Amaro and other spirits in the CH Distillery line.

Amaro is an Italian digestif, sweet and bitter at the same time, made by macerating regional herbs and botanicals into a neutral spirit. It’s become a popular ingredient as a bittering flavor in cocktails of late. CH Distillery’s signature spirit is their vodka made from Illinois grains, so it was an easy guess that it was the base for their amaro, which just went on sale a couple of weeks ago.

“Actually, it’s our rum,” says cofounder and head distiller Tremaine Atkinson, who I interviewed yesterday. And tasting it, you can believe it—there’s a roundedness, a smoky depth to the amaro you don’t normally find. Add in the hint of chocolate from cacao beans, and it’s got the mouth-filling richness of a dark chocolate truffle.

The inspiration for making an amaro came from the field, Atkinson says. I spoke with him about this newest addition to their line.

Michael Gebert: What was the thought behind making amaro?

Tremaine Atkinson: The amaro was actually born from one of our bartender friends, because we sell to bars and restaurants throughout the city. So one of our bartender friends said, I really wish you guys would make an amaro. So we said, why not, let’s try it.

We started tasting a lot of different products that are out there, and we found some that we liked. A lot of them were sweet. But a lot of bartenders use it, so we said sure. I basically told her, OK, we’ll make an amaro, and then I came back here and said, oh crap, now we have to make an amaro!

But it was a really fun and interesting process to develop. I didn’t start with a particular flavor in mind, except immediately I thought of cacao. But I just started playing with other things. It says on the bottle on the back “recipe 7,” so it was the seventh iteration I worked on, but after hitting seven I did about twelve variations from there to get to the final. And what I found, which was fascinating, was that very small changes in the recipe yielded much larger changes than you’d expect in the final flavor. We’ve got probably nine or ten active ingredients in the final recipe, so you change one, it changes everything.

How did rum enter the picture?

We make vodka, we make two styles of gin, which are our core products that we distribute throughout the city. That’s what we started with. But our liquor license is for a tasting room, and we can only serve what we make. And you’ve got to have a rum, you’ve got to have some whiskey. So we make our own rum, from scratch, from molasses. So we’ve always got some of that around for daiquiris at the bar or whatever.

But when I started tinkering around with the amaro recipe, one of the first flavors I knew I wanted in there was a little bit of cocoa, so we have beautiful cacao beans that are a flavor component. I did a couple of test batches just using vodka as a neutral spirit, but when I added the rum, it added this beautiful richness.

Is that common in making amaro? Because rum does not seem a neutral spirit.

I don’t think so, no. Our rum is an unaged rum that we distill pretty cleanly, because it’s an unaged rum and it’s not as funky as rums that are going to go into a barrel for a couple of years. But what it has is some of that molasses character and sweetness, which really adds to the typical amaro profile. It tasted good!

So there’s not kind of a canonical list of ingredients that amaro must have.

No. It’s got to have bitter and sweet.

In Italy, which is where amaros come from originally, each amaro has got a regional sort of flavor to it. So I knew that I wanted to include some local ingredients. So for example, the cocoa nibs are made in Woodstock, Illinois, and the honey, which is one of the really subtle ingredients, is from a little beekeeper in Marengo, Illinois. That was just thrilling, to be able to get his beautiful honey and make it unique.