First things first: what is an amaro? Amari (the plural of amaro) are potable bitters, specifically those from Italy. Rather than bitters like angostura, where we just add a few drops to a cocktail as seasoning, amari can be consumed on their own or as part of a drink.
History of Amari
Like many alcoholic beverages, amari were first created in monasteries many centuries ago. They were originally intended as a way of preserving various herbs and spices; they were also used for medicinal purposes. (There were probably a lot of people that came down “sick” when they visited the monks.)
In the Middle Ages, increased contact with the Moors brought about improved distillation techniques, and then in the 1800s the invention of column distillation made production more efficient, and led to purer, better tasting spirits, which was a win for everyone.
Though local herbal spirits are produced all over Europe, amari have a particular significance in Italy, where they’re deeply ingrained in the culture. Amari are served for all occasions, from a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, to a sign of hospitality at the end of a meal.
The regional variations between different amari means that many Italians have a deep connection to “their” amaro, and it’s common to bring a bottle as a host gift when visiting friends or family in different parts of the country.
By the 19th century, the distillation and production of amari had moved out of monasteries and into the mainstream, and that’s when they really took off. So how are amari made? Unlike spirits like bourbon or tequila, whose flavor is imparted during the distillation and storage process, amari begin with a neutral base spirit, to which flavor is added.
The most common way of producing amari is through compounding, which means soaking herbs, flowers, and spices in the base spirit, and adding sugar. In addition, all amari contain what is known as a “bittering agent”, which gives them their distinct bitter flavor.
Common Bittering Agents
One of the most-used bittering agents is gentian root, which is found in the mountains of central and southern Europe. In addition to its intense bitterness, gentian also aids with digestion, making it common in after-dinner amari. (More on those later.)
You are probably familiar with the taste of Cinchona bark, even if you don’t realize it: it’s the main flavor in tonic water. Quinine, the chemical compound that helps prevent malaria, was first found in cinchona bark, and popularized by British colonialists in the 19th century, when they finally found an actual, medical reason to drink gin and tonics.
Wormwood is also used in many amari, as well as being integral to spirits like absinthe and vermouth. And all those rumors about wormwood causing hallucinations? Yeah, not true.
There are dozens of other bittering agents, include rhubarb root, aloe, and mugwort.
How To Drink Amari
There’s really no wrong way. Some amari are more common as either an aperitif or digestif, but even that’s flexible. For instance, Campari on the rocks is often served before meals, but combine it with gin and vermouth, and you have a classic after-dinner Negroni.
Most amari can be served on the rocks, or with a splash of soda or tonic. And they’re great for bringing balance and complexity to cocktails. Below is a non-comprehensive list of some popular amari, organized in terms of bitterness. Experiment and enjoy. Saluti!
Amari exist on a scale of bitterness, from “mild and pleasant”, to “proceed with caution.”
Aperol – The main ingredient in the classic Aperol Spritz cocktail. Bright orange, with notes of herbs, orange, vanilla, and rhubarb.
Cardamaro — A wine-based amaro flavored with cardoon and thistle.
Punt e Mes — A bitter sweet vermouth with notes of toffee and orange.
Averna — A Sicilian classic. Dark brown, with notes of dark chocolate and herbs, with a touch of citrus.
Cynar — An artichoke-based amaro with dark, caramelly notes.
Ramazzotti — Dark and spicy, with notes of cola and pie spice.
Campari — Probably the best-known amaro. Made with orange and gentian, and an essential ingredient in the negroni.
Fernet Branca — A favorite in the restaurant industry. Strongly herbal and minty, making it a “love it or hate it” kind of thing.
Sibilla—Extremely bitter, with notes of honey and smoke. Not for the amari novice.