Italy’s bitter amaros have been bartender favorites for the past few years, due in part to the rise of the now near-ubiquitous Negroni cocktail—made with ruby-hued Campari—and its many variations.
But of course, Italy doesn’t have the monopoly on liqueurs and spirits that feature bitter or herbal flavors. A wide range of European countries have long used bark, roots, flowers, herbs and spices to flavor spirits.
And, like every other category, America has gotten in on the act with regional variations. For example, Washington state distillery BroVo has recruited bartenders from various U.S. cities to help create amaros that utilize local raw materials and reflect local tastes.
How do those tastes vary, exactly? Mhairi Voelsgen, cofounder & CEO of BroVo, says she’s already detected patterns: “Chicago amaros are more intense, bitter and complex,” she notes, while Atlanta favors sweeter amaros and San Francisco bartenders have delivered “floral, herbaceous, spiced” recipes.
A wide range of European countries have long used bark, roots, flowers, herbs and spices to flavor spirits.
As the bottlings reviewed below illustrate, the flavors and types of amaro can vary quite broadly. Some, like Cynar or Amaro Lucano, are mild and downright quaffable, with a fair amount of sweetness and just enough bitterness to make them a refreshing sip before or after dinner or easily mixable into cocktails.
Others skew sharply bitter, to the point of medicinal—and here’s where we get a reminder that many of these spirits were first developed for medicinal use. Fernets—a category of bitter, aromatic amaros, such as Italy’s Fernet-Branca—are intensely bitter, with no sweetness at all.
Another extreme sub-category: Malört, named for the Swedish word for the bittering agent—wormwood—can resemble amaro on steroids. One such example from comes from FEW Spirits. The playful name of this extreme, spicy-bitter hybrid pretty much tells you all you need to know about the drinking experience: it’s called Anguish and Regret.
BroVo Amaro 14; $35, 96 points. Created with direction from Chicago bartender Mike Ryan, this is almost like a bottled cocktail. It’s burnished copper and cloudy in the glass, with a dynamite citrus-vanilla nose reminiscent of a well-made daiquiri. It feels light on the palate, with a rich cocoa edge, subtle orange-peel bitterness and finishing with ginger, cinnamon and white pepper sparks.
Hunerkopf Alt; $30, 95 points. Categorized as a “half-bitter,” this ruddy brown spirit is complex and pleasing, mixing brandied cherry, candied orange peel, caramel, mild horehound and allspice, with just a hint of amaro bitterness on the exit. All together, the flavors suggest Christmas cake studded with candied fruit. Mix or sip.
Amaro Lucano; $30, 93 points. Deep purple-brown in the glass, the aroma mixes jammy cherry and raspberry with eucalyptus. The palate walks the line between lightly sweet and lightly bitter, mingling herbaceous root beer notes with faint but refreshing mint and a mildly bitter edge. Recommended as a digestif or for cocktail mixing (i.e. Negroni-style drinks).
Chartreuse Green; $62, 93 points. This lime-green, anise-scented liqueur is sweet at first sip, then herbaceous in the middle, showing fennel, pine, tarragon and mild floral notes. The finish is spicy and warming, with anise, white pepper and ginger heat. It’s a bit too viscous and fiery for straight-up sipping, but it’s beautifully complex and a key ingredient for the classic Last Word and other cocktails.
Cynar; $30/1 L, 91 points. This relatively gentle amaro supposedly tastes like artichokes. Instead, the palate finds mellow dark chocolate, walnut and allspice, finishing bittersweet. Best Buy.
Luxardo Amaro Abano; $25, 91 points. Take a cue from the deep, dark-brown hue and viscous texture: This is a palate-coating liqueur with deep, dark flavors of espresso, bitter chocolate, dark gingerbread, toffee and dried fig, cut with a mild bitter-orange note and cardamom spice. Best Buy.
Cinque Aperitivo; $30, 90 points. With its vibrant garnet hue and raspberry jam scent, this spirit has an initial juicy, bright fruitiness, with a fleeting sweetness midpalate and a barely perceptible bitter orange finish.
Galliano L’Autentico; $33, 89 points. A classic liqueur best known as a key ingredient in the Harvey Wallbanger, this bright yellow liqueur has an anise scent and is viscous. On the palate, look for a concentrated anise flavor backed by sweet vanilla, finishing with a flicker of ginger and pepper heat.