The Alsace region of northeastern France is known for its quaint villages, Riesling wine and big platters of sauerkraut served with sausages and salted meats. Not, necessarily, for its innovative cocktail culture.
But along with the sweet and the sour comes the bitter: Amer, a deep brown aperitif made in the Alsace region from orange peels, gentian root and the bark of the South American cinchona plant.
Until recently, the Alsatian specialty was practically impossible to find in the United States. But thanks to one enterprising Tucsonan, mixologists across Old Pueblo are getting this liqueur and throwing it into just about anything you can imagine.
As the founder of Bliss Imports, Kevin Button is bringing Amer back to the United States after a generation on hiatus. Working with two distilleries, Wolfberger and Sommer, Button ships cases to a warehouse in New York and then on toward Arizona and a few other states.
Sitting together at the Broadway cocktail bar Sidecar on a recent afternoon, Button brought out three of his bottles: The original Wolfberger Wolfamer, a Fleur de Joie made with French beer brandy, and the Amer Gingembre, spiced with fresh ginger.
It’s important to note that Amer is a “drinkable bitter” much like the Amaros of Italy, and even the Jägermeister of Germany. (Eesh!) It’s much lower in alcohol than the typical Angostura bitters you might drop into a Manhattan, but man, is it potent.
The drink was originally developed as a medicine for malaria, so it’s heavy on the herbal flavors and bitter with quinine imparted by the cinchona bark. Toward the end of the distillation process, caramel, sugar and water are added to give the drink a syrupy brown viscosity. So it tastes like spiced molasses.
For the casual bar drinker, it’s a bit much to take on its own. But the Amer is lovely in a cocktail or a tonic. The Amer Gingembre added an undertone of rich, gingery spice to the Some Dark Some Stormy.
But my favorite concoction happened on a whim. We were having trouble deciding what to add, so Button had the bartender mix the Amer Fleur with half tonic, half soda water and a twisted lemon peel. The fizzy water opened everything up, so I could taste the hoppy beer brandy, and the fresh flavors of the flower-bearing gentian root, which grows naturally in the fields of Europe.
The man behind the Amer
Kevin Button has been hooked on Amer since 1999, when he discovered the drink while visiting friends in Alsace, a region on the French border with Germany.
Button, the longtime director of information technology at the University of Arizona College of Nursing, fell hard for an Amer Bière: a pint glass filled with a small shot of Amer, then topped with Kronenbourg or another European lager. The effervescence of the beer mixes with the quinine of the Amer, creating a frothy orange head.
"He opened this bottle and there's this great orange aroma that filled the room," he said. "So when I first tasted it, the thing that hit me was this striking interplay between sweet and sour, all in the same moment, in the same mouthful.
"It never really occurred to me to combine something else with beer to enhance or alter the flavor. All of the sudden I was thinking about the limitless possibilities: What's it gonna taste like with a Pilsner, what's it gonna taste like with a Hefeweizen?"
After returning to the States, he realized that nobody was carrying his new drink of choice. So he relied on visiting friends to supply him with the liqueur.
But a few years ago, he decided to call up his friend in Alsace, asking her to put him in touch with Wolfberger, one of the best Amer distilleries in France.
In September 2014, the first cases of Wolfberger Amer arrived in the United States. Button is now the exclusive U.S. importer of Amer, which is shipped to several states including New York, Texas, Massachusetts and California.
Button recently moved with his wife, Lisa, to Concord, Massachusetts, where she works at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. Kevin Button regularly travels back to Tucson to visit the bartenders that carry his Amer.
"I kind of feel like the Johnny Appleseed of Amers, you know. I've got my little satchel and my sample bottles and I'm just going from place to place spreading the seeds of Amer Bière and Amers in the U.S."