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Amaro is the ugly duckling of the liquor world. It might look strange and unfamiliar, but it’s really quite special.
You’ve probably seen amari (plural) on bar shelves and in after-dinner drink menus, but most people have never tasted the stuff — and many more don’t even know what it is. Amaro is an Italian herbal liqueur, translating to “bitter.” Despite its name, the flavor of amaro is usually more bittersweet and the consistency is usually slightly syrupy. Amaro’s alcohol content varies from 16% to 40%, depending on the bottle.
Although amari has popped up in craft cocktails all over America, the drink’s true purpose is as an after-dinner digestif. The bittersweet taste satiates that post-meal sweet tooth while the herbs help digestion. As you can probably imagine, this light digestive aid came in handy for Italians who just finished a heavy meal of pizza or pasta.
Although amaro is an Italian specialty, amaro-like liqueurs are all over Europe and America. Amari’s recent explosion in the cocktail scene has questioned its strict role as an after-dinner treat. And with dozens of varieties to chose from, amaro becomes even more unfamiliar and confusing.
But fear not, we’re here to help. In this post, we’ll cover the following:
- How amaro is produced
- History of amaro
- Different types of amaro
- How to drink amaro
- The best amaro brands
Take a look below!
How is Amaro Produced?
Asking about amaro production is a bit of fool’s errand. Amaro recipes are kept under lock and key, as per tradition. Some recipes, such as Fernet-Branca’s, is only known by one person and passed down through generations.
What we do know is that most amari are made by macerating herbs, botanicals and/or citrus peels. This maceration is done in alcohol of some kind, but usually wine or a neutral spirit that won’t compete with the flavors of the herbs and botanicals. Sugar syrup such as caramel is sometimes added for extra sweetness before the mixture is aged, usually from one to five years.
That’s about it. Compared to most liquors, amaro is fairly simple, which is why the exact recipes are so important.
History of Amaro Liquor
Amaro (or something like amaro) dates back to ancient Rome and Greece where nobles drank herb-infused wine. An after-dinner digestif similar to amari was even recommended by Hippocrates in 300 B.C., who suggested an after-dinner herbal brew made from orzo and honey.
But it wasn’t until the Middle Ages when amari really started to take root. The development of amari came from two very unlikely fields: religion and medicine. Monks would prepare an amari-like drink from herbs in their monasteries and use it as a health elixir. For centuries, amari persisted as a best-selling health tonic, and was sold in most pharmacies and monasteries across Italy.
Towards the 19th century, recipes were picked up by businessmen and alcohol manufacturers with good taste. Amari quickly became a staple in Italian gastronomy, securing a spot in every restaurant and kitchen cabinet. By the 20th century, amari was a commercial success around the world. But recently, health-conscious drinkers and cocktail experts have catalyzed an amari resurgence — especially in the States.
Types of Amaro
The list of amaro varieties is dizzying, but worth looking at when picking a bottle. The main factors in defining an amaro is its balance between bitterness and sweetness as well as the herbs used to make the drink. However, the brand of amaro is more important than the type, as each recipe uses specific amounts of different ingredients. Below is a list of the main amaro categories:
- Medium amaro is evenly balanced between bitter and sweet. It usually features citrus flavors and are typically around 32% ABV.
- Fernet amaro is one of the most recognizable types thanks to the success of the Fernet brand. Fernet amari are bitter and usually include myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron.
- Light amaro get its name from a light color and fresh citrus taste.
- Alpine amaro usually has a smokier taste thanks to alpine herbs and around 17% alcohol content.
- Vermouth differs from most amaro because the alcohol is wine-based instead of grain-based. It’s on the sweet side, and usually has some citrus notes.
- Carciofo amaro is a popular choice made with artichoke, usually yielding a low ABV around 20%.
- Tartufo amaro is produced in Umbria, Italy, which is a region known for truffles. The truffles act as a defining ingredient, and the resulting bottles usually have an ABV of about 30%.
- China amaro is made using the bark of a South American plant called Cinchona calisaya.
- Rabarbaro amaro is made using Chinese rhubarb.
How to Drink Amaro
The best way to experience a great bottle of amaro is straight. Each brand of amaro is very unique, which makes tasting different bottles so much fun. However, amari with higher alcohol content might be understandably difficult to sip straight. If a bottle is just too harsh to enjoy on its own, don’t worry. A little ice and even club soda will mellow out the alcohol so you can comfortably enjoy the flavor.
Although amaro is excellent on its own, it also makes a great ingredient for adventurous cocktails. With its slightly syrupy texture and herbal complexity, the right amaro can be a great cocktail base or modifier. Some of our favorites include the Black Manhattan (amaro, bourbon and bitters) and the Italian Sparkler (gin, amaro, lemon juice and Prosecco). Take a look at these amaro craft cocktails for more inspiration.
Best Amaro Liquors
Below are some of the most iconic bottles of amaro that every aspiring expert needs to taste. All are classic bottles, but we’ve noted some that are better for beginners, others for cocktails and some for seasoned amaro lovers.
1. Averna Amaro
In 1868 Salvatore Averna began producing a new kind of medium amaro using a recipe he got from the local Friar. Francesco Averna, Salvatore’s son, realized that his dad’s recipe could be a hit. He was right. Over 150 years later, Averna is still using Salvatore’s recipe of myrtle, juniper, rosemary, sage and aromatic resins. The ingredients soak in the liquor base before caramel is added, creating a balance of bitterness and sweetness. This balance, plus a manageable 32% ABV makes Averna enjoyable by everyone from amaro experts to newbies. It’s best on its own but also makes a mean late-night cocktail.
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
If you’re just getting into amaro, or you don’t like sipping strong alcohol, pick up a bottle of Cynar. With an ABV of just 16.5%, it’s very easy to sip, tasting somewhat like strong wine. Cynar is a Carciofo amaro, meaning it’s made using artichoke. The name comes from cynarin, a property of artichoke leaves used in Cynar’s recipe. The taste is easy and refreshing after a big meal with leading herbal notes of dried fruit and caramel.
3. Amaro Nonino Quintessentia
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
Nonino’s Quintessentia Amaro is another iconic bottle. The light amaro uses a blend of earthy spices and herbs that translates to a mellow, versatile flavor. Although the consistency is less syrupy than most amari, the light flavor still lingers to cleanse your taste buds after a meal. This consistency and the mellow flavor make the Nonino a great bottle for nailing amaro cocktails or trying amaro for the first time. The Quintessentia is also aged longer than most amari (five years) using oak barrels — hence the slightly higher price tag.
BEST FOR PROS
Many serious amaro lovers will swear by a glass of Fernet-Branca after dinner every night. The award-winning flavor comes from 27 herbs and botanicals including mint, ginger, rhubarb and saffron. The exact formula is known only by Fernet-Branca president, Niccolò Branca, who measures the ingredients himself. With an alcohol content of almost 40%, Fernet-Branca is definitely for the strong drinker, but more sensitive imbibers can still enjoy the flavor with ice or a little club soda.
5. Braulio Amaro
BEST ALPINE STYLE
Braulio started producing their beloved amaro in 1875 but the recipe can be traced all the way back to 1826. Braulio is concocted using herbs and fresh spring water exclusively from the mountain region of Valtellina in Lombardy. First, the herbs are dried in the mountain air and then fermented for a month in the spring water. Finally, the amaro gets aged for two years in oak barrels. The mountains are present in the refreshing taste, and it’s all delivered with a 21% alcohol content, making Braulio easy for anyone to sip.
6. Montenegro Amaro Italiano Liqueur
BEST FOR GIFTING
Amaro makes a great gift idea. If your giftee is new to the stuff, amaro is an exciting drink for them to try. And if they’re already fans, they’ll surely love another bottle. This famous Montenegro is our suggestion for gifting to a friend or family member (or yourself) thanks to the beautiful bottle and the universally likable flavor. Montenegro amaro is made in Bologna, Italy using a secret recipe of 40 botanicals including vanilla, orange peel and eucalyptus. Enjoy it straight (it’s only 23% ABV), with club soda or even served hot on a chilly night.