If you shop for liqueurs by the label, you won’t choose Cynar. Unless you really like artichokes. A large hand-drawn image of the spiny flowerhead pops on the bright red label. Cynar, a bitter liqueur introduced in Italy in 1952, is proud to include artichokes in its proprietary blend of 13 herbs and plants. Poured over soda or mixed with scotch, Cynar has transitioned from a cool Italian aperitivo–digestivo to a cool ingredient for making twists on classic cocktails.
Pezziol — a food company from Padua — created Cynar for an Italian public besotted with lightly bitter pre-dinner drinks. Among these were Campari and Aperol, introduced in 1860 and 1919 respectively, which punctuated aperitivi hours with americani and aperol spritzes. Cynar’s popularity depended on its ability to offer a unique experience of bitter in an already saturated market. They succeeded. This success may be due in part to the boom economico, which encouraged Italians with more leisure time and income to try new drinks at their local bar.
Originally advertised as fighting “against the stress of modern life”, Cynar caters to those looking for a slightly-sweet amaro with health-benefits beyond its digestion-friendly herbal blend. Artichokes may be the font of the drink’s wholesomeness, but the vegetable is more evident in the aperitf-digestif’s marketing than in its flavour. Early advertisements featured Italian actor Ernesto Calindri smiling over a small glass of Cynar, imbuing the novel amaro with old-school luxury it otherwise lacked. When Calindri wasn’t sipping his digestivo, ads featured women drinking Cynar from glasses made of artichokes and young Italians walking through forests bursting with artichokes. Not only was Cynar a delicious drink, it was also a healthy indulgence.
Despite it’s relatively low ABV, Cynar probably doesn’t deserve the healthful reputation it maintained, even if it diminishes stress. Underneath faint herbal notes, Cynar is quite sweet, making it a welcome mixer with stronger liquors such as aquavit and scotch. But Italians didn’t embrace Cynar drinking strong cocktails. Originally, the amaro was drunk straight over ice or mixed with soda for a bracing aperitivo. With only 16.5% alcohol, Cynar provided a new option for drinkers tired of their americano and not ready for a negroni. Cynar’s similarities to other bitter Italian liqueurs allowed it to become popular — it’s unique flavour ensured its continued success.
But it required more than a smiling actor to convince American cocktail-enthusiasts to embrace Cynar. There is no Cynar spritz to inspire memories (real or imagined) of glamorous aperitivi in Milan. This has become its virtue. With the absence of a sacred drink from which thou-must-not-deviate, Cynar provides an intriguing taste layer to classic cocktails. Bartenders might make a Toronto cocktail swapping out Fernet Branca for more approachable Cynar. Brunchers could opt for a mimosa, made robust through the addition of the barely biter liqueur. Whereas Cynar provided a new drink option for Italians, it now provides a new flavour option for cocktail lovers.
In 1995 the brand was sold to Campari Group, the Milanese company that owns Aperol, Averna and Campari. The amaro increasingly appears on savvy liquor store shelves outside of Italy. Whereas Cynar once tempted Italians with the promise of a modern, healthful and tranquil drink, it now presents cocktail enthusiasts with a ready twist. Cynar: against the stressors of modern life, against the boredom of modern choice.
[Image via Serious Eats]