We started making amaro because we made a mistake. We wanted to make a rhubarb liqueur. We had just started BROVO and had some time on our hands, because our home state voted to privatize liquor sales less than six months after we launched. The state froze liquor purchases until the market could transition, but this meant that we had to zero balance revenue, in our first year. It was the first of many hurdles we would face.
We decided to invest the time that we had into product development. We had talked to a lot of bartenders at the time and one of the products they mentioned wanting was a rhubarb liqueur. Rhubarb is a lot of work behind the bar; it takes a lot of rhubarb to make a syrup and it is time consuming. We thought we could make a rhubarb liqueur that would be used in spring cocktails.
We started development and came up with a gorgeous test batch. It was sour and crisp and tart and everything that rhubarb is. We loved it. Bartenders loved it. We bought a ton of rhubarb. A literal ton. We started production on the big batch and got to the point just before we sweetened it. We wanted to experiment with sweetening, and so we left it unsweetened and make a series of versions with different sweeteners.
But it wasn’t the same. It didn’t have the same pucker your mouth feeling that you get from rhubarb. We talked to bartenders, we made more versions. Nothing worked.
We decided not to release it. We put it in some used whiskey barrels we had and started to talk to bartenders about what to do. It’s hard to not emphasize enough how tough this decision was for us. We had no revenue because of the privatization shutdown, and we had just spent a significant amount of our capital on a product that did not work. These were not the best of times.
We sat at a number of bars and asked bartenders what we should do. The response we heard from them was ‘make amaro’. Our first question was “What’s amaro?”
Amaro is an Italian bittersweet digestive. Campari is probably the best known one, although it is better known as an aperitivo, versus digestivo. In Italy, every town, village, even neighborhood has their own amaro. It’s an expression of terroir and palate- what grows in an area and what people there like to drink. It helps with digestion and typically has a full and bold flavor profile. It is usually more bitter than sweet.
We were astonished by the variety and the realization that there were no ‘wrong’ amari. We also immediately knew that we did not have the expertise to make it. We were ‘nailing’ a ginger liqueur; moving to a flavor profile that combined half a dozen, a dozen or more herbs and spices was beyond our expertise. There was no way we could make one.
Finally a bartender told us to ask for help. He suggested having a bartender do the recipe which we would follow. We didn’t want to make a second mistake at this time, and we thought asking a bartender for help and getting a no, and then having this repeat would be the worst thing we could do. As a distillery, we were under a year old. Nobody had any reason to think we would be able to make anything substantial.
So, we asked seven different bartenders if they wanted to work with us and make an amaro. They were all early adopters of our products. All seven said yes. We did not want to say no to anyone, so we decided to make seven different amari all at the same time.
In retrospect, this was nothing short of crazy. Making and releasing one product is tough. Making seven very complicated products at the same time, is just nuts.
But we did it. In January 2013, we released seven amari. In January in Seattle, no one buys liquor- it’s usually “Dry January”. Bars are using up leftover liquor from the holiday season, consumers are drying out from their festive spirit. We sold out in two weeks. They were expensive; we were shocked. We had no idea what we did; we were just experimenting.
We found out that we really loved working with bartenders. They understood flavor and were open to collaboration. The back and forth was really enlightening. We learned so much and we enjoyed it.
We decided that we would continue the experimentation, and reached out to bartenders in Chicago, San Francisco and three more in Seattle. In total we did ten more amari, because making seven at the same time in the first round was not complicated enough.
When we had 17 different amari, we decided to continue production on three of them- Amaro #1 by John Ueding, Amaro #4 by Patrick Haight, and Amaro #14 by Mike Ryan. These are our three flagship amari.
We still make new amari. We partner with different cities or states to make a version. We’ve worked with bartenders in Boston, Atlanta and New York as well as Seattle, Chicago and San Francisco.
We offer four regional amari in ongoing production- Amaro Kim in Chicago, Amaro Macquarrie in Atlanta, Amaro 5 in Seattle, and JK Amaro in Boston.
Amaro is the lifeblood of what we do at BROVO Spirits- making complex spirits which put flavor first.