|Nonino "Quintessentia" Amaro|
According to the folks at Nonino, the "Quintessentia" begins as a blend of brandies from the company's ÙE line. Nonino began making the ÙE grape brandies, each from a single grape variety and a single vineyard source, back in 1984. They take whole grape clusters and ferment them, later distilling them with a discontinuous still. Today there are several products in the ÙE range, but Nonino uses three as part of the base for the amaro: the brandies based on Ribolla Gialla grapes, Traminer, and Verduzzo. This might seem insignificant except that texture and layered flavors of the "Quintessentia" have more in common with brandy than with many other commercial amari, and the use of a grape spirit base is a big part of the reason why.
The recipe for the Nonino amaro includes a number of usual amari suspects and a couple of ingredients that are less normally met with. The enumerated list includes gentian root, rhubarb, multiple kinds of orange peel, quassia wood, tamarind, galenga, liquorice, saffron, and cinchona. Those items that can be found locally (as opposed to those of South American origin), are apparently gathered from a somewhat mountainous area of Friuli known as Carnia. This is in theory notable to me because I am greatly intrigued by the possibility of localized amari. It is interesting to think of an amari from Friuli that would taste of the herbs of that region, while an amaro from Calabria might have other flavors native to that particular zone. In actual practice I've had less success actually picking out herbal notes with that kind of specificity. For instance I note sarsaparilla and licorice flavors in the Nonino amaro, but I have found similar flavors in amaro from other parts of Italy as well.
Few producers of amari (excluding chinato producers) would seem to age their product in wood for any real length of time. In most instances, if an inexpensive amaro has a deep hue, that is because it has been colored with caramel. So the fact that Nonino ages its "Quintessentia" in French oak and used sherry butts for 5 years would seem notable. Certainly the integration of flavors on the palate that one finds with the "Quintessentia" would indicate the kind of harmony that wood ageing can bring about. All the more surprising then to learn that Nonino also makes caramel additions to its amaro, which they do. Sometimes I yearn for a "Brut Nature" style of non-caramel dosed amaro.
As it is, however, the "Quintessentia" is still high class stuff, and I am usually quite happy to meet with a glass. Which is fairly doable, because it is one of the more readily available amaro in the American market. I think that in general an amaro produced by a well recognized grappa producer has a better chance of getting imported than an amaro that is produced as a stand alone product by a dedicated amaro producer. The chances of an amaro getting tacked on to a larger grappa order seem fairly good. It probably also helps that Nonino is brought in by a pretty active importer that works in several different cities. Anyway, if you want to try the "Quintessentia," obtaining a bottle is certainly not too difficult, although it is certainly not inexpensive for the category.
In terms of flavor, the "Quintessentia" yields up the sarsaparilla and licorice flavors already alluded to, as well as a kind of red iron kind of flavor. I tend to perceive the sarsaprilla more in the mid-palate, and the licorice more towards the quite long finish. This particular amaro really does linger on the palate, and in fact sort of coats the palate nicely. I sometimes sense some red hots flavor notes as well, which may or may not be related to the 70 proof that this amaro brings to the glass.
Outside of chinato or vermouth, Nonino amaro is perhaps the very best amaro I know of to serve as an aperitivo. Of course it is wonderful after dinner as well, but the fineness of texture and delicacy of flavor really work well as an aperitivo. Add a slice of orange and maybe some ice cubes and you have everything you need. I suspect one would see "Quintessentia" in cocktails more often if it were less expensive (it tends to be one of the most expensive of any given set of amari on a retail shelf), but then again, all that wood ageing does bring about more cost. If you do have the opportunity to use it in a cocktail, may I suggest that you try a blend with Barbancourt aged Rhum? It isn't the worst thing you can do to yourself.
Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that the Nonino Amaro bottle is one of the most preferred for reusing. The front label comes off easily, and there is a straightforward shape to the clear glass that reminds one of an apothecary. I have noticed that when folks make their own home brew amaro, they often place it in an old Nonino bottle.
Nonino "Quintessentia" Amaro is imported to the United States by Terlato Wines International (formerly Paterno) of Lake Bluff, Illinois.