A beginner's guide to amaro
Amaro - the spirit of the summer
Words— Clay Sandhu
You’re already drinking it and you probably don’t even know it. Amari are the Italian herbal spirits that are going to change the way you drink. I work tending bar at an Italian restaurant, we have what some would consider a wide selection of amari (roughly 20 varieties, which actually represents a very small segment of what is available) and I’m frequently asked one question “What exactly is amaro?”. There isn’t one perfect definition that encapsulates all that amari are or can be, but simply put amaro is the Italian word for bitter, and the spirits that bear the name are infused with herbs and spices and other aromatics to create herbaceous, complex and delicious results. Legendary bartender Sother Teague once described amaro as “The wild-west when it comes to definition” and nothing could be more true as the possibilities of proprietary recipes for the herbaceous Italian liqueur are essentially endless. To fully try and describe all the types, regions and styles of amaro would be a fool’s errand, so instead, I’m going to highlight a few types of amaro that I like to drink, and that I think help demonstrate the wide-ranging styles and the varied uses of this incredible category of spirit.
Most would consider this a separate but related subcategory of amaro. Generally, this is true because amaro is traditionally considered an after-dinner drink. The blend of herbs and alcohol is meant to calm the stomach, help increase blood flow for digestion, and ease the body overall after a large meal. Aperitivo, on the other hand, is a before dinner drink. I’m talking about Campari and Aperol. If you’ve ever had a Negroni, you’ve had amaro, if you like an Aperol spritz, you know the deal. These ones are easy to spot on the shelf, they’re electric red or orange, they usually say bitter on them and they are almost always bitter-orange based. Rarely drank on their own, aperitivo bitters are best mixed.
For a twist on any classic drink with Aperol or Campari, try substituting Meletti 1870 Bitter, it has the bright red colour that we love from Campari but offers a slightly softer and more nuanced flavour profile moving from sweet citrus, into floral notes of gentian and finishing on coriander and clove.
These are the genre-defining bottles, the ones that got picked up off the dusty back bars of old-school Italian joints and thrust to the forefront of modern drinking culture. If you’re even slightly familiar with amaro then you probably have had one of these. In what might be called everyday amari, the flavour profile is sweet and mildly herbaceous, leaning more towards notes of honey, caramel, citrus and baking spices. Their mellow flavour is perfect for sipping after a meal. The most famous in this category are Amaro Montenegro and Amaro Nonino which use 40 and 29 botanicals in their respective recipes and, when drunk on their own, are delightful, complex, and sweet without being cloying.
Although great as sippers, try using Amaro Nonino in a cocktail. A personal favourite of mine is the modern classic Paper Plane which combines, bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino and lemon for a drink that’s bright, citrus forward and that has a beautiful depth of flavour and complexity that can only come from combining amari.
These are low in alcohol but very sweet. In addition to their sweetness amari like Etna Bitter Amara are both made with blood oranges and taste distinctly like the fruit. They make for a wonderful digestif, especially as an accompaniment to ice cream.
Use Sicilian Amaro’s anywhere you might use an orange liqueur for depth and richness of flavour. I particularly like it in place of cointreau in a corpse reviver #2, which combines, gin, Lillet, Amara (in my recipe), and lemon for a refreshing and almost dangerously quaffable drink.
Hot take: If you’re a sangria drinker, try soaking your fruit in Sicilian amaro for 20 minutes or so before adding into the wine. It’s a game-changer.
This is the most herbaceous category of Amaro. These Amari are deep in colour leaning towards black, and they taste like licorice root, peppermint, and pine. My favourite, Amaro Lago Maggiore, combines savoury notes of pine, and mint with softer touches of clove and mandarin peel. This is what you want to drink when you’re bloated after a meal. The cooling sensation mint helps to calm your stomach and clove is a natural anesthetic that helps relieve the uncomfortable tension from overeating.
Although not technically an alpine amaro, Fernet Branca is decidedly an intensely herbaceous digestivo that fits snugly into this category. Sometimes known as the bartender's handshake it’s an industry shot, it’s an infamous (and dubious) hangover cure, and happens to mix quite well with rye for a classic cocktail known as the Toronto.
Although not technically amaro, Barolo Chinato is certainly a worthy inclusion on this list and in your drinking repertoire. Treading the line between amaro (which can be wine based) and vermouth (which is always wine based) chinato (pronounced Key-Nah-Toh) is made from Barolo, one of Italy’s and arguably the world’s finest wines. It’s sweetened, fortified and infused with herbs. It tastes like the beautiful combination of dark chocolate, robust red wine, sweet mint, and orange.
Do nothing with this—chill a glass and savour it. But, If you must mix it, use it in place of sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, for probably the best Manhattan you’ve ever had.
Bonus: Artichoke Amaro
Where there is a will there’s a way. The amaro itself tastes hardly anything like what you might imagine alcohol made from artichokes would be like. Instead, it pulls the bitter and vegetal qualities of the artichoke giving the drink a pleasant astringency that combined with the caramel notes and sweetness makes for a complex but wonderfully balanced spirit.
Although this might seem like a weird one-off, thistle based amari (of which artichoke is in the family of) are quite common including Cardamaro (often mistaken to be cardamom flavoured) which is made using thistle and cardoon.
Try it in place of aperol in your spritz and garnish with lemon and an olive for a drink that perfectly combines sweet and savoury in the way that Italians do so well.