How I Fell for Amaro Montenegro

20160202-montenegro-vicky-wasik-2.jpg

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik]

My wife, Allie, and I keep a brass-plated bar cart in our apartment. On the top shelf stands a green bottle of Amaro Montenegro, dusty and yellow-labeled, looking more like a medicinal potion than something I would pour over ice. Lucky for me, it's both.

Allie and I are about to go out. Or rather, she's getting ready, and I'm ready and waiting. I pour a finger of the rust-copper digestivo into a whiskey glass, swirl it around, and inhale deeply. It's a circus of smells, a mixture of 40-plus botanicals that meld into something wild and hard to place. There's a long hit of orange and a current of flowers, a distant musk.

Now comes the good part. Each time, with just one syrupy sip, it sends me hurtling back in time.

20160202-montenegro-vicky-wasik-5.jpg

It's a cool black night in June, 2008. My study-abroad group of 19 is fresh from a saturnalian week in Rome, and now I'm sitting on a rooftop in Todi, Italy, a citadel town in Umbria we'd moved to that morning. I'm crushing beer with my host brother, Dario, and two of my fellow American students, David and Craig. A pungent candle burns on our plastic table. Dario's rooftop is two-thirds of the way up Todi's towering hill, and raspy voices leak out from lighted windows in stone houses, where neighbors sit with post-dinner espressos, cigarettes, and TV. We're at our rooftop's edge, looking down into the far valley, where dark olive groves, vineyards, sunflower fields, and crops of grain extend across the wide-open country.

"Andiamo?" Dario asks.

"Let's roll!" I say.

We pile into Dario's car, windows open wide and clean air rushing in. Euro beats blast off the stone walls; I shout like a fool and wear a stupid grin. I'm in Umbria for the summer, officially to study art, but really to have fun. In my study group, there's a cute, short-haired blonde named Allie. Back in Rome, there was a spark between us, but sadly, she isn't available. I've fallen pretty hard for her anyway. Now we're speeding off to a party in the Umbrian country, and all I can think about is that she'll be there.

But Dario drives uphill instead of down. We snake into Todi's smooth hilltop piazza, cathedral on the right, castles on the left, and park near a bar on the town's modern strip. I try to mask my disappointment; I'm itching to get out and try my luck with Allie.

The bar is empty, but Dario doesn't hesitate. The bartender knows him, and brings out four glasses as soon as he sees my host brother swagger in with his wide smile, his three American guests in tow. We sidle up to the dark wooden bar, and Dario says something to the bartender in rapid-fire Italian.

"First round, me!" Dario shouts, turning to us and thumping his chest.

The bartender pulls an alien green bottle from the mirrored shelves. He pours a burnt-orange stream of Amaro Montenegro into four stemmed glasses. The glass feels dainty in my hand—way too fancy for a college kid used to drinking out of cans and disposable plastic cups.

"Salute!" we shout. We clink glasses, and I watch Dario to see whether this is a shot or a sip. He sips, and so do I.

And what a sip it is. There's a sharp sweetness blunted by alcohol heat (we're kicking at 23% here), a scent of flowers, herbs, a collision of spices. I feel sophisticated, like I'm rocking an Italian suit at a European cocktail party, drinking out of crystal and listening to acid jazz. The flavors burn out slowly, but before I can pinpoint what exactly I've tasted. Meaning that, for a curious person like me, a second sip quickly follows the first, and a third the second, until the amaro is gone and we're all smiling at each other, ready to dive headfirst into the night.

And then we do. We have a raucous time drinking sticky red wine near the farmhouse Allie is living in for the summer. I get something of a yellow light from her: Slow down to a stop, she signals, or maybe she means "proceed with caution."

For the rest of the summer, we start every night with Montenegro.

20160202-montenegro-vicky-wasik-3.jpg

I find out later that the concoction dates back to 1885, when Stanislao Cobianchi started making amari in his hometown of Bologna. These days, more than 300 varieties of amaro can be found in Italy, where they're traditionally sipped pre- or post-meal to sharpen the appetite and ease digestion. Cobianchi settled on his formula not long after setting up shop, and named it after Princess Elena of Montenegro in honor of her wedding to King Vittorio Emanuele III. As with most amari, the recipe for Montenegro's electric flavors is a notoriously guarded secret.

"Amari can be especially tricky due to [their] centuries-old history and the fact that so many commercial brands are still shrouded in a cloak of secrecy with proprietary recipes. It's a category that defies any sense of industry standards," notes Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Bitters and the upcoming Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs. It's impossible to confirm the ingredients in an amaro like Montenegro. But that doesn't mean you can't guess based on what your senses tell you. I get a blast of saffron, cinnamon, honey...

"Montenegro is more floral than the average amaro," says Jeff Kellogg, wine director at Maialino in New York City, where there are always 40 to 50 amari on the menu. "The bitterness is rounded out by sweetness. Orange is a defining characteristic." At Maialino, they serve it in flights to contrast some of the more bitter amari. "It's nice and light, a good foil," notes Kellogg.

As the summer progresses in Umbria, I get to know Allie better. We're in the same painting class, taught in a hilltop park in the shadow of a ruined castle. She's a careful, well-dressed student of finance; I'm a creative writer with a carefree spirit. We're both in Italy to knock out art credit requirements, to live deeply, and to explore. We have completely opposite personalities, and neither of us can paint.

I hang out with Allie at a karaoke pub outside Todi, but I get nowhere. I sip Montenegro and then pilsner while she drinks wine at a modest café in the town's medieval piazza—nothing. Together, we stare at the sky from a rooftop near Todi's lower cathedral. Nothing. On the Fourth of July, we join friends in a starry field and fill a wooden table with empty bottles as fireflies float in the country night. Still, nothing.

Our study-abroad class travels. Montenegro tastes the same in Rome and Siena, in Lake Trasimeno and Perugia and Orvieto. The Montenegro in Venice is expensive, but I don't care—I drink it anyway. But the Montenegro is best in Florence, where Allie and I finally get together on the last night of summer. She tells me I taste like oranges.

We travel southwest to the Campanian coast and lie in the sun with cold drinks by the ink-blue sea. Our trip finishes in Rome, where Allie and I had met on a side street two months before. We live out a dreamlike stretch of wandering and café-hopping, drinking Montenegro and imagining how summer could have been if we'd clicked that first week in the Eternal City.

20160202-montenegro-vicky-wasik-4.jpg

"Are you ready to go?" Allie asks me. I look back at my wife and put my glass, now empty, down on our bar cart. We head to wherever we're headed.

Since that fateful summer, I have branched into other Italian drinks. Sweet and easy Averna and mellow, citrus-forward Aperol do the trick; sips of bitter Campari can, on occasion, bring the stone-and-stucco streets of ancient cities to life; and Visciolata conjures the windblown fields and leathery farmers and days of sunburnt harvests in the green mountains. But Montenegro is different. Montenegro makes me forget my working life. Montenegro melts time. In one orange-fragrant sniff, I can see castles. I can see sunflower fields and ancient walls and myself, young, wildly alive, and chasing a beautiful girl across a beautiful country.