Elliot Strathmann, co-owner of Spuntino, at 2639 West 32nd Avenue, has been rooting around the woods of Colorado looking for specific ingredients, with the help of professional forager Graham Steinruck, founder of Hunt & Gather, a company that provides foraged mushrooms and other produce to Denver restaurants. Strathmann has been stocking his pantry with wild roots, herbs, berries and seeds for making Italian-style amari, the bitter digestifs popular in Europe as after-dinner drinks and gaining recognition at many of Denver's newer Italian restaurants and craft cocktail bars.
Strathmann started experimenting with making his own amari (the plural, in Italian, of amaro) using herbs grown in his home garden and in the small beds in front of Spuntino, supplemented with ingredients purchased online or in local shops. But those experiments have become somewhat of an obsession, and Strathmann is now growing his own saffron crocuses (each flower yields only one or two saffron threads) and has been hunting the woods near some of Colorado's mountain towns to create strictly Colorado liqueurs.
His foraging trips have yielded osha root, gentian, sagebrush, skunkbush berries, burdock, wild dandelion and many other botanicals with profiles that range from bitter to sour and yield flavors like celery root, licorice, pepper, menthol and ginseng, to name a few. Amari generally use combinations of dozens of botanicals to produce complex characteristics that help settle the stomach after a big meal — like what you'll enjoy from chef/co-owner Cindhura Reddy's kitchen — and that also taste pretty good in place of a sweet dessert.
The technique is fairly simple: Botanicals are steeped in neutral grain spirits (like the infamous Everclear) for days or weeks, and then water and a sweetener (honey or cane sugar, for example) are added until a smooth, balanced beverage results. Strathmann just created an end-of-summer garden liqueur using the last of his basil, nasturtium and a few other herbs (the same ones that go into Spuntino's Garden Collins cocktail). He also recently made a fennel liqueur called finocchietto from a fennel plant in his back yard that grew to nearly ten feet tall.
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The bar maintains several small oak barrels with various concoctions resting at any given time; to try one, just ask for something from the dessert menu's "house made digestivi" list, which might include limoncello, amaro di Spuntino, genziana or liquore allo zafferano — each in the $5 to $8 range.