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What Is Amaro, or Better Yet, What Isn't Amaro?

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I read Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs by Brad Thomas Parsons and I still have no idea what amaro is. I went and tasted 8 different amaros (haven’t decided if I’ll accept the unconvincing plural amari) and I still don’t know what amaro is. But it’s no fault of Brad Thomas Parsons, or the bartender who lined up a row of rocks glasses filled with elixirs that ranged in shade from honey to oil slick. It’s amaro’s fault, the “You can’t tie me down” wild child of the liqueur world.

Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas, Signed Copy $26
Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas, Signed Copy

What I do know about amaro is it’s a liqueur made from barks, flowers, herbs, peels, seeds (and the list goes on), distilled or macerated or both in wine or another neutral spirit—often grape brandy. Most amaro are granted a period of rest to better blend the ingredients (you know how a ragu always tastes better the second day?) and some amaro are further aged in barrels.

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The one globally agreed upon descriptor for amaro, is, in fact, its name. Bitter. (Amaro is the word for “bitter” in Italian.)

But beyond that? In Parsons’ introductory chapter “Understanding Amaro”, he mentions over 25 potential ingredients (rhubarb, cardamom, orange, chinese herbs, bark, peels, seeds, herbs, flowers, cinchona bark, gentian root, wormwood, angelica root, chamomile, mint, fennel, artichoke, licorice, eucalyptus, juniper, ginger, cardoon, clove, anise, saffron, sage) and uses at least 10 different adjectives (smooth, woodsy, smoky, bittersweet, medicinal, syrupy sweet, bright citrus, floral, vegetal) to describe the liqueur.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

I was already a bit lost, but Parsons helped me extract a handful of distinguishing characteristics of amaro.

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  • Campari is an amaro. Or isn’t. With such a loose definition, it’s hard to pinpoint what is or isn’t an amaro. Amaro, if the Italians have their say, is exclusively an after dinner drink, a digestif. They have a class of amaro that they refer to as “apertivo bitters” for a before dinner sip, but they do not consider those “true” amari. Campari is among them (a name you might recognize from its most popular cocktail, the negroni)—part of a group of bright orange or red liqueurs rarely consumed on their own and almost always mixed with soda or sparkling wine. But in the U.S., most bartenders consider Campari an amaro. “Amari can be both aperitif and digestif—the functionality is the same,” says Sother Teague of New York bar Amor y Amargo. Basically no one agrees on what is or isn’t an amaro.
  • Amaro doesn’t only belong to Italy, unless you ask Italy. Amaro was born in Italy, and is home to the widest selection. But amaro, generally speaking, is made all over the world: Ever heard of a little spirit called Jägermeister? Perhaps you blocked it out after one too many ill-advised shots in college. But according to the baseline definition, Jägermeister, which is made of 56 herbs, fruits, roots, and spices steeped in alcohol, is technically an amaro.
  • Amaro is a symbol of hospitality. Whether you believe amaro is exclusively an apertivo, or you branzenly drink amaro any old time (it’s a free country!), amaro is a lazy-sipping, belly-warming, how-you-doin’ spirit. Amaro says, “Slow down. Stay awhile.”
An amaro take on a classic cocktail: the Paper Plane
An amaro take on a classic cocktail: the Paper Plane Photo by James Ransom

A large chunk of Parsons’ book includes a very thorough encyclopedia of amaros. For each liqueur he gives a mini history lesson, dispels known ingredients, and shares his own tasting notes. All very informative, but what’s a book about a drink without drinking it?

I’d had amaro before (mostly fernet branca, save a dalliance with the more adventurous sort here and there). But ordering an amaro blind seemed an intimidating prospect. I enlisted the help of an outgoing friend, and headed to my local Italian spot to ask the bartender for an impromptu amaro tasting. He poured 8 Italian amari for me and I tasted them all for you, so you know what to ask for. You’re welcome.

I didn’t read Parsons' [who I will now refer to as "Brad"] tasting notes or synopses before I went in. So I provided you with both my and his notes. (Be forewarned, as more amari were tasted, the... sparser my notes became.)

Montenegro.

I say: Very light in color and syrupy sweet, so sweet you can smell the sugar. A very subtle bitterness. Our bartender said “it tastes like orange tic tacs” and that pretty much hits the nail on the head. But, promise it’s not as gross as it sounds. (Also may be an excellent thing in which to soak raisins for use in oatmeal cookies.)

Brad says: “Copper color. Sweet and mild with light bitterness. Notes of tangerine, cucumber, orange peel, and black cherry.”

Fun fact: Very few ingredients are known, and the complete recipe and production process are entrusted to only three people in the entire company.

Liqueur Glasses (Set of 6)

Liqueur Glasses (Set of 6)

$78
Vintage French Aperitif Glasses (Set of 2)

Vintage French Aperitif Glasses (Set of 2)

$48

Nonino.

I say: Another light choice, but brighter and much less sweet than the Montenegro. Smells like fresh orange peel was just squeezed over the top. Has a lovely burn in the throat. “A lil’ sizzle,” as my drinking buddy described it. There’s something flowery happening here, too. Similar to an after-dinner cognac.

Brad says: “Subtle herbal bitterness and gentle spice with primary notes of orange peel and caramel sweetness.”

Fun fact: The Nonino family developed a proprietary method of distillation, combining “the production elements of a wine distillate with the craft of grappa”—using the entirety of the grape, skins and all.

Most unusual ingredient: Saffron

The First Thing to Drink After One of Those Days (or Every Day)
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The First Thing to Drink After One of Those Days (or Every Day)

Averna.

I say: The chocolate stout of amaro. Very dark, smooth, and creamy, but not so sweet. This felt like something you could even pair with food. And I felt the urge to make a root beer float out of it.

Brad says: “Deep rusty brown. Notes of cola, orange peel, licorice, and vanilla. Sweet with soft and subtle bitterness.”

Most unusual ingredient: Pomegranate

Fun fact: Sicilian monks passed along the recipe to a benefactor and businessman Salvatore Averna in 1859, who began selling it locally. By 1912, the Averna family was the official amaro supplier to King Vittori Emanuele III.

A Bubbly, Batchable Cocktail That's A Little Bitter Around The Edges
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A Bubbly, Batchable Cocktail That's A Little Bitter Around The Edges

Luxardo.

I say: One of my favorites. The bartender described it as “peppery.” I kept trying to convince my buddy that it tasted like cotton. In a good way. Left a soft, honeysuckle taste in the mouth and just a tiny bit of burn.

Brad says: “Dark brown. Herbaceous notes of orange peel, mint, black pepper, and baking spices with a middle-of-the-road, even bitterness.”

Ramazzotti.

I say: Do you like rum and cokes? Ramazzotti will be your main squeeze. It tastes just like coca cola. (Side note: is coca cola based on amaro?!)

Brad says: “Cola color, notes of root beer, orange peel, cinnamon, and aromatic, herbal bitterness.”

Fun fact: One of the oldest commercial amari available. Rose to prominence in the 1840s thanks to its namesake, Cafe Ramazzotti, an establishment famous for selling Ramazzotti in the place of coffee.

Most unusual ingredient: Galangal, an Indonesian root in the ginger family

Nardini.

I say: Another favorite. With a butterscotch-y thickness, not too sweet, and hints of maple.

Brad says: "Brown color. Floral with notes of bitter orange, mint, and licorice."

Fun fact: A Grappa infusion with fewer ingredients that most amari—only 3!

Braulio.

I say: The alpine amaro in my line-up. A pine-forward flavor, super herbaceous. The ideal choice for sipping fireside apres ski (or if you’re me, prior to an afternoon spent battling a cold day in Brooklyn).

Brad says: “Dark brown color. Highly aromatic with pine, spearmint, and chamomile, with notes of floral bitterness and warm spice."

Fun fact: Created by a chemist and a favorite among amaro geeks. Aged longer than a typical amaro—2 years in Slavonian oak barrels.

Cynar.

I say: A medicinal flavor, and fairly neutral (maybe that’s why it’s used in cocktails, so as not to completely overpower the rest of the spirits).

Brad says: “Dark brown. Savory herbal and earthy vegetal notes with sweet caramel finish.”

Most unusual ingredient: Artichoke!!

How to Make Any Kind of Amaro at Home
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How to Make Any Kind of Amaro at Home

If you don't have an Italian restaurant with a good amari selection nearby, many bars are starting to carry the basics as the liqueur becomes more popular in the United States. You can bet that your local will carry, at the very least, Fernet Branca and Campari, if not a few of the others I've listed above. If you're a little hesitant to try amaro on its own, a cocktail is a good place to start: I suggest a Boulevadier, the campari-fied version of a Manhattan. If you're interested in mixing a few up on your own, the other half of BTP's book is filled with amaro cocktail recipes, and a few desserts, to boot!

There's one more thing I know about amaro. Something not explicitly stated in Parsons' book, but something implied. Amaro is the calling card of the cool-kids, the in-crowd of the bar industry. I don’t think I’d ever even heard the word amaro until spending some time in cocktail bars in New York City. Parsons references the practice of passing out tiny bottles of Underberg, a German amaro, in a Brooklyn restaurant, complete with a tiny straw for a “we like you” sip. I’ve seen it in action and it indeed feels like being invited into a special club.

Sure, negronis have become the ubiquitous amaro cocktail (so popular that they're almost mainstream) but ask for an amaro at the end of your dinner (or cocktail) courses and it’s an immediate indication that you’re interested in what you’re drinking. That you’re thoughtful about it. Or as my amaro guide/bartender more bluntly put it: “It tells me you’re not basic. That you’re an intelligent drinker.”

Get an invite to the secret club: Order an amaro.

Do you have strong opinions about amaro? Have you tried it? What are you favorites? Spill in the comments.