If you have ever entered a dimly lit cocktail bar and glanced over the menu, you’ve probably seen the term ‘amaro’ thrown around in the ingredient lists—but what is Amaro? Compelling in its history, bittersweet in taste, and with a secret set of ingredients going into each, amaro is the after-dinner digestif that beckons you to know more.
What is Amaro?
To state it simply, amaro, or amari if we’re talking in plurals, is an Italian herbal liqueur that is often consumed to aid digestion after a big meal! Amaro is traditionally made by infusing a neutral spirit with a blend of herbs, roots, flowers, and spices. Usually aged in casks or bottles for varying amounts of time—depending on the recipe—the finished product is typically 16-40% ABV.
With that being said, one of the most extraordinary things about amari is how vastly different they can be from one another.
The History of Amari
All amari and their recipes date back centuries. Each proprietary blend of ingredients is a secret to this day, only known to the family and distillers of the product.
In the 1800s, amaro was being peddled as a health tonic and sold in pharmacies across Italy. They were produced by monasteries and families, with the recipes passed down from generation to generation. Amari have varying degrees of bitterness; some are sweet and easy to sip, while others are intense and bitter.
The flavor is determined by the region in which the amaro was created in addition to the herbs, roots, and flowers available in their surrounding area. Aperol is an excellent example of a sweet and commonly seen amaro, while Fernet-Branca, another popular amaro, is harsh and bitter.
Like wine, when you drink an amaro, you’re drinking the flavors of a particular region of the world. Get carried away by the herbs and botanicals you’re tasting; it can be a small opportunity to appreciate a place you may never visit—a quant Italian village on the hillside, sitting in the sun with a post-pasta aperitif.
Common Types of Amaro
Now that you know there are many different types of amaro, each with its own centuries-dated ingredient list and history, you should know their fascinating histories and flavor profile.
Aperol is one of the most commonly known amari, primarily due to the famous cocktail, the Aperol Spritz. A semi-sweet amaro, it has a flavor and color of bitter orange, and a low ABV, in comparison, of just 11%. Aperol was created in Padua Italy by the Barbieri brothers, and was introduced at the Padua International Fair in 1919.
Use Aperol is a very non-Italian recipe for our Aperol Margarita. It’s absolutely delicious and stunning!
Campari is another common amaro and largely known as a main component of the Negroni Cocktail, which is Campari based! Created in Novara, Italy, in 1860, Gaspare Campari claimed at the time that he had invented a brand new alcoholic spirit. The first production plant was opened in 1904, and in 2010 it celebrated its 150th anniversary. This Italian amaro comes in at 24% ABV and is considered semi-bitter, with notes of clove, cherry, cinnamon, and orange peel.
Campari is our secret weapon for making the best Sloe Gin Fizz.
Fernet-Branca was created in 1845 by Bernandino Branca and is one of the older amaro recipes. This amaro has an ABV of 39%, contains 27 herbs, roots, and spices, and the secret recipe is ONLY known today by the president of the Fratelli Branca Distillery, Niccolo Branca! It’s said that Niccolo Branca personally still measures out the spices during production—now that’s a family secret.
Use Fernet-Branca in the Haberdasher cocktail.
Created in 1952, Cynar is considered one of the newest amari. Made from artichoke leaves and a proprietary blend of 13 herbs and plants, this semi-sweet amaro has notes of caramel and toffee with a solid and bitter herbal finish at 16.5% ABV.
However, the inventor of Cynar is one of the most interesting things about this amaro. Angelo Dalle Molle, known as an Italian playboy, is credited with being a creator of the Italian electric car, who had six children with six different women. At the age of 90, he left his entire fortune to his secretary. If Cynar alone didn’t entice you to try it, the vivid history of its creator has me hooked!
Give Cynar a try in the Cin-Cyn cocktail—a take on the classic Negroni.
One of the most popular Amari these days is Amaro Nonino, created by the Nonino family. The family tradition of distilling grappa began in 1897. Over the years, the Nonino brand has been awarded and recognized many times for their devotion to quality and Italian excellence.
It’s made by combining the brand’s trademarked ÙE® Grape Distillate with Quintessentia® of herbs and then aged for 12 months; it has an ABV of 35%. The result is a delicately spiced amaro with flavors of burnt caramel, apricot, orange, genetian, saffron, and quinine. Use amaro nonino in the popular Paper Plane cocktail made with bourbon, aperol and lemon juice.
Amaro Montenegro was created in Bologna Italy in 1885 by Stanislao Cobianchi. It’s been hailed as one of the best since its inception. Named after Princess Elena of Montenegro this amaro is sweeter than most dark amari and has a cola-like flavor at the start which turns mildly bitter towards the end of the sip. As you sit with it, you’ll also get fresh coriander, white pepper, orange, vanilla and clove. This particular amaro has an ABV of 23%.
Try this amaro in the MonteNegroni, and lighter take on the classic Negroni cocktail.
Created in 1815 in Milan by Ausano Ramazzoti, this unique amaro is a popular after-dinner sipper. Made with 33 different herbs and roots (including star anise, cinchona, and gentian), it’s an intense bittersweet amaro. You’ll get flavors of berry and citrus fruit balanced with dark chocolate and espresso. This particular amaro has an ABV of 30%.
Averna Amaro, which is Italy’s best-selling amaro, was the first licensed spirit in Sicily. It was created in 1868 by herbalist monks of San Spirito Abbey in Caltanissetta for Salvatore Averna. It has an ABV of 29% and is rich in orange, mocha, liquorice, genetian, rosemary and cola flavors. Use this amaro in the classic Black Manhattan cocktail or try our low-abv cocktail the Averna Limonata.
Like us, you may assume Cardamaro is a cardamom-infused amaro. It’s actually categorized as a sweet vermouth, as it’s base is made from wine. It’s infused with artichoke thistle and aged in oak barrels. If you like Cynar, then you make like this, which is essentially sweet vermouth with a lightly bitter finish.
Store your amari like you would any spirit—in a cool dark place such as a bar cabinet or pantry.
An Amaro for Everyone
I could talk all day about amaro varieties and their histories; as mentioned previously, some amaro, like the not mentioned above Averna, were made by Benedictine monks in the 1860s and have just recently been purchased by large corporations in the late 2000s. That is a significant and rich history that genuinely fascinates me, and hopefully you!
As if being able to transport yourself to another region of the world while sipping this after-dinner digestif wasn’t enough, now you can think of the names and faces that created them by hand-selecting the herbs, spices, and plants. Whether you prefer sweet or bitter, there’s an amaro for everyone.