During last year’s second Victorian lockdown, chef Michael Ryan was dutifully sorting the storeroom of his Japanese-inspired Beechworth fine diner Provenance when he found a stack of botanicals he’d once bought to make his own cocktail bitters.

The rediscovery kicked off a yearlong project that culminated in a quirky collection of handmade amaro, the Italian-style herbal liqueur usually enjoyed as a digestif, or sometimes as an aperitif or a bitter cocktail ingredient (well-known brands of amaro – Italian for “bitter” – include Fernet-Branca, Campari, Jägermeister and Cynar).

“Amaro is usually made from fruit, spices and herbs,” Ryan says. “That’s kind of it.”

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But like at his restaurant, which is hugely popular with Melbourne out-of-towners, Ryan’s creations for the newly minted Beechworth Bitters Company are both layered and locally inspired. Dusting off his old chemistry degree, he compiled a library of 120 different alcoholic extractions utilising “witchy botanicals” as well as the usual staples.

Blending between 30 and 45 botanicals for each amaro – including leaves, bark and roots – Ryan is launching an initial range of five in apothecary-style 500-mil bottles. He’s also releasing a floral-driven take on limoncello called Yuzu Cello, made with yuzu from nearby Mount Buffalo. And harking back to the project’s origins, he has two styles of cocktail bitters on the way.

Each amaro stands well apart from the rest. There’s the relatively gentle Orchard, with local bergamot, lime and orange; the B8, which combines an array of vegetables with koji rice and seaweed extract for a more savoury sip; the woody A Walk in the Black Forest, mingling cherry, cocoa, coffee and vanilla while retaining a pronounced bitterness; and the Spinal Tap-inspired Up to Eleven, which turbocharges the astringency typically associated with Fernet-Branca with notes of mint and spruce. There’s also the rhubarb-centric Beetle Juice, the only non-vegan amaro in the collection, which uses cochineal bugs for flavour and colouring (as Campari once did). All feature a striking label design by Beechworth designer Jessee Dahlenburg and playful illustrations by Melbourne tattoo artist Cosmo Feltham.

Ryan is rolling out his product carefully, with a first batch totalling 900 bottles. He’ll supply amari to a few select restaurants (besides his own) and release them to his mailing list before selling the rest through the company’s website for $55 to $65 per 500-millilitre bottle. He’s already done all the extracts for the next batch, which will yield around 1500 bottles.

Rather than pull his attention away from Provenance, the project gives Ryan scope to widen his recipe-crafting skills while building an organic side hustle.

“With the lockdowns, we realised we need to diversify a little bit and have another income stream somewhere,” he says. “Plus, I really enjoy it.”