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Drinks

All ‘Choked Up

Meet Cynar, every bartender's bitter secret weapon

It's no secret that Italian bitters, the distinctive, cocktail-friendly liqueurs that have enjoyed major player status overseas for decades, are finally taking center stage stateside. Campari and fernet are leading the botanical invasion, while the Aperol Spritz, the Italian summertime go-to, has officially taken the U.S. by storm. But according to top bartenders, midnight-hued Cynar is the lot's mysterious unsung hero. Get ahead of the cocktail curve and get to know this under-the-radar bitter.

Cynar (pronounced CHEE-nar) is in the class of amari, a group of liqueurs famous for their stomach-soothing qualities and generally low booze content. Specifically, Cynar is a digestivo, an almost-medicinal Italian after-dinner drink. Like its fragrant famiglia, it's made by steeping herbs (13 in this case) in a neutral spirit. But what makes the spirit really stand out is its primary ingredient: artichokes.

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Don't let this hearty flavoring agent fool you. "Cynar is quite beguiling," says Dave Karraker, VP of marketing and communications for the American division of Gruppo Campari, Cynar's Milanese parent company. "You expect it to taste as dark and brooding as it looks, but are welcomed with a liqueur that is bright and mixes in a cocktail so well."

Aside from being a staple of Italian cuisine, the thistle's subtlety creates a more even-keel product than chinotto, Campari's blood orange-like driving force, or Luxardo Aperitivo's tart cherries. And it's the spirit's lack of palate-punching bitterness that makes it so ideal for cocktails.

"Cynar tends to be sweeter than other amari, thus making it less aggressive, more approachable and great for drinks," says Eden Laurin, managing partner at The Violet Hour, a multi-award-winning Chicago cocktail bar that's been instrumental in spreading the bitters gospel. Take one sip of this sparkling rum, grapefruit juice and Cynar cocktail (see the recipe) from NYC's beloved bitters-focused bar, Amor y Amargo, and you'll get the picture.

Developed in 1952 by Venetian entrepreneur and philanthropist Angelo Dalle Molle, Cynar rose to fame thanks to a series of commercials starring Italian movie star Ernesto Calindri. In 1995, Campari acquired the spirit, and U.S. bartenders, especially those of Italian descent, began to experiment with the unusual bitter liqueur.

"My mother is Neapolitan, and Naples used to be the highest producers of artichoke," Laurin says. "So I would often feature Cynar in cocktails with an Italian influence to pay homage to my roots."

Over the last decade, specialty bars like Laurin's began popping up around the country. And just as craft brewers were urging drinkers to look beyond light lagers, these joints were turning people onto cocktails that left those boring old vodka-cranberries in the dust.

"As American palates changed, bartenders and consumers started looking for spirits with stronger profiles and came across these dusty, old Italian brands,"  Karraker notes. "Today, bitter is everywhere—kale, IPAs, dark chocolate, strong coffee. Cynar became so hot in the U.S. recently that we even introduced a 70-proof variant, Cynar 70, in 2015."

"When The Violet Hour opened 10 years ago, we were very nuanced in our use of bitterness," Laurin echoes. "Now, bartenders are seeing more and more people moving away from sweet flavors and asking for drinks that are bitter, herbal or dry."

In addition to Amor y Amargo, which touts one of the country's most extensive bitters programs (it even makes and sells its own line), Chicago's The Whistler, SoCal cocktail heavyweights Fairweather and Honeycut, and NYC's game-changing pioneer, Pegu Club, have all been at the forefront of the bitters movement.

But if you think this stuff is strictly for the pros, think again. Cynar's low price point (it usually runs under $25 a bottle) and versatility make it an excellent addition to any home bar. In Italy, the liqueur is frequently sipped on the rocks or freshened up with a splash of seltzer and a citrus twist. Other popular European mixers include Coke, bitter lemon soda or tonic. Some even drop a dash of Cynar into their white wine to temper a fruit-forward vino.

So grab a bottle and get cracking on this easy-drinking original.

During In Good Spirits month, we're going behind the bar to find out what separates aperitifs from digestifs, which It cocktails the world's top bartenders crave and how to turn your home into the hottest speakeasy in town.

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