A beginner's guide to Italian amaro

Photo via Getty Images/Ste Roagna

A beginner's guide to Italian amaro

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A beginner's guide to Italian amaro

For hundreds of years, the Italians have held onto a secret.

While much of the world has long been fascinated by the cuisine the country produces at the dining table and wine that accompanies it, Italy’s post-meal (and pre-meal) rituals have largely been overlooked. But this is a culture that places as much stock in a proper after-dinner drink as the pasta that precedes it.

For Italians, there is one spirit category that rises above the rest: amaro. Translating literally into ‘bitter’, the very name explains why drinkers in the United States — devotees to unadulterated sweetness — have resisted it for so long. A recent shift in the American palate, however, has ingratiated the category to a new audience, and amari (plural) is now an emerging category at bars and restaurants from coast to coast.

Amaro’s emergence in the States owes much to the contemporary cocktail scene, according to Brad Thomas Parsons, author of Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs. “The popularity of the Negroni in recent years…has helped Americans appreciate bitterness as a desirable note in their drinks,” he contends. “[It] is often used in cocktails for its herbal, bitter qualities, but also for its sweetness. A cocktail is the perfect Trojan Horse that will hopefully inspire you to seek out the featured amaro on its own.”

In its native land, amaro was traditionally crafted in the home, following guarded recipes of assorted botanicals and spices passed down through the generations. Around the mid 1800s,  commercial bottlers began to proliferate up and down the Italian peninsula. Dozens of them remain in existence today. But because the category isn’t strictly defined (like bourbon, tequila, or cognac, for example), its products come in endless flavors.

“Amaro can be an extremely intimidating, challenging and confusing category,” warns Parsons. “There are so many varieties and styles that cover a spectrum of flavor profiles.”

Take two of the more popular expressions in the US: Amaro Nonino and Fernet Branca. The former is light on the tongue, reddish in color, with cinnamon on the nose and a touch of caramel in the finish. The latter is syrupy and midnight black, offering generous amounts of tobacco and anise in each sip. Aside from both being liquid, and each one intended to ease digestion after a sizable meal, there is only one commonality connecting these two spirits: shrouds of secrecy — a cornerstone component of amari’s mystique.

“The Fratelli Branca Distillerie started producing a bitter herbal liqueur through a secret formula that has remained such for 171 years,” explains sixth generation producer Edoardo Branca. “Til this day, it remains a secret formula. The recipe has been passed down from father to son in the Branca family, which has guaranteed the protection of the quality.”

One of the most exciting aspects of amaro is its historical context, each bottle loaded heavily with a sense of place; some reach back the better part of a millennium to share their stories. To unlock at least some of the secrets of the category, head to the source.

Caltanissetta, Sicily

In the Sicilian town of Caltanissetta, a 1,000-year-old hillside monastery birthed the recipe for Averna, now one of amaro’s most ubiquitous labels. It began when Benedictine monks started infusing distillate with a specialized combination of gentian root, fruit peel and dried spices. The resulting tonic, produced for its medicinal benefits, had a bitter, herbaceous edge, forming the generalized backbone for modern-day amaro. Town local Salvatore Averna formed a lasting bond with the monks, and was rewarded for his patronage in 1859 when they shared their production notes with him. Soon thereafter he took that secret recipe to market, and helped the drink evolve from holy elixir into a more secular drinking rite.

Bologna, Emilia-Romagna

Amaro invariably incorporates many of the characteristics specific to the region that produces it. Sicily, famed for its citrus and pomegranate, lends those elements into its varieties.

As you make your way onto the mainland, the digestif migrates to more delicate floral aromas, such as the exquisite Montenegro brand of Bologna. “They’re selling a distinct style where almost all of the amaro – or bitter – is replaced by a fun, approachable and playful palate of honey and caramel,” explains Joel Caruso of Bar Mateo in Los Angeles. He recommends the spirit as the quintessential gateway to the category.

Bornio, Lombardy

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Once you’ve established your footing, make your way up into the mountainous provinces of Northern Italy, where the local drinks become dominated by so-called alpine flavors — clove, bark, peppermint. The charming, high altitude village of Bormio — which might easily have served as a set in The Sound of Music — is home to Braulio, an invigorating, viscous elixir aged for two years in outsized barriques of Slovenian oak. A century-old stalwart in Central Europe, it is only recently enjoying prominence in the New World.

Padua, Veneto

Even in Italy, amaro had to work its way into cocktails before it could truly command mainstream appeal. The rise of the Aperol Spritz in the middle parts of the 20th Century can claim much of the credit. The namesake spirit featured in the country’s most famous pre-dinner aperitivo, Aperol (which hails from the northern city of Padua) offers a bitter nibble at the sides of the mouth to accompany the sweet, citrusy flavor profile.

While Venice’s claim to the cocktail’s provenance is contested, the city is arguably the capital of the Aperol Spritz, which is positively ubiquitous. You’ll find them at every canal-side cafe, served on the rocks, and garnished with citrus and olive.

Not to be overlooked, Milan offers its own variation on the Spritz, relying on its native Campari, far less sweet than its Aperol-based cousin.

Back home

Despite the endless cocktail applications of amari, Parsons and other experts on the category still recommend isolating the ingredient to arrive at true appreciation. “An amari flight is the best way to dip your toes into the category,” he says. “Try three 1-ounce pours served neat side by side. You can go through a progression of light and sweet to medium styles, to more singular expressions ranging from alpine to vegetal to medicinal.”

This methodology is being embraced with increasing elegance across the country. At Frasca Food and Wine, in Boulder, Colorado, tableside amari is curated by a sommelier upon a specialized cart and wheeled out after meal service. While this type of experience is hardly typical, it was virtually non-existent several years ago. Now you can also go to Amor y Amargo in lower Manhattan to drink in a space exclusively dedicated to amaro.

And it feels – and tastes – as if this is just the beginning. Cocktail culture shows no signs of slowing, nor does the gourmetification of the American palate. While immersing yourself in the amari movement used to mean buying plane tickets to the Mediterranean, Parsons points out: “More bottles are now being imported so there’s a wide variety of styles available [here] and American distillers have been developing their own, regionally driven takes on the category.” In other words, even without your passport, Italy is finally ready to surrender its sippable mysteries. Its mystique: not so much.

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