Amari are just not the sorts of spirits that inspire a broad-based deep, abiding love. They’re bitter and herbal—some taste like cough medicine, some taste like spoiled licorice, some taste like loneliness. None of this is to say that amari do not make great drinks. The world would be a sad place without Negronis and Aperol Spritzes (although we might be okay without Jäger Bombs), but because amari’s flavors are so potent and so polarizing, they are usually better experienced within the ecosystem of a cocktail.
That is not the case with Caffé Amaro from Kansas City’s J. Rieger and Co. J. Rieger is one of the oldest names in Midwestern whiskey, and before Prohibition, the brand claimed to be the largest mail order alcohol business in the country. But, as with most pre-Prohibition success stories, it vanished after the 18th Amendment passed. In recent years though, J. Rieger has gone through a rebirth thanks to Kansas City bartender, bar owner and new partner in J. Rieger, Ryan Maybee. Not long after Maybee opened Manifesto in 2009, which appears on every shortlist for best cocktail bar in the city, he entered discussions with Andy Rieger about restarting the distillery. Rieger (the only living member of the Rieger line at the time) agreed, and by 2016 the reinvigorated J. Rieger and Co. had filled its product line with an entirely new style of whiskey—Kansas City whiskey, blended with sherry—a vodka, a gin and the Caffé Amaro.
Rieger head distiller Nathan Perry guided the development of the amaro and its unique flavor profile that balances bitter and sweet. It’s made with traditional Italian amaro ingredients like gentian, orange peel and cardamom before getting a hefty addition of cold brew coffee. The cold brew provides all the rich coffee flavor without any of the bitterness that comes with other brewing methods. Finally, they finish the amaro with sugar cane syrup that makes it one of the most palatable amari for straight sipping out there right now. We love it poured over a big ice cube. On the nose you get powerful wafts of licorice tempered by subtle coffee undercurrents. But upon sipping, the cold brew and sweetness of the cane syrup really push through, as does a bright bite of citrus. And at 62 proof, it creeps close enough to a full proof spirit to satisfy people looking for a bit of a buzz as well. However, it’s also astonishingly versatile for a coffee spirit. It makes the best damn White Russian you’ll ever have (duh), but also works as a Highball—a little better with tonic than soda, but whichever you prefer—and plays well with whiskey and rum.
“It’s a pain in the ass to make,” Perry says, because it has to be transferred between tanks and barrels 10 times, but that pain in the ass has paid off. Go get yourself a bottle and pop it open. We promise not to tell if you pour a little in your morning coffee.