There’s a reason the Negroni, or some variation of the classic, can now be found on almost every decent drink menu in the country: We’ve been wholly seduced by Italians whose kisses come with a sexy bite.
The now-ubiquitous apertivo Campari is the key to the Negroni’s pleasing bitterness. It, along with its lighter and more citrusy cousin, Aperol, have acted as proverbial pioneers upon our palates in recent years, helping us acquire and appreciate a certain sharpness in what we sip. They’ve also paved the way for amaro, the far more pungent style of liqueur that is wooing U.S. mixologists and distillers alike.
The word amaro (which means “bitter” in Italian) is an umbrella term for a wide range of acrid Italian liqueurs each flavored with its own proprietary blend of local roots, herbs, seeds and, in some cases, bark. (The best known amaros are fernets, and the brand Cynar.)
Thick, harsh and often with an overpowering black-licorice note, it’s easy to see why amaros were once prescribed to the sick. Today in Italy, they’re still considered quasi-medicinal, and are almost exclusively poured neat as a digestivo—a drink meant to soothe the stomach after scarfing down too much at dinner.
The American versions that are beginning to hit shelves are far more approachable than their Italian counterparts and, keeping in line with our love for complex cocktails, they’re inherently mixable.
Seattle-based BroVo recently released 17 variations (simply labeled Nos. 1–17), and taken as a whole, the collection captures this emerging American style.
The Amaro #1 is citrus- and spice-forward, Amaro #4 is flavored with hibiscus, eucalyptus and cayenne and Amaro #5, created with Seattle bartender Sara Fisher of The Hazlewood, boasts big apple and herb flavors.
Colorado’s Breckenridge Bitters, a deep, dark herbal brew, is another example. Made with foraged Rocky Mountain-grown plants and roots, it’s meant to evoke the Alpine amaros popular in northern Italy.
Several other distillers are following suit by using local plants to create unique biting kisses for your cocktails.
“There’s still plenty of room in the American-made amaro market,” says Brad Parsons, author of Bitters. “I hope more producers will continue taking a cue from their environment and create truly homegrown amaros.”