This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Last year, I was out at a bar overlooking the Colosseum. A little unsteady, I accepted a shot from bartender Matteo Zed, a well-known figure in Rome. As he poured me the drink, I noticed the caramel-coloured liquid came from an elaborate bottle featuring Roman columns, symbols and plants. The digestif had a pleasantly sweet note underneath a bitter flavour typical of Italian amaro.
As I sat there captivated by the bottle, Zed told me the liqueur was called Amarartis and was originally developed for one of Rome’s most exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, Il Nuovo Circolo Degli Scacchi, or the New Chess Club. At the time, I’d just finished watching The Queen’s Gambit. I was intrigued.
Much to my surprise, Rome’s New Chess Club has nothing to do with chess. This private society was founded in 1916 following the union of two older gentlemen’s clubs, the New Club and the Chess Club (hence the name). Its famed exclusivity, however, turned out to be real – the current 700 male-only members come from Rome’s aristocracy, academic circles and other elite circles. The club is very private about what goes on behind its walls – I was only told that members enjoy reading the newspaper, lunching together and holding meetings.
For a while, the club met in different spaces throughout some of Rome’s most beautiful buildings – until 1990, when it settled in Palazzo Rondanini, the baroque-style residence of famous art collector Giuseppe Rondinini, smack in the centre of Rome. The building used to house Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà, the last sculpture he worked on before his death in 1564. Today, the piece is on show at the Sforzesco Castle in Milan.
Amarartis is the brainchild of the club’s two bartenders, Claudio Summa and Andrea Disperati, who created the digestif for members wanting a tipple after meals. I met them at an empty Palazzo Rondanini, closed due to COVID restrictions. “The idea was to give them an exclusive artisanal product,” Summa said, as we breezed through a room decorated with four Roman statues from the 4th century AD. The 18th century rooms are as opulently-decorated as you’d imagine, brimming with paintings, carved doors, secret passageways and neoclassical statues.
Summa has a background in pharmaceutical studies, while Disperati is a veteran of the bartending world. Amarartis was born of them combining those interests.
“We used a lot of plants from Lazio [the region that includes Rome], plus some of the best herbs from around the world,” Summa said. The final liqueur combines almost 30 roots, plants, herbs, tree barks and flowers, creating a complex bitter flavour. “It took us a year to finish the product,” Summa said. “Each sample was tasted both by us and by other club members.”
The distilling process is complicated. First, the plant-based ingredients – including Roman chamomile, Chinese rhubarb, French gentian and Sri Lankan cardamom – are soaked up to nine times. “Then, we make a caramel infusion with all the medicinal plants,” Summa said. Next, the concoction is filtered the old-fashioned way, using a linen cloth and, finally, the liquids are combined before resting in the dark for two weeks. All in all, it takes about two months for the liqueur to come together, and only 1,500 bottles are made each year.
Since its introduction in 2019, the liqueur quickly became popular among members, who wanted to buy it to take home. That’s when Summa and Disperati began bottling it and selling it under the name Amarartis. Of course, to preserve its exclusive appeal, the version available at the New Chess Club is called “Amaro del Circolo”, or the Club’s Liqueur, and sold in a different bottle, although the recipe is the same. If you fancy a bottle, you can contact Amarartis directly through their website. It’ll cost you €26 a pop, but orders might take some time since stocks are limited.
As I was sipping the amaro in Palazzo Rondanini’s dark-wood bar, I felt expensive, even important, for a brief moment. Then I took the tram back home and everything went back to normal.