When Big Star's assistant manager Laurent Lebec first tried Fernet Branca, an Italian amaro, he wasn't a fan.
"I was on tour with [the band] Pelican and toured shows in Italy. Fans would bring bottles of Fernet backstage—at the time I found it kind of reprehensible," he said.
After he left the band and began frequenting Wicker Park cocktail mecca The Violet Hour, he changed his tune toward amaro, a category of bitter and botanical liquor traditionally drank after a meal as a digestif.
"One of the first nights I spent at The Violet Hour, Stephen Cole, who now works at Barrelhouse Flat, made me a really great drink with amaro and that’s actually how I became more familiar with them," Lebec said. "They have endless possibilities for cocktails."
Eager to spread the amaro gospel, Lebec and Big Star's other assistant manager Ben Fasman teamed up with Evanston-based Few Spirits to create an original recipe amaro for use only at the restaurant. The amaro is expected to hit Big Star's shelves in about six weeks.
Hold up, though--what does an Italian after-dinner drink have to do with a whiskey and taco bar?
"We realized pretty quickly that having a bourbon-based amaro would be pretty fun and would keep it in the family of what Big Star is," Lebec said, explaining the choice of a whiskey base rather than using the more common neutral spirit or fortified wine to make an amaro.
"Paul [Hletko, of Few Spirits] pointed out that nothing is ever going to overtake shots of whiskey at Big Star," Fasman added.
The whiskey backbone gives this amaro a slightly more hardy texture, according to Hletko, but the bitterness is tempered by tart cherry and fruit flavors.
The bitter-sweet dynamic makes this an ideal cocktail ingredient, so Big Star bartenders plan to debut a manhattan variation that includes the amaro, as well as use it in place of Campari or Aperol in negronis and boulevardiers (a cousin to the negroni made with bourbon rather than gin).
Of course, if you want to prove your fondness for bitter spirits, no bartender will keep you from taking shots of it, either.