What is Amaro?
If you really think about it Italy and France have been friendly rivals for a very long time. Both countries produce a certain high quality of wine, cheeses, spirits, bubbly, and of course liqueurs. Don’t ever ask either a French or an Italian person on the debate, they will be insulted, and with reason! Each and every item is unique on its own accord. Today, to be fair, we are going to focus on an Italian accomplishment that has taken over the bar shelves all over the world, it’s not just one, it’s a-many, it’s Amari.
In the states we know Amari as Amaro, this herbal liqueur literally translates to the word, “bitter.” It is the word used for Italian herbal liqueurs and Italian herbal liqueurs only, the etymology is even strictly Italian.
Amaros are categorized as a digestif, the post-dinner liqueur is made by steeping a mixture of brandy with herbs, flowers or aromatic bark, citrus peels and spices. It is also sweetened for taste. On the palate, it has a bitter start with a sweet finish. It has viscosity and some say the texture reminds them of syrup. It’s then aged in casks, oak, or bottle for a number of years depending on the type. The finished product can yield an ABV from 16% all the way to 40%.
As we have already taught you, most digestifs are meant to be drunk neat, and Amari are no exception. However, a few bartenders along the way have gotten super creative and now we see it popping up in cocktail menus all over. Which is a long way from their humble medicinal beginnings. No two are alike and there are hundreds of them, we’ve already taught you about a few. But here are the most common types:
Medium — typically 32% alcohol by volume, with an even balance between bitter, sweet, and citrus tastes. Examples of this type are Montenegro, Ramazzotti, Averna, Lucano, Luxardo Amaro Abano, Amaro Bio.
Fernet — more sharply bitter than other Amari. Examples include Fernet Branca, Fernet Stock, Luxardo Fernet, Amaro Santa Maria Al Monte.
Light — Lighter in color than others, usually with more citrus notes. Examples include Amaro Nonino, Amaro Florio, Amaro del Capo.
Alpine — flavored with 'alpine' herbs, sometimes with a smokey taste, typically around 17% alcohol content. Examples include Amaro Alpino, Amaro Zara, Amaro Braulio.
Vermouth — Unlike other Amari, which are typically made from grain-based alcohol, vermouth amaro is wine-based. It is sweeter with more citrus, and very closely resembles the aperitif vermouth. Examples are Amero, Amaro Don Bairo, Amaro Diesus del Frate.
Carciofo — made with artichoke, usually around 17% alcohol content. These Amari are usually taken as an aperitif, rather than a digestif. Examples include Cynar and Carciofo (multiple producers).
Tartufo — made with black truffles, bottled at 30% alcohol. Amari of this type are produced in the central Italian region of Umbria, which is known for its truffles, as well as in San Marino.
China — made with bark of Cinchona calisaya. The oldest and most popular brand is China Martini, based in Turin.
Rabarbaro — made with rhubarb. The oldest and most popular brand is Zucca, based in Milan.
One of the more commonly known Italian aperitifs, Campari and Aperol are sometimes labeled Amari. We found the following explanation from Food Republic’s interview with Campari’s own VP of communications Dave Karraker and mixologist Naren Young:
“Campari is a quintessential amaro. Amaro simply means ‘bitter’ in Italian,” explains Dave. Naren added: “So the likes of Campari and Aperol epitomize the entire category. Amari aren’t always taken after a meal.”
A brief history:
In an old NY Times article, we found in the archives, the history of Amari are painted beautifully. Apparently, digestifs in general have always been a huge deal to Italians. It makes sense, considering they probably desperately needed some help after swallowing down a common meal including pasta, meat, dessert, and wine. But they couldn’t stop at just one, there are over 300 kinds of Italian digestifs. As we previously explained, Italian digestifs are Amari, and Italian digestifs are particularly bitter. This is due to the fact they didn’t start as a post-dinner treat, they were legitimately sold in pharmacies as medicine. Like, Pepto Bismol.
This medicinal practice can be traced back to ancient Rome and ancient Greece. According to the article, “Hippocrates wrote in 300 B.C. that good health was based on proper assimilation of nutrition and recommended an after-dinner herbal brew made from orzo and honey.” Of course back then, all they truly had before and after dinner was wine. But the Romans were a civilization that exceeded all expectations. The book of Apicius is an ancient Roman recipe book, it states that in Rome they added honey, cloves and other spices to their wine. This creation was dubbed "vino hippocraticum," very similar to spiced wine, but more commonly drunk at orgies. Oh those Romans, they were wild!
Following the fall of Rome, monasteries and their monks practiced alchemy with their own herbs and created the same thing but called it, “elixirs.” To be taken as actual medicine and not something after a sex party. These recipes are still the ones used in some Amari, and either lost in history or kept under massive secrecy.
Fast forward a couple hundred years to 1945, the end of World War II. Even then, Amari came from the monasteries, if someone had a recipe it was homemade and passed down from previous generations. It was usually in every Italian family's cupboard but only brought out for holidays or special occasions. Of course, eventually occasions stopped mattering and the ritual of having it after dinner was born.
To this day, just about every region in Italy has its very own kind of Amaro. The different tastes are thanks to the local herbs used, that’s why we must insist you try as many of them as you can.
The French have their own version called Amer Picon.
Guess they couldn’t sit this one out.
There are so many amari out there, we challenge you to try at least one any chance you get. Train your palate, pick a favorite, and let Italy’s history coat your tastebuds.
Thanks for reading and as always…