Demystifying Italian Amaro

Photographs by David Prince / Styling by Sophie Leng

Amaro, Italy’s signature bitter liqueur, is prized for all the barks and herbs that famously aid digestion after a big meal. But the spirit offers much more than its bitter reputation.

“Each amaro is made with so many different ingredients—spices, roots, peels, barks, flowers—they have a lot of complexity on their own,” says Joe Campanale, owner and beverage director of Fausto in Brooklyn, New York. “They’re almost like their own cocktail.”

With recipes often honed over decades or centuries, it’s no wonder that amaro producers keep their formulations on tight lockdown. Most bottlings promote at least a couple of key flavorings that range from spices to flowers or fruits, while others can be detected through thoughtful tasting.

This guide focuses on those ingredients and elements, many of which point to a sense of place: Amari from Italy’s sunny south may feature bright citrus notes, while alpine spirits, made farther north, are often laced with herbs and intense bittering agents harvested from the mountain ranges.

Fruits and Vegetables

Orange: Amaro dell’Etna

This Sicilian amaro was introduced to the U.S. in 2017, though its recipe dates to 1901. It’s a relatively light, easy sipper that’s more bittersweet than outrageously bitter. More than 26 ingredients are listed on the label, many of which thrive in the volcanic soil at the base of Mount Etna, for which the amaro is named. They include bitter orange peels, licorice and vanilla, while the finish boasts enticing hints of spice and smoke.

Fennel: Le Vigne di Alice Amaro d’Erbe Nina

Made by sisters-in-law Cinzia Canzian and Pier Francesca Bonicelli, who also make Prosecco in the northernmost reaches of the Conegliano and Valdobiaddene hills, this is a vegetal, bracing amaro. The recipe includes more than 30 herbs and botanicals, many harvested from the surrounding Dolomite mountains. Fresh fennel leads the way, with lighter peppermint, sage and orange peel accents. It’s named after Canzian’s aunt, Nina, who created the recipe.

Artichoke: Cynar

Yes, that’s an artichoke on the label, and this relatively low-alcohol amaro, pronounced CHEE-nar, is named for the Latin word for the plant. The flavor isn’t as vegetal as its signature ingredient suggests. Overall, it’s cola-like, with earthy, herbal undertones and a mellow caramel finish. At only 16.5% alcohol by volume (abv), it’s enjoyable on its own, but it also plays well in a wide range of cocktails, such as spritzes. Prefer more punch? Cynar 70 doubles the alcohol of the original recipe.

Six bottles of amari
Photographs by David Prince / Styling by Sophie Leng

Barks, Beans and Pods

Anise: Amaro Meletti

A perfect dessert partner, this rich, amber-hued amaro almost tastes like an anise-laced caramel that finishes with a pleasing baking-spice exhale. Meletti has been family-owned for five generations, and many of its ingredients, like saffron, one of its signature flavorings, are sourced from the Marche region of Italy. Sip or mix this versatile amaro, which skews more sweet bitter than medicinal.

Vanilla: Amaro Montenegro

This gentle, easy-drinking amaro was created in 1885, and it was later named in honor of Princess Elena of Montenegro, who reigned from 1900–1946. This is a good starter bottle for newcomers. Light and mixable, it’s made with familiar flavorings like vanilla and orange peel. Overall, it’s sweeter and fruitier than most bottlings, braced up by mild bitterness. The flavor profile is a little like a citrus-tinged sarsaparilla. Sip or mix into citrusy cocktails.

Cardamom, Clove: Ramazzotti Amaro

Created in Milan in 1815 by Ausano Ramazzotti, this is one of the oldest commercial amari available in the U.S. A blend of 33 fruits, herbs and botanicals, this spirit has a flavor profile that’s almost reminiscent of cherry cola. It can hint at fruity, bittersweet notes like rhubarb and orange at first, but gives way to vanilla sweetness and spice through the close. Mix it with whiskey in a Black Manhattan.

Four Simple Italian Wine Cocktails

Flowers, Roots and Herbs

Eucalyptus, Mint, Juniper: Braulio Amaro

Created in 1875 and hailing from a town in the Italian Alps near the Swiss border, some consider this to be the ultimate après-ski amaro. It features a top-secret mix of Alpine herbs and botanicals foraged from the hillsides, and is aged for two years in oak barrels. It’s characterized by a deep brown hue and is intensely aromatic, with pronounced scents of spearmint, pine and eucalyptus, while the finish boasts a warming spice flavor. Think of it as a walk through the forest, glass in hand.

Chamomile: Amaro Sibilla

This is an intense amaro, heavy on bittering agents like cinchona bark and gentian root, tempered by a dose of local honey. The overall effect suggests baked fruit, candied walnuts and unsweetened chocolate, though a bitter streak plows right through the middle of the palate. It was first produced in 1868 by herbalist Girolamo Varnelli, who named it for the legend of the Sibillini Mountains oracle, Sibilla.

Rhubarb Root: Zucca Rabarbaro

Italy’s role as a port for the medieval spice trade has added all manner of exotic flavorings to the amaro canon. This one’s recipe was created in 1845 by Ettore Zucca, who bestowed the creation with his last name, which means “squash” in Italian. Rabarbaro, meanwhile, refers to its key ingredient, Chinese rhubarb root, which contributes a medicinal note to the otherwise pleasantly bittersweet flavor profile. A lingering cardamom element makes for a gentle finish.

Published on March 28, 2019
Topics: Spirits
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net



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