I fell in love with amaro working at a small restaurant in Boston, MA. The bar only had seven seats, but the spirit list was mighty, and we had eight different amari on the menu. The night I sidled up to the bar for my first tasting flight of the varying-hued brown liqueur, my life was changed. Well, that may be hyperbole, but it definitely changed my drinking habits at the end of a meal.
In the years since, I have learned that even some of my most food-and-wine-savvy friends aren’t familiar with amaro. Sure, they’ve had a shot of Fernet, but what is that sludge doing in this Hanky Panky cocktail? And what is that Sfumato you just ordered neat? Amaro is a vast, all-encompassing category. This is our first lesson: Amaro 101.
1) What the heck is Amaro?
Amaro is a bittersweet liqueur that originally hails from Italy, though it is made all over the globe. (Amari is the same thing, just plural.) These herbal tinctures were originally created by medieval monks for medicinal properties, back in the good old days when getting drunk was a medical course of treatment. They usually fall somewhere between 15–30% ABV.
2) It’s made from herbs?
Yes. And sometimes it’s made from artichokes, like in Cynar or Cardamaro. Or grapes, like in Amaro Nonino. Amaro is usually made by macerating herbs, flowers, roots, vegetables, citrus peels, or whatever, in wine, grape brandy, or a neutral spirit like vodka. Then, you filter the mixture, add some sort of syrup, and let it age. Amari flavors can vary wildly from producer to producer because the ingredients are so different.
3) It’s a spectrum!
No amaro is the same—I like to think of the category as a spectrum. (Side note: Some aperitifs are technically amari, too. But, for this spectrum, we’re only talking digestifs. Don’t know the difference between aperitifs and digestifs? Don’t stress—we’ll cover that some other time.) On one end, there’s Amaro Meletti, with its honeyed citrus sweetness and simple touch of anise on the finish. This is your entry-level amaro; everyone will like it.
Hanging around Meletti on the lighter side are some other crowd-pleasing favorites: Amaro Nonino, with its lush fruit notes; Amaro Montenegro, arguably the most popular amaro of all; Cardamaro, my husband-to-be’s favorite. In the middle is Averna, which drinks like an herbal-chocolate-orange creamsicle; Ramazzotti, affectionately known as the Dr. Pepper of amaro; Amaro Lucano, which is also great with seltzer or tonic water in a spritz; Nardini, all minty and orangey; and many, many more. As we start to move toward the bitter end of the spectrum, you’ll commonly find Braulio, which boasts a kick-ass alpine freshness, and Cynar, with all its artichoke goodness.
On the further end is Fernet Branca, probably the most infamous amaro. Fernet tastes like minty-dirt sludge; Jägermeister’s shitty older brother who can grow a mustache. (And let’s be clear, I like Fernet!) Maybe it’s the male-dominated, fratty restaurant culture that has grown up around Fernet. Or the annoying fact that we all call it “Fernet,” when fernet is actually a category, and there are many other fernets! (It’s kind of like when people call New York City “the City.”) Whatever the reason, Fernet has the power to put people off amaro completely. Do not start here.
There are so many other kinds of amaro—ones that probably fall somewhere outside this spectrum. However, these are good starting places if you’re looking to try your first amaro, your fifth, or your 10th.
4) And a lawless bunch
So many subsets of alcohol have rules. Champagne can only be made in Champagne. Bourbon needs to be made from 51% corn. Amaro has no such ruling. Amaro is defined as bitter-sweet liqueur, and that’s it. It’s an umbrella term for all things bitter—which means it can be hard to compare one to another. However, there are many bonuses to being a lawless bunch. There’s no specific region of origin, there’s no mandatory ingredient. You can sip on artichoke-made Cardamaro or bitter-orange CioCiaro, and they are both amari!
5) Digestif for a reason
Amaro’s power comes from its ingredients. Most bitter liqueurs, like amaro, are usually made from carminative herbs—anise seed, cardamom, ginger, and spearmint, to name a few—which prevent gas and help you digest your food. Hence, why we like to drink amari before or after a big meal.
6) Viva Italia!
Italy is the motherland. You can get great amaro outside of Italy, but you’ll never truly understand amaro unless you go down the rabbit hole of where it came from.
7) But Viva Brooklyn, too. And Santa Barbara. And Denver. And Chicago.
That being said, some of the coolest, smallest amaro shops are popping up domestically. St. Agrestis in Brooklyn. Townshend in Portland, Oregon uses Indian Chai to make Kashmiri Amaro. Austin-based Revolution Spirits crafts Amico Amaro with hibiscus, sumac, and cranberry. There’s no lack of domestic creators making bitter juice for their local fans. If you feel adventurous, you can even make your own!
8) Know your favorite brands, but don’t just stick to them.
It’s important to know some amari you like by name—it means you won’t get stuck with a glass of black tar when you’re looking for local wildflower honey. However, it’s no fun to only drink Meletti. Let your bartender, shop owner, or friend guide you toward brands you’ve never heard of. Trust the professionals.
9) Don’t be afraid of cocktail hour
Aid in your future digestion with an amari-based cocktail at happy hour. There’s the usual Aperol spritz or negroni—but consider using digestif amari, too. A Montenegro French 75, perhaps? A Paper Plane with Nonino? Or even an amaro and coke—try CiaCiaro, Ramazzotti, or Zucca.
10) A bartender’s handshake, or a chef’s gratuity.
Fernet has long been known as a bartender’s handshake—a drink given from one restaurant-industry person to another as a nod to the grind they both share. My favorite thing to do is send a round of amari to the kitchen after a dope, knock-your-socks-off meal. Let the kitchen staff know how perfectly cooked your ribeye was with an Averna. It’s guaranteed to make their night.