Amaro: Sweet Truths of an Italian Bitter
These herbal spirits not only tantalize the palate and aid digestion but also affirm the friendships forged over fine wine and food.
Vi posso offrire un amaro? Or, “Can I offer you an amaro?” is the single most reassuring phrase to be heard at the conclusion of a restaurant meal in Italy. Like the glass of mint tea produced at a Middle Eastern bazaar after lengthy carpet negotiations, an amaro seals the deal between restaurateur and guest and cements a bond of satisfaction shared on both ends. The client has eaten well and enjoys the atmosphere enough to want to linger long at the dinner table. The restaurant owner offers the after-dinner digestivo liqueur free of charge as a symbolic thank you for the patronage.
“Amaro is the cherry on top of the perfect Italian meal,” says Alessio Liberatore, who runs the popular, family-run Taverna dei Fori Imperiali restaurant near the Colosseum in Rome.
Amaro (translated as “sour” or “bitter”) is as much part of Italy’s culinary playlist as espresso, pizza and gelato. It represents a much-loved excuse to prolong the eating experience among friends and family and evokes all the free-in-spirit lifestyle associations we make with Italy, such as spontaneous trattoria sing-alongs and soccer sound offs. Better still, because these herb- and root-based liqueurs are believed to offer various (if minor) medical benefits, some maintain that a thimble-sized glass of amaro is good for you.
In a tradition that started many centuries ago, craft amaros continue to be brewed at monasteries and abbeys by monks looking to dabble in alchemy and secure a small side income in the sale of invigorating herbal tonics and elixirs. Tuscany today is dotted with monasteries that sell amaro, including the well-known Monte Senario sanctuary outside Florence. Other historic producers of amaro have long touted it as an aphrodisiac, a pain reliever or an antitoxin. All producers, from the large commercial ones to the small, artisan makers, celebrate amaro for the bodily function most often attributed to the drink: digestion.
Well, maybe not all. “There’s more evidence to suggest that alcohol stops digestion rather than helps it,” says Giovanni Fassone with Distillerie dei Dogi, whose Genoa-based company makes Amaro Santa Maria al Monte. As he flips through an aged, canvas-bound book from the collection of distillery and liqueur reference books in his library, he reads off a list of some of the most common herbs, roots and flowers used in amaro. “Many of the individual ingredients may certainly help in the digestive process, yet it is impossible to say if any one brand offers the right doses to make a difference.”
Fact or fiction, amaro’s identity as an aid in digestion is no longer the point. Today, thanks to creative expressions by mixologists and barmen, amaro is proving far more popular, versatile and food friendly (even before a meal as a cocktail) than those friars and monks would have ever imagined.
What is amaro made of?
Secrecy is the main component of amaro, followed by alcohol, sugar and natural aromas. Most producers jealously safeguard their ingredient lists, and just one member of each new generation is given the codes to the safe deposit box that holds the secret family formula. Percentage of alcohol varies from 15–40% and some amaros offer a sharply bitter aftertaste, while others generate a softer bittersweet juxtaposition.
Natural (or sometimes synthetic) aromas used usually reflect the amaro’s territory of origin. Essence of porcini mushroom can sometimes be found in amaros from the deep south; other regional expressions include pinesap in Tuscany, artichoke in Puglia, rhubarb in Lombardy and bergamot flowers in Calabria. Otherwise, standard amaro ingredients include some combination of juniper berries, laurel leaves, ginger, orange peel, anise, mint, elder (sambuco), cardamom, saffron, gentian, cinchona, citrus zest, bitter orange, sage, angelica, licorice, chamomile, cloves and cinnamon.
How is amaro served?
Traditionally, amaro is served straight up or on the rocks in a tumbler or shot glass. A slice of lemon or orange rind is sometimes added and the bitterness can be diluted with seltzer water on a warm day, or with hot water in cold climates. Thanks to trends in mixology, some very creative amaro-based drinks are now emerging. Amaro semifreddo is served in a martini glass; amaro has been mixed with cacao, almond or coffee cream, brown sugar, sparkling wine, lime, blood orange juice or cola. Spirits such as rum, Tequila, vodka and whiskey are other blending agents.
Which are the most popular brands?
Because amaro is produced both commercially and noncommercially in each of Italy’s 20 regions, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of amaros made in Italy. From this vast population of styles and tastes, only a few dozen are currently imported to the United States.
Amaro Averna, made since 1868 by the Averna family in Caltanissetta, Sicily. At 29% alcohol, it opens with a dark amber or espresso color and emits intense aromas of exotic spice, wood, maple syrup, cinnamon and dried orange peel. The mouthfeel is velvety, creamy and dense. Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates.
Amaro Lucano, from Pisticci in Basilicata, has been produced since 1894 by the Vena family and opens with a slightly lighter color enhanced by deep aromatic intensity. There’s a pungent herbal note here followed by chocolate, root beer and mouth-cleansing bit-terness. Imported by Marsalle Company.
Amaro Montenegro is lighter still in color and opens with a medicinal, herbal, toothpaste-like quality. Made in Bologna, this 23% alcohol amaro is very lively and refreshing with bitter orange on the finish. Imported by Vias Imports.
From Milano, Amaro Ramazzotti has been in production since 1815 and can be added to a cup of espresso in the afternoon. At 30% alcohol, this is a thick, dense expression with dark chocolate and coffee tones followed by carob, citrus and white pepper. Imported by Evaton Inc.
Fernet-Branca, founded in Milano in 1845, is the most medicinal of all (40% alcohol) with cough syrup and menthol notes followed by loads of dried mint and spicy spearmint on the very bitter close. Imported by Wilson Daniels Ltd.
Santa Maria al Monte, founded by Nicola Uignale in Genova in 1892 and at 40% alcohol, is deeply complex with loads of spicy detail in the mouth and a long, bitter close. It offers amazing intensity and length. Imported by Vias Imports.
At 35% alcohol, Vecchia Amaro del Capo by Caffo in Calabria, is a beautifully fragrant expression that opens with an enticing bouquet of herbs, fruits and dried flowers. The main theme here is a citrusy aroma that resembles bergamot blossom. Imported by Caffo Beverages.
From the Friuli region of Italy, Amaro Nonino Quintessentia opens with a luminous amber color and offers an intense bouquet of caramel, spice, orange peel and vanilla seed. Ends with a touch of sweetness followed by biting bitterness. Imported by Terlato Wines International.
For amaro-infused cocktail recipes, click here.