broVo Spirits Amaro Project

David McCowan

April 03 2014 - 9:00 AM

Mhairi Voelsgen didn’t realize what she was offering. She and her broVo Spirits partner, Erin Brophy, had just created a $25,000 flop, – a rhubarb liqueur that didn’t taste a lick like they’d hoped, – and the two were looking to their bartender friends for help salvaging it.

Would they, the ladies asked at bar after bar, be willing to help turn the middling spirit into an amaro?

The overwhelming response surprised them. “It was as if we offered them a million dollars,” Voelsgen laughs. “We asked seven bartenders and all seven said yes.”

Amaro, as Voelsgen and Brophy now realize, is every bartender’s secret passion. The category of bittersweet liqueurs is the ultimate display of complexity weaving together woody roots, fresh citrus, savory herbs, exotic plants and every nut, stem, flower, grass and spice imaginable into a balanced dram. For these barmen, practitioners of balance every night behind the stick, creating an amaro is a challenge unlike any other.

BroVo’s initial release – the seven bottlings that saved the failed batch – were a sell-out and taught the distillers a lot. “We realized early on,” Voelsgen says, “that we don’t have the palate to make our own amaro. We are a distillery that works with bartenders.”

Looking beyond their home market of Seattle, Voelsgen and Brophy traveled to San Francisco and Chicago to find takers for a second round, released in 2013. The two are again canvasing the country working on the next wave due out later this year with new collaborators from Chicago as well as tapping into Savannah and Atlanta, Georgia.

BroVo Chicago Amaro LineChicago’s 2013 run features four local barmen and each is wildly different, running from light to heavy, from shot to integral mixing ingredient.

But why come to Chicago for inspiration?

“Hospitality,” Voelsgen says, without missing a beat. “Chicago’s bartenders put the customer first.”

Amaro No. 13 – Bobby Adams, Fion Wine & Spirits
Of the four Chicago releases, this is the gentlest. Garlic and lemongrass waft out after a light opening salvo of chocolate and there is a nice floral note of chamomile. The combination sounds weird, but it works. Really. Sip this one slowly and smile.

Amaro No. 14 – Mike Ryan, Sable Kitchen & Bar
Tasting notes for No. 14, begin with the word “magic.” The recipe is based off Sable’s house chocolate bitters and there’s no denying the chocolate flavor front and center. However, what sets this apart is the interplay with savory thyme, showcasing Ryan’s culinary background. Neat, its rich and tasty. Mixed, it adds depth.

Amaro No. 15 – Greg Miesch, Fion Wine & Spirits
Lavender and peppermint suffuse this amaro in perfect balance. Curiously delightful, the two flavors trade turns in the spotlight, before fading to soft citrus, then a spicy chile pepper finish that lingers and lingers. No. 15 is another contemplative sipper and perhaps the most unique of the four.

Amaro No. 16 – Stephen Cole, Barrelhouse Flat and Lone Wolf
Cole’s amaro is inspired by his favorite classics. It includes artichoke (like Cynar) and sandlewood (like Cardamaro), but finishes with peppercorn spice. The layered complexity mixes very well with whiskey and the flavors actually expand and become more distinct in cocktails.

broVo Amaro CocktailsAll four amari are available around Chicago at $35 for a 750mL bottle. Each is lovely neat or on the rocks, but they also play well in cocktails.

Mike Ryan offers up a wintry Manhattan variation called the Warding Circle using his No. 14 that mixes with rye and rich PX sherry. And one of Stephen Cole’s original drinks, Bitter Giuseppe, gets an update from his No. 16; it pulls no punches and makes the amaro the star.

Check out the recipe for the Warding Circle here.

Check out the recipe for the Bitter Giuseppe No. 16 here.