Amaro, one of the most diverse beverages in the world, is not easy to concretely define. The literal translation of the Italian name means “bitter,” but amaro offers a kaleidoscope of flavors to decipher. In The Big Book of Amaro, Matteo Zed provides a fairly concise explanation: “the collective class of spirits with a prevalent bitter taste—obtained from herbs, roots, barks, berries, fruits, leaves, and flowers—produced in Italy and traditionally served as an after-meal digestif.” Today, amaro is made around the globe, but its cultural home is Italy, where the concept of digestivo has been embraced for the better part of a millennium.
In the 12th century, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the epicenter of scientific knowledge in Europe. Strategically in Salerno, Campania, on the Tyrrhenian Sea, it was at a crossroads between the Byzantine Empire, North Africa, Sicily, and Rome. The academics of Western medicine and Middle Eastern alchemists congregated at the school, where their practice of infusing botanicals into distilled spirits was thoroughly documented. One notable composition was Flos Medicinae, which cataloged various herbs, roots, and flowers and their medicinal applications, usually involving distillation.
The practice of consuming infused spirits as medicine became commonplace in monasteries across the Italian peninsula, and the invention of the printing press allowed books on the art of distilling to reach a broader audience. Soon after, during the age of exploration, spices from South America, India, and southeastern Asia were brought to Europe for the first time. Ingredients such as cinnamon, cardamom, and lemongrass arrived in European port cities, including Venice, Italy’s most important center of commerce. With the lower cost and increasing availability of sugar, and the wider range of spices and other ingredients, there was a rise in the creation of herbal liqueurs enjoyed for their flavors. By the Renaissance era, these liqueurs became more a drink of pleasure than medicine. In the mid-1500s, the Florentine noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici offered herbal digestifs during her many extravagant galas at the French royal court. Thus, out of the medicine cabinet and onto the dining room table, amaro had become a product of newfound appreciation.
With the dissolution of feudal society following the French Revolution, production of infused liqueurs became common practice in households across Europe. Antonio Benedetto Carpano created the first modern vermouth in Turin, in 1786, and his family opened a factory several decades later. Other early distilleries included those of the Nonino, Cappelletti, and Contratto families, whose entrepreneurial spirits facilitated quality amaro production on a commercial scale.
To make amaro, typically, a high-proof neutral spirit is combined with botanicals and then diluted with water. Amaro can also include wine as a main component. The amount of sugar that is added will determine the overall sweetness of the finished product, with drier examples containing a sugar content of 70 grams per liter or less. The ABV of amaro varies greatly, depending on the level of dilution, but is usually between 16% and 40%.
Botanicals are a crucial ingredient in amaro. The array of botanicals at the distiller’s disposal is seemingly infinite, but certain herbs and flowers are particularly prized for their extreme bitterness—the catalyst for amaro’s digestive benefits. The brain treats bitter flavors as toxins, encouraging activity in the digestive system, including the stimulation of saliva and secretion of gastric fluids to rid the stomach of what has been ingested. This process explains the benefit of sipping amaro after a heavy meal. Studies have shown that pH level is linked to perceived bitterness. A pH increase of even 1% will result in an amaro with significantly more bitter flavor. Amaro typically has a pH between 4 and 5.
Several primary botanicals are described in further detail below:
Methods of extraction have evolved significantly over amaro’s long history, but ancient methods of infusing botanicals are still practiced today. The simplest method is maceration, in which botanicals are placed in water or ethyl alcohol in a sealed environment. Though simple, this method can be time consuming and labor intensive, with certain botanicals requiring 30 to 40 days to fully macerate.
Technological advancements have made the process much more efficient. Percolation is a method in which the botanicals are carefully cut into small pieces and mixed with water and alcohol for extraction. Inside the percolator, the mixture is pressed and filtered. Certain processes can be applied for specific botanicals. Dry, solid materials, such as tree bark, for example, can be infused by decoction, a process in which botanicals are boiled in a solvent for about 30 minutes.
Ultrasound extraction, a newer process, involves the use of ultrasound waves on plant walls for a gentle infusion, leaving the plant source material intact. One of the most recent advancements is the Naviglio extractor, which pulls liquids from solids in a cyclically pressurized extractor, eliminating the risk of heat stress on the botanicals and significantly reducing production time.
Amaro is aged in a range of vessels. Many brands choose their aging vessels based on a connection to their region of origin. Oak barrels, a common choice, are often sourced from nearby wineries. Some distilleries rely on the Old World tradition of using clay amphorae for aging. Outside Italy, amaro is frequently aged in spirits barrels, such as used whiskey, rum, or gin casks.
There are broad stylistic differences between northern and southern amari, as with the regions’ cuisine. Generally, amari from the north are fiercely bitter, dry, and herbaceous, while those from the south are citrusy, floral, and viscous. Most producers exclusively use locally grown botanicals to showcase their region of origin. Amaro Pasubio, for example, typifies the northern style of amaro and uses ingredients found around Mount Pasubio, including blueberries and rhubarb. Yarrow, wormwood, juniper, and chamomile impart a characteristic alpine flavor.
Amaro Braulio, from the Valtellina region of Lombardy, is also made in an alpine style. With a recipe dating to 1875, Braulio is a favorite among sommeliers and bartenders. The production process, which uses a mixture of herbs grown on Mount Braulio, is a guarded secret, with only four known ingredients: gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow. The spirit rests in large Slavonian casks for two years, in a labyrinth of underground cellars beneath the village of Bormio. This resort town sits at 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) in elevation and is a popular skiing destination. Perhaps surprising given the secrecy of its production methods, Casa Braulio is one of the more welcoming and hospitality-focused amaro properties, open year-round and offering free tours.
Farther north, in Trento, Elisir Novasalus is another standout among alpine amari because of its extensive recipe of over 30 botanicals, including eucalyptus, lavender, saffron, and ginger. It is also one of the few amari made from a base of dry marsala, which results in a nuttiness and slight oxidative note on the palate.
It is believed that fernet originated with a recipe for a medicinal treatment that was, in 1842, adapted into a more palatable style by Domenico Vittone in Milan. Fernet-Branca, the most famous brand of fernet, was developed three years later. Essentially a subcategory of amaro, fernet is extremely bitter and very dry. It has a higher alcohol content than most amari, potent aromatics, and a dark, opaque appearance.
A more recent brand from the Italian Alps is Amaro Alta Verde, released in 2017, which has been celebrated for its bright, clean flavors of citrus fruits and spices. In the glass, it is a greenish-yellow color, providing a nice counterpoint to the darker, more robust styles commonly found in the region. Appreciated by bartenders for its versatility in cocktails, it mixes well with gin and agave-based spirits.
Chinese rhubarb has long been used in the amari of northern regions, especially Trentino Alto-Adige and Veneto, where the plant is widely grown. The original Zucca Rabarbaro, first distilled in 1919, is the standard-bearer. Nearly a century later, in 2016, the Cappelletti group launched Sfumato Rabarbaro, in which rhubarb is the primary botanical. The term sfumato is a reference to fumo (smoke), alluding to the spirit’s woodsy, campfire qualities. The intense character of Sfumato Rabarbaro adds a layer of complexity to whiskey cocktails.
Sfumato Rabarbaro, Alta Verde, and Elisir Novasalus are owned by the Cappelletti family. The Cappellettis began their distilling legacy in 1909 and have a portfolio of reputable amari and liqueurs, all local to Trentino Alto-Adige.
Although not as revered as examples from the north, central Italy’s amari likewise reflect a regional identity and devotion to quality. Umbria is the geographic center of Italy and is marked by dense forests and lush rolling hills. The woodlands surrounding the capital city of Perugia are home to the famous Norcia black truffles, featured in several Umbrian amari, including Amaro al Tartufo Nero di Norcia and Amaro Vallenera. Umbria is also the site of the Perugina chocolate factory and well known for chocolate production. A classic pairing is Amaro al Tartufo with Baci Perugina, the Italian version of a chocolate kiss (baci).
Farther south, in Abruzzo, the Apennines form their highest peak at Gran Sasso d’Italia, where much of the agriculture is practiced on the lower slopes. Paesani Amaro Gran Sasso is made with botanicals mostly hand-picked here. The riserva is cellared for 12 months in used Montepulciano barrels, adding depth and accentuating flavor.
An important style of central Italian amaro is Centerba liqueur, an Abruzzese spirit with a distinct emerald green color that originated with Benedictine monks at the Abbey of San Clemente. It was commercialized by the Toro family in the early 1800s. Today, the brand first called Centerba Toro is Centerba 72, and its flagship product is Enrico Toro Centerba 72 Forte, a 70% ABV liqueur made using herbs sourced from the nearby mountains.
The amari of the south reflect the region’s warm, Mediterranean climate. Sorrento lemons, wild fennel, and olive leaves are among the ingredients in the classic botanical mix. Amaro Averna, from Sicily, is perhaps the most recognizable brand and the quintessential southern Italian digestif. Averna is also a popular ammazzacaffè (coffee killer), sipped slowly following an espresso in Sicilian cafés. The spirit is still made in the original factory in the town of Caltanissetta. The full recipe has been a secret since its origin, in 1868, but is known to include bitter orange peel and pomegranate. Vecchio Amaro del Capo, from Calabria, is similar to Averna, with notes of bittersweet citrus, but it has a slightly more viscous, richer texture and a higher ABV.
Another amaro featuring pomegranate is Amaro Shurhuq, which has a rose-colored hue and tart, red fruit flavor. The name refers to a term that the Moors, who introduced pomegranates from North Africa to Sicily, used for the sirocco wind.
Some Sicilian amari are quite literally influenced by the Mediterranean Sea, with botanicals sourced underwater. For Amaro Nostrum, coastal seaweed picked from the shore of Catania is used, resulting in a saline, vegetal quality.
Amaro Nepèta is made high in the mountains surrounding Syracuse. It is based on the native Sicilian herb nepitella (known in English as lesser calamint), which closely resembles mint and is combined with Syracuse PGI lemons. Sicilians have long embraced the culinary uses of amaro. Nepèta, for example, can impart a minty, sweet-citrus flavor to a sauce accompanying branzino or fresh pasta with lemon and capers.
By far, Italy is the top market for amaro worldwide. As of 2021, an average 30% of Italian adults claim to consume amaro on a regular basis, with the highest concentration of regular amaro drinkers reported in the southern regions of Campania and Calabria.
Amaro spread far beyond Salerno, however, reaching monasteries across the European continent, especially the abbeys of Benedictines and Jesuit monks. Italian amaro is widely consumed across Europe, with Germany as the top importer, followed by Albania, Spain, and Belgium. Exports of Italian amaro outside Europe are also significant, with the United States, Australia, and Japan as leading markets.
Today, bitter herbal liqueurs are produced internationally, in countries including Germany, France, Mexico, the United States, and Australia. These spirits have strong local followings, and their popularity is growing.
One of the best-known examples produced outside Italy is the German Underberg, made with 43 secret botanicals since the mid-1800s. It is sold in tiny seven-ounce bottles and traditionally served in fluted glasses with very tall stems. Little known is the offshoot brand Brasilberg, made in Brazil but derived from the Underberg recipe and enhanced with local botanicals from the Amazon rainforest. It is a favorite in Italian and German immigrant communities.
There are even renditions of fernet produced outside Italy. Made in Mexico City since the 1880s, Fernet-Vallet was a result of European immigration to Mexico during the reign of the Habsburg monarchy. Vallet is a compelling option for lovers of fernet, as its flavor profile has less menthol but more spice, with the addition of cinnamon, clove, and cardamom.
In the United States, where amaro consumption has increased approximately 20% since 2011, domestic production has surged. Amaro is now made in most US regions. As in Italy, producers in the US prioritize locally sourced botanicals and a cultural connection to the surrounding area. In Chicago, for example, Amaro Cinpatrazzo is sweetened with the addition of midwestern honey and infused with arugula, sage, and mint grown hydroponically in the city. Breckenridge, in Colorado, is the world’s highest distillery, situated in the Rocky Mountains at 9,000 feet (2,700 meters) in elevation, where génépy (a wormwood) is among the few plants that grow. It is the main botanical for Breckenridge Bitter. Philadelphia Distilling, the maker of Bluecoat gin, was inspired by the history of early Italian Americans who would craft their own digestifs from herbs grown in their backyards. The brand’s Vigo Amaro includes cinchona, rose petals, elderflower, nutmeg, and dried plums, and is aged in used gin barrels.
Never before has amaro been so prevalent and accessible in global markets. Today, there are more readily available Italian brands outside Italy than within the country, where most amaro is consumed locally.
Some craft cocktail bars, such as Amor y Amargo, in Manhattan, and Ammazzacaffè, in Brooklyn, have placed amaro in the spotlight, but it is an essential component of any serious beverage program. Amaro is used in well-known drinks, such as the Paper Plane, and it also can be used to create original cocktails, in which the amaro’s flavor profile should be the driving factor and balance is key. Programs with a smaller selection typically feature the brands found in classic cocktails, including Averna, Montenegro, and Fernet-Branca. For a more extensive offering, it’s important to include a variety of styles, with some introductory labels for novice drinkers, along with drier, more bitter options. A progressive flight can engage curious guests, highlighting, for example, Nonino, with its fruity and floral quality; Sfumato Rabarbaro, for smoky and vegetal nuance; and the potently herbal and bitter Antico Amaro Noveis.
Offering flights, featuring less-familiar amari, and pouring tableside can create new experiences for guests and convert them to amaro enthusiasts. The range of amaro styles and potential uses provide a wealth of possibilities, and the category’s vivid history and connection to terroir further enhance its appeal to modern drinkers.
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Very informative article — thank you!