What is Amaro? All About Italian Herbal Liqueurs

What is Amaro? All About Italian Herbal Liqueurs

 / Rachel Eva

Amari (the plural form of amaro) are bitter herbal liqueurs made in Italy, traditionally used to aid digestion and consumed after a meal. They are bitter and sweet, (sometimes syrupy) and have complex flavor profiles due to the macerated herbs, bark, fruits, roots, and citrus peels that give each their distinctive signature.  

Traditionally, amari are made by infusing grape brandy with up to two dozen of these herbs, fruits, and spices, then mixed with a sugar syrup and barrel aged to perfection.  Amari are typically are served neat or with a bit of ice. 

Amaro in Cocktails

Amari have been experiencing a re-birth in cocktails. Depending on the brand, amari are between 16% and 40% alcohol-by-volume, which makes them hugely adaptive, used in everything from low-alcohol shims and delightful spritzers to dark, boozy palette-shockers.

Popular brands such as Fernet, Amaro Nonino, Averna, Cynar and Montenegro have all made their way onto the cocktail menu, in Old Fashioneds and Flips and Sours of all sorts. Some amari have developed such a following that dark birds and artichokes appear tattooed on necks and forearms, with hundreds of drink-slingers proudly flaunting fashionable bitter brands. 

A delightful cocktail made with amaro, bourbon, lemon, simple syrup and an egg white. We like a little nutmeg garnish too!


 

Campari, the iconic red liqueur responsible for the Negroni Cocktail, is perhaps one of the most popular amari, though it's often erroneously excluded from the family.  Most amari fall into the digestif category (used to aid digestion after a meal), while Campari is popularly considered an apéritif, and consumed before a meal to stimulate the appetite.  However, Campari's bitter signature places it squarely in the amaro family.  "Amaro" simply means "bitter" in Italian, and not all amari are digestifs. Other apéritif liqueurs, such as Aperol, also have rightful claim to the amaro name. 

If you've made friends with bartenders, you may have made it far enough down the amaro rabbit hole to develop a love or hate relationship with Fernet. The fernet journey is one that typically begins with recoil at the bitter (almost medicinal) licorice-forward frontal assault--especially when downed all at once. Those adventurous souls who allow intrigue to overpower initial shock have been wooed by fernet's complexity: floral notes that soothe bitter spikes, herbaceous eucalyptus, luxurious saffron, cooling aloe, and an earthy, woody hug-in-the-mouth that comes from myrrh and agaric (that's a bark-eating fungus). Fernet is a cultivated love, and -like any intense relationship- can burn you out if you don't partake responsibly, and in moderation. 

 

Exploring Amaro

 

If you're new to amari, sipping them straight might be a bit of a shock, unless your palette craves dark, bitter, herbal profiles. Amaro cocktails are the perfect soft-introduction to these complex liqueurs, adding great depth of flavor while supporting two primary pillars of cocktail craft: sweet and bitter.  The next time you're at a cocktail bar, order a Negroni, Black Manhattan, Hanky Panky, or a Boulevardier and try your hand at the bitter side of imbibing. 

 

For a stellar resource on Amaro, get Parsons book, AMARO - it's a great read, and has over 100 recipes for using amari in cocktails and cooking, and even instructions on how to make your own at home. 

Popularly Available Brands of Amaro:

Most of these have made it onto cocktail menus, and are delightful for sipping or mixing. You should find at least a few at any reputable liquor store, so go acquire and experiment with amari this weekend!

Amaro Montenegro: A complex amaro that uses 40 different botanicals to achieve 6 tasting notes: "Bitter and Herbaceous, Spicy and Floral, Chocolate and Caramel, Fresh and Balsamic, Vanilla and Red Fruits, and Warm and Tropical." (23% ABV)

Amaro Nonino: A lighter amaro with more citrus notes and a refreshing combination of ingredients that include caramelized sugar, bitter orange, licorice, rhubarb, saffron, sweet orange and tamarind. (32% ABV)

Amaro Averna: A medium-bodied amaro that strikes a fairly even balance between sweet, bitter, and citrus flavors. The recipe was originally gifted to Salvatore Averna as a token of gratitude for his service by the monks at the Abbey of the Holy Spirit in Caltanissetta, Italy. (29% ABV)

Cocci Americano: (pronounced COKE-ey) A lower-ABV amaro made from fortified wine infused with cinchona bark, citrus peel, spices and other botanicals. It's a light, citrusy amaro that derives it's bitterness from the quinine in cinchona bark. It's been a popular alternative to Lillet, since the apertif wine was re-formulated in 1986 to remove quinine from the ingredient list. (16.5% ABV)

Cynar: (pronounced CHEE-nar) A well-rounded amaro that derives it's name from one of its primary ingredients: the artichoke.  In Switzerland and Germany, Cynar mixed with orange juice is a popular drink, while here in the US you'll find it used frequently in cocktails. (16.5%)

Fernet: Bitter and bracing, fernet amari are lower in sugar and higher in alcohol content than other amari. The most popular fernet brand is Fernet Branca (other fernet brands are also excellent!). Fernet Branca has 27 ingredients, and the formula is so secret it is only known to the president, Niccolò Branca, who hand-measures the aromatics during production. (39% ABV)

Ramazzotti: The first Italian amaro, this liqueur uses 33 ingredients with a primary flavor profile of orange peel, cardamom, and cinnamon (with aromas of root beer and citrus!). The full ingredient list is only known by 3 people in the world (30% ABV)

Amaro Cocktail Recipes

This month we're beginning a mini cocktail series on Amari, featuring some of our favorites in some of our favorite drinks. We begin with the Amaro Sour Cocktail. In our recipe we use Averna, but most amari are adaptable to it, if you find a particular brand you're partial to.

Get the Amaro Sour Cocktail Recipe

Averna, a well-balanced, citrusty amaro used in the Amaro Sour Cocktail. This recipe originally appeared in Brad Thomas Parsons Book, Amaro.

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