Your average Bud Light guys? Yeah, they're not gonna be Cynar fans." But after gulping it down in various cocktails, fancy and not, I'd tell those guys to give Cynar a shot.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Amore for Amaro."