Always wondered how Italians can eat several courses from bruschetta to pasta to big chunks of meat to tiramisu and then some? The key is to eat slowly and finish the meal with the right drink. After that cheese platter there’s a quick espresso with plenty of sugar to wake you up, followed by a digestivo that will help to settle your stomach and that feeling of fullness. The best digestivo for that purpose is an Amaro.
We usually avoid overly bitter flavours as our brains interpret bitterness as a possible toxin. This is why the bitterness of amaro and the various herbs, spices and other botanicals will help to break down all that food much faster, making you feel better.
Italy is considered the birthplace of amaro. Medieval monks mixed botanicals with a wine or spirit base, creating various bitter tonics, mainly for medicinal purposes, such as to alleviate bloating or cramps, to improve digestion and to stimulate appetite. These tonics were usually made with local ingredients, and there were many differences in flavours between the northern and southern areas of Italy, with northern amari being generally more herbal compared to the citrusy versions of the south.
Back then, sugar was very expensive and rarely used in amaro production, although the Venetian spice trade allowed more room to experiment with new exotic ingredients. The recipes evolved over the years, and after World War II, the consumption of amaro changed from medicinal purposes to drinking for enjoyment. Suddenly production grew and amaro was available to a wider market. What used to be a mainly European obsession has become a worldwide craze.
Amaro is bitter but is bitter amaro?
Amaro literally means bitter in Italian, however, Italians use the English word bitter to describe other bitter liqueurs that aren’t amaro. Confused yet?! Bitters are aperitivo bitters and cocktail bitters. The key difference is the colour and the time of day you serve them. Bitters are bright red or orange (the colour of sunset) and are served throughout the day, while amari are very dark and enjoyed after dinner. If you ask an Italian whether they consider bitters such as Campari or Aperol as amari, the answer would be a resounding no.
Well, what qualifies as amaro…
A selection of aromatic herbs, spices, roots, flowers, and other botanicals are macerated in a neutral spirit, usually a grape distillate such as grappa, before sugar is added. The mixture is then left to rest. Some brands choose to age the amaro in wooden barrels to create a more complex flavour profile.
The number of botanicals varies from 10 to 40 or even 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. The colour of amaro ranges from light copper to dark brown, almost black. The flavour profile is also wide, from bitter to sugary-sweet to dry. Some are more herbal and woodier, others citrusy, minty, or floral. The alcohol level ranges from 16 to 40 percent alcohol.
Every amaro is different and there are literally hundreds to choose from.
Basically, there are no rules when it comes to amaro. Production methods vary by distillery (one distillery might make several styles of amari), and there are no regulations or classifications of what amaro is. Many Italian producers would like the government to protect amaro by adding DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), a controlled designation of origin protection.
The tradition of amaro sipping has become ingrained into the Italian culture and today the younger generation is also adding it into their cocktail recipes.
There are hundreds of amaro brands in Italy. 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!
Due to the wide array of amari, there is a bottle for everyone’s palate. Not all amaro has to be extremely bitter nor medicinal, and you can find lovely options with more citrusy or floral flavour profiles.
Fernet is a sub-category of amaro. Like all amari, fernet is made from several herbs and botanicals, but the most commonly used are saffron, aloe, rhubarb, chamomile, gentian root, mint and cardamom. The alcohol level is usually higher compared to other amari, at around 39 to 50 percent.
How to drink it
Serving is 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.
To make the most of its healing qualities, enjoy it neat after dinner. When served neat, the bottle can be stored in the fridge or at room temperature. Some people like to use a chilled glass.
Amaro can also be used in Café Corretto to replace grappa or Sambuca. Simply pour a shot of amaro into an espresso, add sugar if you prefer, and sip away. A minty fernet works well in hot chocolates.
There’s a growing market for amaro for use in cocktails. It can be used in many classic cocktails, for example replace vermouth with amaro in a Negroni, add it in a whisky sour or make a Black Manhattan.
If you would like some inspiration, see Brad Thomas Parsons book Amaro for recipes with both amari and other Italian bitters.
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 at first, but I also wasn’t into whisky. Your taste buds change and adapt so just keep trying.
A few brands to try:
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 (23% ABV), 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.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, 35% ABV, is one of my favourite amari as it works in many cocktails and is very easy to sip on its own. It has caramel-like sweetness that pairs nicely with the bitter herbs. Some known ingredients include bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb root, saffron, tamarind and cinchona bark. These ingredients are added into an aged Nonino whole grape distillate known as Grape Distillate ÙE, which is then left to macerate.
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 Acquavite D’Uva (similar to a whole grape spirit such as Nonino above) in ash-wood barrels. No colourings or artificial flavourings are added, making it a very intense and sweet amaro.
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 Marche. A good amaro for beginners
Fernet-Branca is probably the most well-known fernet. It has 27 botanicals sourced from four different continents. It’s strong, 39% ABV, and tastes a lot like minty toothpaste and eucalyptus pastilles. You either love it or hate it.
This Alpine distillery produces Amaro Dente di Leone, 32.5% ABV. It is an aromatic blend of dandelion and other Alpine herbs such as gentian and genepy. It is also sweetened with a pinch of muscovado sugar. The colour of this amaro is lighter than most, more of an amber yellow. The bitterness is long, with spicy and vegetal notes as well as liquorice sweetness at the finish.
If you are looking for something mild to start with, the line up from this Italian producer is for you. They make several herbal liqueurs and vermouths. Amaro Nunquam and Amaro Herbarum are much less bitter than most amari I have ever tried. Amaro Nunquam, 38% ABV, is a blend of 24 botanicals. It is warming with subtle bitterness and lovely fruity sweetness. Herbarum, 42% ABV, has a light-yellow colour. This one is made of only nine botanicals such as cinnamon, juniper, gentian, iris, angelica and wormwood.
Have you acquired a taste for amari yet? Do you have a favourite way of drinking amaro?
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