I’ll answer both of these questions in one sentence. They are a type of bitter liqueur, and they are delicious. There, that’s it. That’s the article. If you’ve gotten this far, it probably means you want to know more, so here it goes…So, Amaro is an Italian word that simply means bitter. It’s an herbal liqueur with a wonderful concoction of an untold number of botanicals, bittering agents, and aromatics. Most Amari [plural for Amaro] started out as medicine; hell, most spirits, in general, started out as medicine. The reason Amari, in particular, was used as medicine, is that our stomachs react a certain way to bitter things.
Evolutionarily, bitter meant poison, so when we eat or drink something bitter, our body responds by shutting down our digestive system so we don’t digest the “poison.” Now, as someone who has drank my own body weight in Amaro–not that I want to brag–I can assure you, I am still alive and well. In this article, I’m going to talk about some of my favorite types of Amari, what makes them special, and why you should try these Italian bittersweet liqueurs.
Digestif vs. Aperitif
Even if you haven’t heard of Amari, you’ve probably heard these two words. An aperitif is an alcoholic drink, usually low ABV, you have before a meal that stimulates your appetite. In terms of Amaro, they tend to be on the lighter, and sweeter end of the bittersweet spectrum. Things like Aperol or Campari fit into this broad classification.A digestif is what you drink to settle your stomach or give you the feeling of satiation. Kind of what I was talking about earlier, the taste of something bitter slows down your digestive tract and makes you feel full for longer. It usually has a higher ABV. The digestif describes itself well as it comes after dinner.
This is a pretty broad term, as I’d say most Amari fall under this umbrella. This style of Amaro comes from northern Italy, in the Alps. Usually, alpine is used to describe a spruce flavor, and can come from bittered gentian root or any number of things. You’ll find most Amari are named after the mountain most of its botanicals were foraged from. I’ll discuss it later, but this classification is very fluid, and encompasses a number of different styles of Amaro.
This is a bit of an acquired taste, and it’s a very hard one to acquire. Fernet is a type of Amaro known for its incredibly bitter taste, as well as strong notes of menthol. It gets its dark–almost black–color from black aloe, which is also the main bittering agent.Fernet Branca is probably the most famous brand of this style of herbal liqueur, to the point where Fernet Branca is probably what a person is talking about when someone orders Fernet. They have huge vats of macerating botanicals, one of which is saffron. As a matter of fact, they are the world’s main consumer of saffron, so you can thank them for the exorbitant price of saffron.
Aperitivo bitters, also known as Milan or Milano bitters, are probably the most recognizable bottles of Amari you can find. Bright red in color, Campari and Aperol have become ubiquitous in the craft cocktail scene, and if you plan on making cocktails at home, you should probably have one or both of these bottles. But these aren’t the only style of Aperitivo bitters.
Artichoke, and Why You Should Drink Them Instead
Cynar, a carciofo aperitivo, is one of my favorite Amari…and falls under the aperitif umbrella of Amari. This aperitivo is made from, you guessed it, artichokes. This dark brown liqueur is both earthy, flavorful, and bittersweet at the same time. Cynar isn’t the only Amaro made from artichoke; there are a number of different brands doing it, and one of my favorites is Don Ciccio out of Washington DC.
Most Amari doesn’t fit neatly into one classification or the other, which makes writing a list like this kind of difficult. Some are classified by their bittering agent. Others are classified by their base spirit, and others are classified by where they were made or what particular ingredient is in them. But, I think there are a few bottles of lighter-bodied Amaro you should keep an eye out for.
This is a light aperitif made from orange peel and anise. It also has this burnt orange/caramel flavor, and has a place on anyone’s home bar.
The Paper Plane has become one of the most popular modern classics, and is one of the only cocktails that calls for this type of Amaro. It has the color of Aperol, but drinks more like Averna. It’s a really unique Amaro, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.
Another Amaro that can fit into a number of other styles of Amaro. What sets these apart is that their main ingredient is rhubarb. Chinese rhubarb, in particular, gives this style of Amaro a smoky and earthy flavor. This style can have some really amazing depth of flavor, and is a great place to start if you’re building a home bar. My favorite is Sfumato, an unfiltered take on this great digestivo. It tastes like a mouthful of dirt…in the best kind of way!
Vermouths and fortified wines could have their own article frankly. Who knows? Maybe they will…Just about any culture that makes wine makes a distilled wine, and makes their own version of fortified wine. Italians make vermouth which is a wine that’s been fortified by a neutral spirit and has been aromatized by bittering agents, orange peels, and so many other aromatics I would never be able to list. Sweet vermouth is an integral part of cocktail making as it’s called for, for most pre-prohibition cocktails.But this isn’t the only type of wine-based Amaro. You can have alpine Amari that are wine based, like Pasubio. You can have wine-based artichoke Amari, like Cardamaro [ok…it’s made from cardoons, but that’s almost an artichoke].
Why You Should Care
To be frank, you can’t even begin to build most classic cocktails without delving into Amaro. Aperol Spritz, a Negroni, a Manhattan, none of these can be made without Amari. A NEGRONI SBAGLIATO! The list goes on and on…They encompass a wide variety of styles and types that you can easily find one you like. To learn more about Amaro, or anything else spirit related, join our fam to learn from real bartenders at HBIC.