“Amaro” (plural “Amari”) simply means “bitter” in Italian. Collectively it refers to alcoholic beverages (from Italy and other countries) that range from 11 to 40 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), made from proprietary recipes of herbs, botanicals, barks, extracts, oils and other flavorings that are steeped in alcohol, sweetened (or not), and allowed to mature, or age in barrels.
Originally created by monks and physicians as medicines, they became prized as before- or after-dinner aperitif and digestive sippers, neat or with ice. Modern bartenders have discovered their value as cocktail ingredients, where they add notes of fruit, herbs, and other mysterious elements. After a slow start, they are appearing more frequently on American liquor shelves and bar menus. Here are five, all Italian, available locally, that are worth trying.
11 percent ABV
Contains bitter and sweet orange, gentian and rhubarb, among other ingredients. Tasted neat at room temperature. Orange and pink color. Nose is fruit punch-y with sweet orange and bubble gum notes, and a summery Popsicle smell. The least alcoholic of all the amari I tried. Taste is candy-sweet, with a subtle bitter orange-peel finish at the end. Good with club soda, or Prosecco (an Italian sparkling wine) and soda.
Averna (Caltanissetta, Sicily)
29 percent ABV
Lemon and orange oils, pomegranate and other undisclosed ingredients. Tasted neat, and substituted for vermouth in a “Black Manhattan” with Stranahan’s malted barley whiskey. Color is rich, cola brown, with a golden edge like Demerara rum. Licorice, vanilla, warm cola scents. Taste is strong candied bitter orange, like dark marmalade. Honey and bitter molasses on the finish. Slightly hot, almost like liqueur. Enriches the Manhattan, takes the fruitiness down from sweet vermouth, pairs well with spicy barley whiskey. Use orange bitters, or add an orange peel.
39 percent ABV
“Fernet” is the style of amaro; other companies make it, but Branca is the most famous. Contains some 27-plus herbs, spices, roots and botanicals including bitter orange, cardamom, aloe ferox, chamomile, galangal, myrrh, rhubarb and saffron (reportedly 17 percent of the world’s saffron crop is purchased by Fernet-Branca).
They name all ingredients, but say the secret is in the quantities and preparation. Tasted at room temperature, neat. Cola or dark rum color. Scent of mint leaves, rummy, sugar-and-barrel caramelization. The finish defaults to mint and eucalyptus. Taste—no sweetness, like unsugared mint chewing gum. Astringent, thin, a warm bite. The resemblance to rum remains—minted rum.
Cocktail choices include a 50/50 shot drink—“Ferrari”—3/4 ounce each of Fernet-Branca and Campari. The Fernet swallows up the color, but the Campari delivers a complementary sweetness. Campari also adds heavier body. If Campari is too sweet and Fernet – Branca too dry, this can reconcile you to both. You must try Fernet and Coca-Cola—reportedly the “national drink of Argentina,” a country that consumes some 75 percent of the Fernet-Branca made annually. Pour 1 and 1/2 ounces of Fernet-Branca over ice in a highball glass, fill with cola, stir. The Fernet-Branca website says “without garnish,” and with 27-odd herbs and spices already in the Fernet, plus whatever’s in Coca-Cola, there’s no room for garnish. If Coke is too sweet, this might appeal to you—it’s herbal and minty to start (Coke Menthol?) dry and slightly bitter to finish. It’s an acquired taste, but the Argentines consume this blend by the two-liter (Coke) bottle, communally, so pay attention.
Paolucci Amaro Ciociaro (Frosinone, Italy)
30 percent ABV
Tasted room temperature, neat. Cola or coffee dark, like Jamaican rum. Cola nose. Tastes like hard ribbon candy, root beer barrel, chocolate. Sweet candied orange peel, marmalade, dark honey. Thick, almost syrupy, sweet, no bitterness, no burn. Cocktail suggestion: 1 and 1/2 ounces bourbon, 1/2 ounce each of Amaro Ciociaro and Aperol, blended and chilled with a large ice cube infused with Angostura bitters, and lemon wedge. As the cube melts, the bitters disperse and complicate things.
24 percent ABV
Ingredients undisclosed aside from alcohol and water. Tasted room temperature, neat. Clear, clean pinkish-salmon rose color. Nose is slightly astringent orange peel, hard candy, menthol. Taste is sweet, balanced by candied citrus peel—orange, grapefruit (and pith), lingering bitterness catches up with the sweetness of initial taste. Red fruit, berries, all candied. No tartness. Mix with soda and a lemon twist, you may think of Mickey’s Club Cool at Epcot or the tasting room at the Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta—it’s like “Beverly,” the Italian soda people love to hate. Make it weak or strong—as with all amari, you gotta be the boss.
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