In Italy, there are many names to describe the little drink, usually syrupy, often fragrant and spiced, served neat, in a small glass, to be sipped after dinner. In general, they are known as digestivi, or digestifs, so named because they are thought to have some digestive properties since they often contain purportedly beneficial herbs.
A popular digestif is an amaro, usually a herb-based liqueur that is, as the name suggests, bittersweet (amaro means "bitter"). Herbs, seeds, berries, and roots—such as angelica, fennel, juniper berries, myrtle berries, mint, cinnamon, bay laurel, cardamom, and elderflower berries—are commonly used in both well-known commercial and homemade amari. There's even a delicious apple liqueur made from apple seeds. Some recipes are known as centoerbe, or "a hundred herbs," made with an intensely aromatic mixture of mountain herbs. And when taken after espresso at the end of a meal, digestivi are known as an ammazzacaffè, a coffee-killer, as it takes away the effects and taste of coffee in the mouth.
Liquore is usually used to describe any other digestif liqueur, such as those infused with fruit. Some even have their own specific names—like limoncello, made with the rinds of Amalfi lemons, or cedrello, its citron counterpart. Nocino is a dark, spiced liqueur made with unripe green walnuts collected in June ("noci" are walnuts), and mirto is a potent Sardinian liqueur made from infused myrtle berries (and sometimes myrtle leaves) found all over the island.
The difference between amari and liquori is that an amaro is made with herbs—usually a big mix of them—while liquore can be made with fruit and other things, like lemons or cherries or strawberries or walnuts or hazelnuts (like Frangelico!). But they are made essentially the same way, with a simple infusion method.
Liquori are commonly made at home in Italy, the sort of thing you can pull out to offer guests after a long, drawn-out meal, and the formula for making your own liquori is quite simple. You need alcohol to draw out the flavor, color, or oils of your chosen fruit, herb, or berry. You need a simple syrup (made with one part water, one part sugar) to dilute the alcohol and add some pleasant sweetness that will take the edge off a little. You need to sharpen your math skills to work out the resulting alcoholic grade (ideally you want something around 30 to 40% alcohol). And you need time.
In Italy you can easily buy 190-proof (95% ABV) grain alcohol in the supermarket for the purpose of homemade liqueurs, but this isn't available in many other countries. You can do this with a 150-proof (75% ABV) too, such as Everclear, but I don't recommend using anything less strong (e.g. 100-proof vodka) when making herbal liqueurs as it isn't strong enough to extract the essential oils. You miss out on all that flavor and aroma! But vodka, if you can find it at a high enough proof, is a good choice for its neutral flavor and fragrance, and works very well with fruits such as citrus peels and even strawberries. Just remember that the weaker the alcohol, the more time you need to leave it to infuse.
More: What else can you do with amari? Take inspiration from these bitter Italian drinks we wish had a bigger following stateside.
How much syrup and alcohol you'll need to create a nicely balanced liqueur (around 30 to 40% alcohol) depends on the strength of alcohol you begin with. Start with 2 cups (500 ml) of alcohol. If using 95% alcohol you will need roughly 4 cups (1 liter) of simple syrup made with 3 cups (750 ml) of water and 3 cups (600 grams) of sugar. If using 2 cups of 75% alcohol, you'll need 2 cups of syrup, made with 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) water and 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) sugar.
Now that you have your alcohol...
For example, sage, rosemary, basil, saffron, cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla, licorice, lemon peel, orange peel, fennel seeds... Use fresh herbs wherever possible and whole, not ground, spices. How much to use? A lot. This isn't a stew or a sauce. Go for it! Fill the container you're making the amaro in as much as you can. (One recipe a lovely old nonna gave me for her cherry liqueur called for exactly 80 leaves for 4 cups of alcohol.)
Add the herbs to your container (preferably glass, like a jar with a tight-fitting lid and a wide mouth so it's easy to remove the herbs) with the alcohol and leave to infuse for one week in a cool, dark place. If using a weaker alcohol, such as vodka, even 1 month is better.
More: Not sure where to start? Take inspiration from Emiko's recipe for cedrello (or limoncello) here.
Let cool completely.
It should have taken on the colors and aromas of the herbs. Return the alcohol to the jar or into a glass bottle with a tight-fitting lid.
Serve chilled or at room temperature. Liqueurs like limoncello are often chilled (some like to keep the bottle in the freezer so it is always readily chilled; the alcohol prevents it from freezing), while amari are often served at room temperature.
Have you ever experimented with making your own liqueurs or amari? Tell us your success stories in the comments.