Amer” in French means “bitter”. The amers from Alsace are drinkable (potable) bitters, they are lower alcohol by volume spirits ranging from 15% to 21% abv.
Wolfberger (pronounced Wolf-bear-ZJAY) is one of the most revered wineries and distilleries in Alsace. In 1902, a cooperative of dedicated winemakers banded together to share their passion and knowledge with a common goal — creating the highest quality wines and spirits. They set up their cellars in Eguisheim and Dambach-la-Ville, and set about perfecting three different crafts: making Alsatian wine, producing Alsatian sparkling wines, and distilling eaux-de-vie (different brandies) and liqueurs of Alsace. This cooperative would become Wolfberger winery and distillery.
The founding winegrowers invested in 36 oak casks from Hungary, with a total capacity of 5,000 hectoliters or 132,085 US gallons. The size of these barrels, over 3600 gallons each, made it possible to generate slow and measured oxygenation, a characteristic beneficial to the wine. These giant casks are still in use at Wolfberger for aging certain wines of each vintage.
Today, Wolfberger owns over 10% of the vineyards in Alsace, and hundreds of acres of orchards. They produce award-winning crémants, eaux-de-vies, and of course, an extraordinary line of amers.
A little bit of history… These amers are as unique as the Alsace region they come from. Located in Northeastern France, Alsace is bordered on the east by the Rhine river (and Germany) with the beautiful Vosges mountains and Lorraine to the West and Switzerland to the south. The basic process for a traditional amer is as follows: Superior alcohol is first infused with citrus and aromatics. Gentian root, harvested from Central Massif, is included in the maceration process. This root gives the finished beverage its distinctive bitter note. Gentian has been used for centuries as a soothing digestif. A second infusion of cinchona bark (quinine) creates the bracing quinine effect. The select botanicals, citrus and are macerated for a specified period of time. Sugar, caramel and water are added at varying times to control the alcohol content and balance the flavors.
In Alsace, on a daily basis, patrons step up to the bar or sit down at a local restaurant and order an “Amer Bière.” Directly translated this means, “bitter beer,” however this does not accurately describe this unique and wonderful drinking experience. To make a proper amer bière, take a pint glass, pour in about 1.5 – 2 oz. of any amer from Wolfberger or Sommer. Then add 12 oz. of your favorite lager or ale. Order is important in preparing an amer bière. By pouring the beer into the waiting amer, it allows the effervescence of the beer to mingle with the amer and create a wonderful aromatic frothy head to drink through. Lagers will show the flavor of the amers best, but part of the fun is finding the beer pairing you like best.
The original recipe for this libation was created by Gaetan Picon around 1837. Picon was born in Genoa, Italy and moved to France as a young man. He apprenticed in a number of distilleries in southern France. His interest in chemistry and the botanical properties of plants came in handy while serving in the French foreign legion in Algiers, Algeria, when he and a number of other soldiers were stricken with malaria. He concocted what he called “tisane” or tea. The recipe was a mixture he remembered his grandmother preparing for him when he suffered from malaria as a young man. It was, in fact, a neutral alcohol infused with dried orange peel and “steeped,” to this he added dried gentian root, cinchona bark (quinine), sugar syrup, spices, herbs and caramel. Apparently, it was a successful “remedy,” so successful that his superiors ordered him to produce it for all the troops. Amer was born! Originally referred to as Amer Africain, the concoction was around 80 proof (perhaps another reason it found favor with the officers and troops). Over time the alcohol by volume was reduced to range from 15-21% abv, but the unique flavor was retained).