What is amaro? The best answer might be a paraphrase of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: you know it when you taste it. Amaro can be defined simply—it’s the Italian word for bitter (plural: amari)—but the category of bitter liqueurs it represents is vast and undefined. And it’s about to become an even bigger feature of our lives.
Understanding when trends take off is difficult business. Take fernet, that now famous style of amaro epitomized by the iconic brand Fernet-Branca. Those of us old enough to have observed the San Francisco bar scene in the early 2000s witnessed fernet’s advent, first as a furtive shot of an obscure liqueur shared among bartenders who bonded over its inky bitterness and repulsiveness to the masses and thus made it cool. By the second half of the decade, the fernet habit had filtered down to sommeliers, restaurant workers, and civilian hipsters who hung out at craft cocktail bars. A LexisNexis search shows that it was around this time, 2006 to 2009, when the nation’s burgeoning amaro habit started to garner occasional mention in major publications, signaling its inevitable wane. A scant few years later, mezcal was the new hip drink, and Fernet-Branca, while consumed sporadically, faded back into the glow of affectionate nostalgia.
Or did it? While that narrative seems solid to me, perhaps it’s completely off. Maybe the last 15 years were just prelude. Maybe fernet was technically still “underground,” and those of us drinking it were just underground with it. In support of this idea are two major developments: last month’s publication of Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs by Brad Thomas Parsons (Ten Speed Press) and the major boom in domestic fernet production, thanks to our rapidly swelling craft distilling movement. Might these be the indicators of fernet’s mass popularity, and not the drinking habits of coastal beverage hipsters? (After all, it seemed to me that Parsons’ last book, Bitters (2011), came out well after the moment everyone in the country was well versed with the suddenly ubiquitous eyedroppers of cocktail bitters. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong: the book was a runaway success. Early predictions suggest Amaro will be similarly successful.)
In acknowledgment that we may be at the dawn, not the coda, of the fernet age, I decided to consider the suddenly populous field of American fernets. Not all of them call themselves fernet; some prefer the moniker amaro. What’s the difference? According to Brad Parsons:
Generally speaking, amaro refers to the collective class of Italian-made aromatic, herbal, bittersweet liqueurs traditionally served as a digestif after a meal. Amari are created by macerating and/or distilling bitter barks, herbs, seeds, spices, citrus peels, flowers, and other botanicals in a neutral spirit or wine that is then sweetened with the sugar syrup. Most amari are then rested for a period of time to help further balance the blend and some also undergo months or up to a year of additional aging in barrels for extra complexity.
Most people, says Parsons, see fernet as a subcategory of amaro (but not all people; some contend that it’s its own thing), defined by “an elevated level of alcohol (typically 39-50%); a more aggressive level of bitterness; a dark brown to licorice-black color; and the use of iconic fernet herbs, spices, roots, and botanicals, including black aloe ferox, myrrh, saffron, chamomile, rhubarb root, and mint.”
Of course, now that the world has expressed a taste for Italian amari, some Italian producers want to restrict the word’s use only to bitter liqueurs from Italy. This is challenging for a couple of reasons. First, to legally protect the word, the Italians would have to define it. This, to understate it a little, would not be easy. Every region in Italy makes their own amari, not to mention villages, restaurants, and families. Some are commercial, some are not, but all rely on diverse and unique recipes. Creating a DOC covering Italian amaro would be an incredible bureaucratic challenge that would necessarily exclude some and include others. And Italians are not necessarily renowned for quickly dispatching bureaucratic challenges. Second, I agree with Parsons that “the bittersweet genie is already out of the bottle.” Just as the English failed to protect cheddar cheese, and the French failed to trademark bad restaurant service, well-made amaro that pays respect to Italian tradition is already thriving out in the wild. These producers deserve to honor their Italian inspirations by labeling their products amaro. Sorry, Italy—but you will always be the king of the category.
I undertook to assemble the most complete roster of American fernets I could find and then quiz their producers to try to discern what commonalities, potentials, and truths might present themselves. Though I tried to stick to self-described fernets, I did include a few amari that seemed especially interesting. There are many more amari out there that I didn’t have the scope to include.
This exploration confirmed that American-made fernet is an extremely exciting category bursting with potential. While bourbon is considered the quintessential American spirit, it could be argued that, in time, these fernets could be just as iconically American. After all, their freeform style allows them to be far more diverse—a hallmark of this country—than bourbons or even gins. Many of them reflect unique regional influences, which could lead to lots of exciting new expressions. Could micro-terroirs become a trend? Below we have an amaro that focuses on botanicals from the aster family, gathered in upstate New York. We have one that plays off of the conifers of the Pacific Northwest. What if we had an Everglades amaro? Or a Yellowstone Park amaro? More than any other, this spirit could become the one to truly capture the essence of a place in a bottle. Other versions dispense with all that grandiose ambition to simply make a fernet that honors the furtive shots that bartenders once took to take the edge off their nights. As much as an amaro can be a poetic expression of place, a good fernet can be a rousing shot to the jaw.
Another trend highlights the resourcefulness of producers. Distilling from tea? Hops as bittering agents? Brilliant. And, last, fernets are being produced by sommeliers as well as bartenders, representing a range of interests. Terroir expression is one; mixology is another. In the hands of talented bartenders, many of these will be wonderful bases or modifiers for a complex range of drinks.
I can’t wait to see those cocktails, or to taste ever more of the new amari that will no doubt arrive. My notes on the first generation of American amari are below; I hope you’ll seek some of these examples out yourself.
The first American-made fernet was launched in 2011 by the Leopold brothers, inspired by their history of making under-the-radar amari and the firm belief of distiller Todd Leopold that “there needs to be an American expression and then regionalization” of pretty much every spirit. Leopold uses aloe ferox, ginger, and gentian as his principle bittering agents. Then he adds roses, elderflower, lavender, and chamomile for aromatic complexity and high tones, followed by blackstrap molasses, spearmint, peppermint, vanilla bean, sarsaparilla, and cocoa nibs for depth. The spirit is steeped with its flavorings incrementally for several weeks until laid to rest in used Chardonnay barrels for six months. They make the base spirit from floor malted barley, potato, and wheat. The result is nothing like Fernet-Branca but equally compelling.
Profile: Dark black color with a dose of mint and floral notes in the nose. Spearmint, sarsaparilla, elderflower, and lavender create overtones of grapefruit, which persists strongly in the mouth before giving way to burnished notes of coffee and chocolate. Long, ringing finish. 40% ABV
Driven by both astonishment that San Francisco—brewing/distilling mecca and ground zero of American fernet appreciation—didn’t have its own fernet and a faith in such a product’s potential, entrepreneur Max Rudsten and winemaker Ben Flajnik decided create one. Fortunately, Flajnik was an unofficial Fernet-Branca ambassador and, thanks to some visits to its distillery, had a handle on the process. Research involved the better part of a year experimenting with various botanicals, choosing ingredients all (aside from cinnamon) sourced within 100 miles of San Francisco. The base spirit is a mixture of corn and grape brandy, and all botanicals infusions are made in grape brandy. Major ingredients include rhubarb root, bay, chamomile, cinnamon, cardamom, orange peels, gentian, angelica, and orris.
Profile: Less aggressively aromatic than most other fernets here, Francisco offers a subdued but dense bundle of mint, bay leaf, and gentian. In the mouth, the amaro is brisk and sharp, bravely dry, with a bright, carefree buoyancy. 40% ABV
Forged in the crucible of bartenders drinking late into the night and punk shows, Letherbee Distillers is the work of Brenton Engel and his merry band of Chicago bartender/distillers. When he and co-distiller Nathan Ozug started working on the fernet, Leopold Bros. was the only American-made version, and they thought it should have company. From the beginning, they wanted to distinguish themselves from the Branca brand with a more substantial, complex spirit to be savored. Their recipe evolved through trial and error. Engel explains, “It all starts with good ingredients. The hardest part is creating a good recipe. Then, you have to reproduce it with impeccable accuracy.”
Profile: Piercing menthol and mint notes with a stirring of citrus perfume, the Letherbee is compact and direct in delivering its unwaveringly bitter palate. Potent and searing, but pleasurable. 35% ABV
Francesco “Ciccio” Amodeo grew up on the Amalfi coast, in the same town as renowned winemaker Marisa Cuomo, who was an inspiration during Francesco’s early years, as was his uncle who owned a restaurant in Positano. Amodeo became a sommelier, a craft he practiced upon moving to Washington, DC, in 2006. For fun, he made his own liqueurs, offering them to customers as gifts. “After I gave away 400 bottles,” he says, “I figured maybe it was time to take this more seriously.” His distillery was born. Starting with family recipes for various liqueurs that date back to at least 1931, he created a colorful line of spirits. In addition to a roster of sweet liqueurs, Don Ciccio & Figli produces an aperitivo, a bitter (in the spirit of Campari), and four amari, including Don Ferné, which is a fernet in style. Twenty-five botanicals—including three kinds of chocolate, coriander, juniper, gentian, eucalyptus, ginger, mint, and saffron—are macerated in stages in a proprietary base spirit made from corn and barley. The product is aged for a year in barrels that Marisa Cuomo kindly ships over from Campania.
Profile: Light in color and pleasantly mild in flavor, balancing a sharp bitterness with a hint of orange-peel-tinged sweet coffee and chocolate. Punchy and lithe, the finish is cleansing with notes of mint and ginger. 25% ABV
Thomas & Sons is the distilling arm of Portland’s Townshend’s Tea Company. “Everything we do starts with tea,” says distiller Seth O’Malley, who was a tea nerd even in high school, when he first got a job with the tea shop. “When I turned 21, the obsession with tea turned into an obsession with botanical expressions like gin, aquavit, and chartreuse. That turned into a fascination with Italian amari.” The spirits line started with various tea liqueurs and has grown to include other herbal liqueurs. The fernet, as with the other products, is unique in that it’s entirely vacuum distilled from a base alcohol fermented from a sweetened, concentrated tea. O’Malley flavors his spirit with hops as well as foraged Douglas fir and birch bark to invoke walking through an Oregon conifer forest. The process takes around a month, though discovering it took over two years of trial and error through micro-batches. Even more impressive, O’Malley had no experience distilling when Townshend’s founder Matt Thomas put him in charge of the project.
Profile: The intriguing nose immediately takes you to a mountain forest—pine or fir trees, glades of alpine grasses, and weeds, with minty highlights. Very dry and sharp on the tongue, with a lean and slightly tannic bite. Very brisk finish and an ethereal body, despite its 80 proof. 40% ABV
Tattersall is the creation of entrepreneur Jon Kriedler and local Minneapolis bartender Dan Oskey, childhood friends who reconnected over this project. Oskey was inspired by his love of amari. He explains, “It's one of my huge passions—so interesting to me because your botanical blends can be very elaborate.” Tattersall has three liqueurs: an amaro in the style of Cynar, a bitter orange like Campari or Aperol, and a fernet. The fernet has 33 botanicals, some distilled into the spirit and others infused. There’s no artificial flavoring or coloring. The proof is 70—but Oskey notes, “It has a big bitter bite, so you can sip on it.”
Profile: Eucalyptus makes a concerted appearance, lending dimension to a constellation of minty, herbal flavors. A bracingly dry and bitter mouthful follows—a potpourri reminiscent of flowering mountain meadows that finishes with an energizing, refreshing evaporation. 35% ABV
Sommelier Victoria James got into foraging while working at Marea, when she had the opportunity to join the restaurant’s forager on an outing. It soon became a hobby, and with more forages on her hands than she knew what to do with, she made her own amaro. She gave it to friends as a holiday gift, and they responded enthusiastically. While James is a fan of Fernet-Branca, her amaro is more in the spirit of Varnelli’s Erborista.
With a woven pack basket strapped to her shoulders, a pair of clippers, and a collection of small containers, James spends many weekends in the forests of upstate New York. As the name suggests, the focus is plants in the large aster family, asteraceae, which includes aster, yarrow, mugwort, burdock, dandelion flowers, and chicory. “The fun part is the picking,” she says, “because it's a treasure hunt. But afterwards, you have to sort through everything. It's really a lot of work, separating flowers from stems.” Furthermore, preserving integrity is a challenge. “The tricky thing working with fresh botanicals and roots is that a lot of things can go wrong. They can get moldy or bugs. So usually I treat them right away or wash them or dry them.” Roots, for instance, get roasted over an open wood fire, giving them a smoky cast. Violets, on the other hand, are kept fresh to preserve their aroma. The rest is a simple maceration of 60% botanicals and aromatics with 40% bittering agents in a neutral grain spirit supplied by a local distillery. About 800 bottles of Aster Amaro will be released this fall for the first time. Meanwhile, James will keep her full-time job heading the wine program at Manhattan’s Piora.
Profile (barrel sample): The extremely pale color confirms the lack of added color and that it’s an amaro, not a fernet. Color and nose of chamomile tea, followed quickly by a chorus of other aromas, floral, woodsy, spicy, and warm. Drying and insistently bitter on the finish, though not aggressive. Delicate and poignant. 19% ABV
Patrick Bickford and Susan LaRossa are former New York sommeliers turned California wine sales consultants and now amaro makers. “I’ve been fairly obsessed with amari and bitter things for quite some time,” says Bickford. Indeed, he has a citation to prove it. A 2003 New York Times review of ‘Cesca, singles him out: “Patrick Bickford has an obsession with these underappreciated liqueurs. Indulge him.”
We can now indulge his obsession with Bilaro, a spirit Bickford admits is tailored to his own palate, dry and aggressively bitter. Bilaro starts with a 100% grape spirit made in Sonoma at 160 proof, which sees macerations of 13 different herbs, spices, and botanicals. “We wanted to keep things, including the base spirit, as local as possible. The rosemary and mint come right out of our backyard,” notes LaRossa. Herbs are macerated for close to a month. It’s then racked off the herbs and rectified down to 80 proof with a solution of demerara sugar and Earl Grey tea. The spirit rests for three months in neutral barrels, softening the flavors. The first batch came out last year, and the second batch—six barrels and a carboy—is still resting.
Profile: Bilaro’s color is a bright, transparent amber, and its aroma is dense with lots of baking spice, citrus peel, herbs, and brown sugar. The bitterness comes swiftly and remorselessly in the mouth, abetted by a bracingly finish. The spice-laden flavors are honored by the dryness. 40% ABV
The goal in creating St. Agrestis, which debuted in 2015, says Fairlie McCollough, “was to create a sessionable amaro that could please even the most finicky of palates—palatable amaro we just wanted to drink all night.” McCollough and Nicholas Finger met while working in the wine program at Felidia, then Del Posto. A three-month trip together to Italy to expand their wine knowledge proved the inspiration. “We had always had a love for amaro,” she says, “but on our trip, [in] each region we would pick up another bottle of amaro. After every meal, we’d take a good old swig, and we’d be set for the day, the night, what have you. It was the amaro way of life that brought us to where we are now.”
They distill their own base spirit from organic cane sugar and make separate macerations that last two to three weeks (gentian, angelica, orris root, and aloe; sarsaparilla, orange peel, dry bitter orange, mint, sage, thyme, baking spices, and anise). They rack only the top 80% of the infusions and bring it down to 30% with a little organic caramel and sugar cane. Aging is done in 40-liter whiskey barrels from Brooklyn’s Van Brunt Stillhouse, an American touch—as is sarsaparilla, which doesn’t grow in Italy.
Profile: Undeniably bright, balanced deftly between saccharine and cleansingly bitter. After the initial bitterness come warm, sweet notes—waves of baking spice, caramel, and sarsaparilla. Extremely drinkable. Easy to imagine this in cocktails. 30% ABV
Brooklyn’s Arcane Distilling is a self-described “bizarre little experimental distillery” that its founder, David Kyrejko, started to focus on flavors using unusual techniques. Most of his equipment is glass, and he uses a lot of vacuum filtration and vacuum. Kyrejko, who builds machines for a living and is a longtime home beer brewer, has been a tinkerer and science enthusiast his whole life. Arcane was started to cut through some of the mythology and spin surrounding commercial spirits. The fernet project was a dare from a friend who bet him that he couldn’t reproduce Fernet-Branca. “I won the bet,” he says, “but I didn’t like it. As a whole, I don’t like Fernet-Branca, but I like some of the elements of it.” After more experimentation, Kyrejko created his own fernet, one that is pleasant to drink and soothing to the stomach. The base spirit for Arcane Fernet is made from New York State grain, and the herbs—including gentian, licorice root, and varying types of hops—are integrated using both infusion and vacuum distillation, which allows extraction without degrading the product. “It’s really one of the only ways to maintain the integrity of your herbs and flavors. That’s how you make perfume.”
Profile: Dark brown in color with an upfront peppermint nose. The mint continues on the palate, woven into a richer, darker set of flavors: toffee, caramel, gentian, and tea. A lovely, viscous texture makes for a nice body. Easy to drink straight up or on the rocks. 39% ABV
CH Distillery (for carbon and hydrogen) was founded in Chicago in 2013, focusing first on vodka, the favorite spirit of co-founder and head distiller Tremaine Atkinson. CH’s amaro came about almost by accident. CH was trying to sell vodka to a bar. “We couldn’t get our price point low enough,” recalls Atkinson, “but they said, ‘We could really use some amaro.’” And so he created one. That bar never actually took it, but the product developed a life of its own.
A year later, some bartenders who founded the Dogma consulting group came to CH with the idea of developing a house fernet for their client, a San Francisco-themed bar. Later, CH and Dogma decided to collaborate on a new spirit for their own purposes: CH Fernet-Dogma. Vodka is the base spirit, and other botanicals are infused for as little as a day and up to a week. Flavoring agents include saffron, gentian, wormwood, rose petals, chamomile and elderflower teas, and coffee from local roaster Dark Matter. The final product is aged for two months in used whiskey or rum barrels before seeing a light filtration, which Atkinson says is essential for cleaning up the flavor and removing sediment.
Profile: Chocolatey brown in color, Fernet-Dogma has a wonderfully complex nose of caramel sweetness, minty perfume, and floral high notes. The mouthfeel is thick and viscous, with richness perfectly undercut by a dense swirl of similar flavors. 38.4% ABV
Brovo Spirits is a collaborative, experimental distillery founded by Mhairi Voelsgen and located outside of Seattle. The distillery makes unique liqueurs, amaro, and vermouth with bartenders in different cities, purchasing the base spirits and carefully crafting the flavors that go into them.
Batch No 1: Bright and refreshing with plenty of spice—cinnamon, clove, allspice—with a tea-like appeal. It finishes neither sweet nor bitter, but cleanly with a long-lasting flavor impression. 30% ABV
Batch No. 4: Highly unique. There’s an upfront fruitiness, almost tropical in nature. Hibiscus dominates, with suggestions of guava and mango. Bitterness starts to envelop the tongue on the finish, which also leaves a pleasant heat. 30% ABV
Batch No. 14: Dark amber in color, with a rich nose of chocolate, carob, toasted nuts, coffee, and sarsaparilla. Thicker than the others, the palate follows suit with deep coffee and chocolate flavors. Lots of dense spice on the finish. 32% ABV
I would second the Margerum Amaro.
Also, J. Rieger & Co. Café Amaro. It is a coffee flavored Amaro in collaboration with Thou Mayest Coffee Roasters in Kansas City. J. Rieger & Co. was a distillery founded in the west bottoms in Kansas City in 1887 and became a casualty of prohibition. 95 years later they were brought back by Andy Rieger and Ryan Maybe. distributed in 13 states now, it is defiantly a brand to check out.
Great article. I need to check out a few of these as I have not come across a number of them.
Great article Jordan! Thank you!
Thanks for the article on Amari and for the heads up on Brad Parson's new book. I read his book on Bitters and enjoyed it. I look forward to receiving my copy of his new book .
I would add Doug Margerum's Amaro from Santa Barbara.
Just as a comment, I think the Italians have a lock on the appreciate of the bitter taste spectrum. I find it frustrating that many people raised in the US often describe bitter flavors as sour and vice-versa. That may be set to change if Brad's predictions ring true!
Eric Harwood It's not cut off - it just ends with the tasting notes.
Is it just me or is part of this cut off? Great article though.