Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in Italy, so what better reason to write about Amaro and other bitter liqueurs Italians love to drink? You may be familiar with Italian aperitivo culture, where most drinks (including cocktails) are made with bitters such as Campari or Aperol. Digestifs, on the other hand, are mainly served neat or on the rocks and are more intense in flavour.
Italy is considered the birthplace of Amaro. Medieval monks mixed botanicals with a wine or spirit base, creating different so-called bitter tonics, mainly for medicinal purposes, such as to alleviate bloating or cramps, to improve digestion and to stimulate appetite. Even back then the recipes were kept secret and only the makers knew what went in. These tonics were usually made with local ingredients, and there were many differences in flavours between the north of Italy and southern areas, which produced more citrusy versions of Amaro. Sugar was still very expensive and rarely used in Amaro production. The recipes evolved over the years, and after World War II, the consumption of Amaro changed from medicinal purposes to drinking for enjoyment. All of a sudden production grew and Amaro was available to a wider market.
What is Amaro?
A grape distillate, for example grappa or brandy, is traditionally the base spirit of Amaro. A secret mix of aromatic herbs and spices is then left to macerate with the spirit. The number of botanicals varies from 10 to 40 or more. Some common bittering agents are gentian root, wormwood and angelica root. Other botanicals include orange peel, rhubarb, mint, ginseng, fennel, cardamom, chamomile, vanilla, jasmine, rose, star anise, cinnamon, juniper, liquorice, eucalyptus, cloves, saffron and sage… the list is endless. Amaro varies from bitter to sugary-sweet to dry.
After the right combination of botanicals has been added, the spirit is then sweetened with sugar and left to mature from a few months to up to a year. There are exceptions, such as Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, which is aged for five years. The ageing barrels also vary from sherry to limousine to other oak casks.
Basically, there are no rules when it comes to Amaro. Production methods vary by distillery (one distillery might even have two different versions of Amaro), and there are no regulations or classifications of what Amaro is. Serving is also left open for the drinker to decide. It may be served neat, on the rocks, with soda, ice cold or in a cocktail. Anything is possible. Many Italian producers would like the government to protect Amaro by adding DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), a controlled designation of origin protection.
Aperitivo vs digestivo
Basically, an aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink and a digestivo is a drink enjoyed after a meal. The difference between the two also lies in the liqueur used and how it is served. Italians have very strong opinions on what can be drunk at each time, and often they believe Amaro can only be served as a digestif.
But aperitivo liqueurs can be bitter and herbal too, so how do you know the difference? Aperitivo drinks can also be served at lunch time, therefore they are often lower in alcohol by volume. They are also lighter compared to Amaro. Aperitivo bitters are rarely served on their own, although my mum likes to drink Campari on the rocks, and these liqueurs are brighter in colour. I once heard that an aperitivo should be the colour of the sunset. If you think of the popular Aperol Spritz, for example, it really is a beautiful sunset colour.
Amaro is darker in colour, from light copper to dark brown. Most people like it neat, while others drink it with soda, ice or in cocktails. When served neat, the bottle can be stored in the fridge or at room temperature. Some people like to use a chilled glass. There’s a growing market for Amaro for use in cocktails, especially in the US. Amaro can be from 16 to 40% ABV. The many botanicals of Amaro help with digestion, therefore it is a perfect after-dinner drink. We all know how much Italians love to eat, so it is no surprise they invented Amaro!!
There are hundreds of Amaro brands, all very different. My advice to you is to be open minded when trying out Amaro – you might not like one, but you might prefer the next one or the one after that. I personally wasn’t huge on bitter herbal liqueurs, and Jägermeister often comes to mind when talking about herbal drinks… I guess you could say Jäger is a German take on Amaro, and Hungarians have Unicum. In Italy, you can find beautiful Amaro suitable for everyone’s taste, anything from floral notes to citrus to vegetal, woody or menthol. I have come across a few with strong orange notes, which are fabulous. Some like sweeter Amari, while others prefer more bitter earthy notes.
I have listed a few of the most common Italian brands below.
While staying in Ascoli Piceno in Le Marche I had a great opportunity to visit a local distillery that specialises in aniseed liqueurs, although their Amaro is also very popular. Meletti products are well known around Italy and beyond. Silvio Meletti started the distillery in Ascoli Piceno back in 1870, and it has remained in the Meletti family all this time. At one point Silvio opened a café in the main piazza in Ascoli, where you must go for a cocktail if you ever end up in Le Marche. Caffe Meletti has since changed hands, but it still has all the original art-nouveau features and all the Meletti products (including chocolates!) are served.
Amaro Meletti, 32% ABV, has a perfect balance between bitterness and sweetness with notes of orange peel, cinnamon and bitter gentian root, a plant local to Le Marche. I enjoy it neat at room temperature or slightly chilled. A good Amaro for beginners!
Fernet is a category of Amaro. It is made from several herbs and botanicals, but the most commonly used are saffron, aloe, rhubarb, chamomile, gentian root and cardamom. Fernet is often minty and very bitter.
Fernet-Branca is a popular fernet, but it is not the only one in this category. You might have heard of Luxardo Fernet Amaro before; it has 15 botanicals and a strong flavour of peppermint. Fernet-Branca has 27 botanicals sourced from four different continents. It is strong, 40% ABV, and tastes a lot like minty toothpaste and eucalyptus pastilles. You either love it or hate it.
Sicilian Amaro dates to 1859 when local monks gave their secret recipe to Sicilian businessman Salvatore Averna. Together with members of his family he started to sell it in small batches, but very quickly the liqueur became hugely popular. Averna is one of the most well-known Italian Amari in the US.
Averna, 29% ABV, is sweet with a subtle bitterness. Its main notes are vanilla, orange peel and liquorice. Known ingredients are pomegranate and essential oils from bitter lemons, as you would expect from Sicily.
Amaro Montenegro, created in 1885, can be found in most bars and cafés in Italy. It is milder and sweeter than most Amari, even if it has 40 herbs and botanicals. Only three people are said to know the full recipe. This Amaro is light with more floral notes. Some recognisable flavours are rose, cherry, orange peel, lavender and hint of spiciness. It is commonly used in cocktails.
Amaro Ramazzotti was created in Milan in 1815, making it one of the oldest brands available. The company is now owned by Pernod Ricard. Amaro Ramazzotti, 30% ABV, has 33 different botanicals, including cardamom, orange, myrrh, rhubarb, gentian root, star anise, and clove, to name a few. It is dark, almost black in colour, and the taste is aromatic and bitter with strong notes of orange and cinnamon.
This Amaro, 30% ABV, is from Distillery Bepi Tosolini, a third-generation family business. Herbs, roots and spices (cloves, star anise, lemon balm, mint, ginger, rosemary, angelica and gentian root plus many more) are macerated with MOST® eau de vie in ash-wood barrels. No colourings or artificial flavourings are added, making it a very intense and sweet Amaro.
There is so much to write about when it comes to Amari and other bitter liqueurs from Italy and beyond. Each brand has its own interesting story – some distilleries have remained in the family from generation to generation, while others have commercialised and are now part of a bigger portfolio. Some Amaro producers started in the 1800s, yet they are still using the original recipe!
Talking about bitter liqueurs always comes back to the topic of aperitivo culture and digestifs. Even if digestifs are widely appreciated in Italy, new-generation drinkers are developing more and more alternative ways to enjoy Amari. Younger Italians are expanding the concept of digestif by serving Amaro-based cocktails or other liqueurs, or even rum or whisky, at the end of the meal.
Stay tuned for part 2 of Amaro and bitter liqueurs, where I will focus more on aperitivo bitters and Amari cocktails.
Have you tried Amari? Which ones did you like, if any? What is your after-dinner drink?