Amaretto is complicated. It’s an almond-flavored liqueur, but that doesn’t always mean it contains almonds. Amaretto’s history is equally conflicted, as different families in Italy lay claim to its origin story.
Even its reputation is complex. Some disparage amaretto, thanks to its presence in some overly sweet, unsophisticated cocktails. But supporters argue that it’s an enjoyable liqueur that plays well in mixed drinks and deserves more respect.
What Exactly is Amaretto?
Amaretto is a sweetened distilled spirit. It gets its character from steeped almonds, apricot pits (which have a distinct almond flavor), peach stones, or a mix of the three. Most producers are secretive about their recipes. But traditionally, the ingredients are steeped for anywhere between a week to several months. Then it’s sweetened with caramelized sugar.
The brand that many are familiar with is Disaronno Originale. Its founders, the Reina family, from Saronno, Italy, hold the longest-running claim to amaretto’s history.
In 1851, they created an infusion of those cookies combined with an alcohol distilled from molasses and a hint of caramel, and voilà: amaretto.
When was Amaretto First Believed to be Made?
Simona Bianco, senior global marketing manager at Illva Saronno, Disaronno’s parent company, explains there was a woman (who had no relation to the Reina family) who was chosen by a student of Leonardo da Vinci to pose “as a model for the Holy Mother portrait for the Saronno Church. The lady, to thank the painter, prepared for him a special almond-based liqueur. This puts amaretto on the map back in 1525.”
What Does Amaretto Taste Like?
Considering its almond flavor and addition of burnt or caramelized sugar, amaretto is often assumed to be sweet. But its name means “a little bitter” in Italian.
Amaretto is much sweeter than Italy’s bitter amaro, like Cynar and Campari, but it retains enough bitterness to keep it from being cloying. Depending on the brand, you might also get hints of spices or botanicals.
How to Drink Amaretto
1. Drink Amaretto Straight
This is a great way to get to know the liqueur. Plus, it’s a nice way to end dinner.
Ice won’t dilute a good amaretto’s flavor, but it will lighten its consistency a bit. A quick squeeze of lemon could also brighten the cordial if you prefer less sweetness.
2. Drink Amaretto in Coffee
Amaretto is a nice sweetener for your coffee after dinner. Just add some amaretto to your cup, fill with coffee and top with whipped cream.
For proportions, try 1½ ounces of amaretto for every eight ounces of coffee.
3. Make an Amaretto Sour
There are plenty of ways to try amaretto, depending on your cocktail preferences.
“Amaretto can be very versatile,” says Cesar Camilo, bar manager at ZUMA in New York City. “The vast cocktail opportunities within the category allow a wide variety…from sour to sweet, refreshing and warming.”
The most famous drink is the Amaretto Sour. It debuted in the 1970s, a simple combination of amaretto and sour mix. Jeffrey Morgenthaler, an award-winning drinks author and bartender, is credited with elevating the Amaretto Sour. One of the first cocktails he started drinking at bars in the 1990s, it became considered cringeworthy in the early 2010s, Morgenthaler decided to give the Amaretto Sour an upgrade.
“An Amaretto Sour is a really delicious drink, so why wouldn’t you just try to make it delicious?” says Morgenthaler. “We have the honor of knowing so much more about making good cocktails. Why say [that] some cocktails are bad and some good. Why not make all of them?”
Morgenthaler landed on fresh lemon juice instead of sour mix, but the amaretto wasn’t strong enough. He realized more alcohol was necessary. He found the solution in cask-strength Bourbon.
Today, you can find Amaretto Sours at all kinds of bars.
Morgenthaler’s Amaretto Sour
- 1½ ounces amaretto
- ¾ ounce cask-proof Bourbon
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon rich simple syrup
- ½ ounce fresh egg white, beaten
- Lemon peel, for garnish
- Brandied cherry, for garnish
Combine all ingredients except garnish in a cocktail shaker and shake. Add ice and shake again well. Strain into an Old Fashioned glass over ice. Garnish with a lemon peel and brandied cherry.
4. Make an Amaitto Sour
You could also try Camilo’s twist, the Amaitto Sour.
“Amai in Japanese means ‘sweet’ or ‘delicious,’” says Camilo. The twist comes by swapping the lemon juice for yuzu. Camilo tops the Amaitto Sour with coffee foam and a pinch of cinnamon.
5. Make the Hotel Nacional Cocktail
Fresh ingredients can make amaretto shine and distance itself from the sugar-bomb “disco cocktails” of the 1970s and 1980s, says Konrad Kantor, co-owner and veteran bartender at Manolito in New Orleans.
To work amaretto into cocktails, he says to find your favorite brand. Kantor prefers Lazzaroni.
“It’s best suited to go alongside rum, gin or cognac in sour cocktails,” says Kantor. Use amaretto to add sweeter flavors into a cocktail without taking away from its tartness or dryness. “With its natural flavors of toasted almond, marzipan and apricot, all it takes is an extremely small dose. Think quarter- and half-ounces.”
A cocktail Kantor suggests is a “fun variation of the [Cuban favorite] Hotel Nacional. The Manolito team uses amaretto in place of apricot liqueur.
- 1½ ounces rum
- ¾ ounce fresh pineapple juice
- ½ ounce fresh lime juice
- ½ ounce amaretto
Using a blender set to high, purée pineapple. Add the pulp and juice to the other ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously until well-chilled for an egg-white texture. Strain into a cocktail glass.
6. Make the Godfather Cocktail
Stir in a mixing glass with ice until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass over ice.
7. Make the Almond Atholl Brose Cocktail
Philip Duff, a bartender and spirits consultant, enjoys a Godfather “every now and then,” but one of the best amaretto cocktails he’s ever had was an Almond Atholl Brose.
He says it’s “a twist on the Atholl Brose made for me by my friend and founder of Difford’s Guide, Simon Difford.”
Almond Atholl Brose
- 2 teapoons honey
- 1⅓ ounces Scotch
- ⅔ ounce oat milk
- ½ ounce amaretto
- ⅓ ounce half-and-half
In a cocktail shaker, stir honey and Scotch until honey dissolves. Add all other ingredients and ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled glass.
8. Make the Flaming Dr. Pepper Shot
It may be the go-to for a touch of sweetness in elegant cocktails, but amaretto knows how to party. The liqueur is found in fun novelty shots like the Flaming Dr Pepper.
Aaron Goldfarb, drinks author and journalist, dug into the Flaming Dr Pepper in 2020. “It gave me a newfound respect for this seemingly cheesy, childish cocktail…that everyone also happens to fall for once they have tried it,” he says. “And yes, it does taste like Dr. Pepper.”
The Flaming Dr. Pepper doesn’t contain soda, yet the sum of its parts nail that distinctive taste. In a shot glass, one part grain alcohol and three parts amaretto is set ablaze and then dropped into a half-full pint glass of ice-cold lager.
9. Make the Lunchbox Shot
This drink consists of a chilled beer mug (“They’re meant to be practically frozen,” says Lucas.) filled three-quarters of the way with Coors Light, topped with orange juice to top and a shot glass of amaretto plunked in.
“It tastes like a Dreamsicle, people say,” says Lucas. The Lucas family began to track Lunchbox sales in 2005 and claim to have sold more than 2.6 million of them. They’ve expanded to feature different variations on the menu as well as “Lunchbox sauce,” with orange marmalade and amaretto, for spicy dishes like their fried green beans.
10. Try Baking With Amaretto
The possibilities of how to bake with amaretto may be more endless than the drinks to make with it.
Lazzaroni’s amaretto did come from cookies, after all. So it’s no surprise that putting the liqueur into cookies, cakes and brownies is a safe bet to enjoy the spirit.