Food & Drinks

How Cynar Became a Bartender’s Handshake

“Have you ever seen an artichoke in bloom?” muses Brooklyn bar owner Damon Boelte, discussing the carciofo category of amaro. “It is one of the most beautiful flowers I’ve ever seen.” This tendency toward rhapsody is not uncommon among bartenders talking about amari, especially when asked about the artichoke-based Cynar. The Italian liqueur’s dynamic bitter, sweet and savory flavor profile and low ABV have made it a bartender go-to in applications spanning the spectrum from aperitivo to digestivo.

“It is such an approachable amaro,” says Guido Martelli, general manager of a South Philadelphia social club. “Cynar’s profile grants folks the ability to ‘level up’ in the amari world. The vegetal quality lurking in the background may be unexpected, but there are some textbook familiarities present.”

Cynar has helped define the many unexpected ways bittersweet amari can be used in new-look cocktails, and there are countless examples that offer testimony to its versatility in modern drink-making. Topping the list of definitive drinks would likely be Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy, a 2006 Manhattan riff featuring rye as the base spirit and a measure of Cynar subbing in for the bitters. Another standout from the early days of the modern cocktail movement is the Trident, created by Seattle cocktail historian Robert Hess: an unexpected marriage of equal parts Cynar, aquavit and dry sherry, plus peach bitters and a lemon twist.

Philadelphia bartender Paul MacDonald has an admitted “soft spot” for Stephen Cole’s Bitter Giuseppe (Cynar, sweet vermouth, lemon juice, orange bitters), but he swaps the lemon twist for grapefruit and adds salt to the mix. “That touch of salt brings out a whole new, unexpected side of Cynar,” says MacDonald. Cat Cannon, co-owner of a Pittsburgh hospitality group, agrees: “A couple dashes of saline solution in a shot of Cynar is just [chef’s kiss].”

Chris Amirault, owner of an Italian American pop-up in Los Angeles, says, “One of my favorite things to do with Cynar is an inverted spec, where the Cynar is the workhorse of the cocktail.” His menu features an Inverted Little Italy that swaps the traditional proportions and uses a 101-proof rye whiskey, resulting in a spirit-forward drink that has “a lower ABV than its ancestor,” he says. “The Cynar is the star.”

And it’s not pigeonholed to stirred, boozy blueprints. Take Jeremy Oertel’s Artichoke Hold, a refreshing, shaken cocktail of Jamaican rum, Cynar, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and orgeat, which playfully demonstrates how nicely an amaro can ride alongside the aged rums, tropical fruit and bespoke syrups that make up the sweet-sour-bitter matrix of tiki templates. “Versatility in action!” observes Las Vegas bar consultant Tonia Guffey.

The spectrum of uses for Cynar in cocktails is wide, but, when speaking with bartenders about it, one other item inevitably comes up: the 50/50. These composed shots, pairing two amari or an amaro with another spirit, have evolved into a “bartender’s handshake” among those in the hospitality industry, providing a way for a bartender to welcome someone to their bar or bid them farewell. Cynar is a popular player in the 50/50 game, and the resulting cheeky portmanteaus typically play on the elements involved, such as Bro-Nar (bourbon and Cynar), Rye-Nar (rye and Cynar), Narwhal (Cynar and Aperol), Wray-Nar (Wray & Nephew and Cynar)  and Chile-Choke (Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur and Cynar).

As for the serve, it’s not unheard of to see some bartenders giving a quick stir in a mixing glass for chill and dilution, or upping the proportions to make a nightcap. Still others break their own rules by having more than two ingredients, or a citrus twist. But you’ll find most free-pouring the equal parts into a one- or two-ounce shot glass, at room temp (and arguing that anything else defies the laws of the 50/50).

“A 50/50 should always be a shot, room-temperature and two ounces,” says Seattle bar consultant Lindsay Matteson. Guffey adds, “The whole point of a 50/50 shot is to be easy-peasy and not too serious.”

New York City bar owner and author Sother Teague says that the serve is “meant to be hospitable, not burdensome, so I typically free-pour… This way I can keep the energy of the night flowing without interruption.”

Even simpler: He keeps on hand a batched liter bottle of room-temperature CIA 50/50s—equal parts Cynar and Laird’s Straight Apple Brandy Bonded, plus a dash of Angostura bitters, created by Guffey in 2010. Guffey first began offering the shot to friends stopping by her Brooklyn bar under the name AAA, but soon neighborhood bartenders were requesting “Cynar in Applejack” when they came in after their shifts. “CIA” stuck, and became an industry darling. “It’s still a trip that people know it and drink it, because it was never on a menu,” recalls Guffey.

In Denver, Michael Buonocore had been used to reaching for the batched blend of mezcal and reposado tequila that served as the base in a popular cocktail at the popular bar where worked, but it wasn’t until he went off-book and married that mix with equal parts Cynar that he had a new favorite 50/50. “It made sense that artichokes and agave would get along, but [especially] with the savory herbal and earthy vegetal notes Cynar presents,” says Buonocore. Christened the Mixed Bizness, the composed shot quickly became both a go-to at-home nightcap (“I prefer an amaro at night, in a kind of romantic Italian-American way,” he muses. “Like my mom-mom is still around to dole out some folk wisdom.”) and a favorite to pour for friends stopping by the bar.

Ultimately, the guiding mantra is that a 50/50 shouldn’t be overthought. Take it from Boelte: “The true spirit of a 50/50 should be shared as an expression of gratitude, revelry and celebration,” he says. “We have but little time to enjoy such frivolity in this realm.”

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