Anyone who’s ventured into the world of Italian bitter liqueurs knows that it’s almost impossible to limit oneself to one or two essential amari.
Amaro (the singular form of amari), meaning bitter in Italian, is a spirit with a wide variety of uses. Defined as any of the bittersweet, herbal liqueurs commonly from Italy, how to use amaro and essential amaro bottles depend on your taste, drinking style, and budget.
The very first amaro was brewed by Italian monks as a medicine and a way to conserve different roots. Many Italian states of the time created their own versions, using the extensive spices they had access to from Venice’s ports. Today, the bitter beverage is a cocktail in itself: some recipes have 30-plus ingredients, and the actual formula is a closely guarded secret.
No amaro is quite like the next, which can be a challenge for a novice home bartender. Entire books have been written about the subject, but in general lighter amari are enjoyed as pre-dinner aperitivi, and darker amari as digestivi, ideal for settling the stomach after a meal. And while there are countless of amaro brands, we’ve helped identify the six essential bottles you should have on hand to make both modern and classic cocktails.
What is Amaro?
Amaro is a bittersweet herbal liqueur originally from Italy. It’s made by soaking flowers, herbs, roots, and other bittering substances in a base spirit and sweetening it to taste. Typically, amaro is made from grape brandy, but any spirit can be used, and any ingredient can be added to bitter it. The flavor of amaro depends on the type, with some more pleasantly bittersweet than others. It’s an acquired taste, especially if you’re drinking it neat.
Amaro is most often classified by its most distinctive ingredient, which can range from saffron and mint to aloe and myrrh, but more commonly, it’s a mix of multiple. Under the current definition, vermouth is technically an amaro, bittered by wormwood, and wine-based.
How To Use Amaro
Italians will often drink amaro neat, sipping a one-and-a-half to two-ounce pour to wind down in the evening. This is the best way to learn how to use different amari. Mixing it with ice or seltzer water is a low-ABV way to enjoy the bittersweet liqueur as well. The appreciation for amari has grown in recent years and amaro has become a key ingredient in many cocktails. Classics like the Negroni and Aperol Spritz are likely responsible for the boost in amari’s popularity.
6 Essential Amaro Bottles
Because each recipe for amaro is different, it’s a challenge when trying to substitute one amaro for another. Some work well with whiskey or rum, and others add a delightful essence to gin or mezcal. Many are enjoyed neat, while others’ complex flavors are better enjoyed mixed. Depending on your taste and budget, here are the most common types of amari that home bartenders should have on hand.
Aperol has become a staple in every bar thanks to the universal appeal of the Aperol Spritz. The base beverage is mildly bitter and just the right amount of bright botanical with orange, gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona. It was first made over one hundred years ago, and the drinks made with it taste like a sip of the Italian Riviera in a glass.
Amaro Averna hails from Sicily and is a well-balanced, easy-to-drink amaro — a great place to start for the amaro novice. It’s spicy and herbal with caramel, anise, citrus, and honey notes that make you feel you’re basking in Sicily. While the recipe, developed in the 1800s, is still mostly a secret, we know it has pomegranate, bitter lemon, and orange ingredients. The darker, sweeter notes of Averna make it good for after-dinner drinks.
Campari is the most common amaro. Its brilliant red hue hides a secret blend of herbs and spices. The burst of orange flavor magnifies the strong bitter taste that is rarely sipped on its own. You’ll find it in the ingredient lists of some of the most popular cocktails, like the Negroni.
Although the artichoke is proudly emblazoned on the label, Cynar does not have an overwhelming taste of artichokes. Artichoke leaf is one of 13 secret ingredients in this amaro, which is welcomingly sweet and complexly vegetal. It’s a lighter style of amaro, which adds to its versatility in spritzes, highballs, and sours.
Fernet-Branca, or the “bartender’s handshake,” is a potent botanical beverage — a go-to order for bartenders off the clock. Its flavor is complex and overpowering, think notes of black licorice and greenery that is, of course, proprietary information. Enjoyed as a shot or after-dinner digestivo, it is surprisingly versatile in cocktails as well.
The dark-colored Amaro Montenegro is delightfully easy to drink, a favorite of new and seasoned amaro tasters alike. Its 40 ingredients include baking spices, sweet and bitter oranges, artemisia, oregano, and other botanicals. The cinnamon and clove notes make it a welcome addition to an Old Fashioned, Tropical drinks, and gin-based beverages. The Italians drink it neat for a nightcap — it is the country’s best-selling amaro, after all.
Once you have your six essential amari bottles to make classic cocktails, it’s time to discover the wide variety of amari.
The richly complex and balanced herbal notes of Amaro Lucano make for a delicious digestivo, or a low-ABV cocktail mixed with tonic water and lime. Originally created in 1894 in southern Italy, it’s sweet with an earthy root beer-like flavor. It’s considered a substitute for Amaro Averna, but with more of a cola undertone that’s easy to drink.
More bitter than some of the lighter amari but not aggressively so, the bitter orange Amaro CioCiaro is floral and spiced, with a subtle amount of citrusy sweetness. It plays wonderfully in many cocktails or served on the rocks.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia
This alpine amaro is a melange of different botanicals with a grappa base aged for five years. Amaro Nonino is a sweeter amaro with light bitterness, dark orange-red color, and inviting flavor for the newest amaro drinkers. It can also be used as a substitute for Cointreau or triple sec and is an essential ingredient in the modern classic, Paper Plane.
View the complete collection of cocktails with amaro here.
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