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A Guide to Amaro, Italy's Unruly Bittersweet Export

Amaro is Italy's bittersweet export that's all the rage.

Amari at Billy Sunday in Chicago.
Amari at Billy Sunday in Chicago.
Matthias Merges

"Amaro," the word for "bitter" in Italian, is also a broad and loosely defined category of bittersweet Italian-born herbal spirits flavored through maceration. While consistently enjoyed in Western Europe for hundreds of years, only recently has American interest and excitement in amaro renewed.

It’s one of the only platforms in which passionate producers can express themselves in any way they want, unencumbered by government oversight.

One of amaro's most unique traits is that it's a spirit that epitomizes a true sense of terroir; these liqueurs’ flavors are defined by either the botanicals that grow in the region they are produced, or by ingredients heralded centuries ago for their medicinal benefits. Ten years ago, the number or amari available for purchase in the U.S. was not even close to an accurate representation of what existed worldwide. But thankfully, the majority of beverage professionals and enthusiasts know that we now have a veritable ocean of amaro producers from which to choose.

Encouraged by consumers' changing tastes and renewed enthusiasm for craft cocktails, the number of amari for sale in the U.S. over the last decade has grown almost eight times. Further, the number of domestic amaro producers from distilleries such as Leopold Bros in Denver, Letherbee in Chicago and BroVo in Seattle is on the rise, too. Countless new amari are hitting the market, some reintroducing previously forgotten styles, while others push boundaries by unleashing new takes on the Italian spirit. Meanwhile, bartenders are finding fresh ways to serve amaro, be it stirred in a cocktail or frozen, and others have gone so far as to open entire establishments dedicated to the bittersweet spirit like Amor y Amargo in New York.

With exponential growth and lack of regional oversight and standardization of production methods (with a few exceptions), amaro can be quite a daunting category of spirits to explore. In many ways, this lack of structure can be the most frustrating facet with regard to studying amari, but likewise the most enticing. Think about it. Alcohol production for which a producer can literally use anything, from anywhere, to create the product they desire. It’s one of the only platforms in which passionate craftsmen can express themselves in any way they want, unencumbered by government oversight. Amaro is a spirit that not only encourages but requires consumers to become intimately familiar with each brand's methods and history.

While bitterness is an integral component of amaro, it is but one factor that contributes to a quality end product. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of amaro produced is not overly bitter—far from it, in fact. The hallmark of a great recipe is bitterness balanced with alcohol content, spirit/wine base, sweetness, flavor concentration and the quality of macerated botanicals. But ultimately, it is what one prefers to drink and what flavor profiles excites each individual. If one wants mouth-searingly bitter amari, they are out there.

Though there aren't many rules, the actual theory and process of making amaro is quite simple. Place any number or quantity of botanicals into alcohol to extract their flavors and nutritional properties. Today, a neutral spirit or mild wine base is preferred, but the process is by no means new. Many of the products that we have come to enjoy, and ones that we still have left to discover, owe their origins almost entirely to the monastic orders of Western Europe in and around the 15th century. Custodians of much of science available at the timebrotherhoods such as the Franciscans, Marists, Benedictines, Dominicansthen discovered that alcohol served as a preservative and thusly experimented with botanical maceration.

By the 19th century, these macerations, or "tonics," had become a staple in Italian drinking habits. While many enjoyed the flavors of these liquors, it was the lower alcohol expressions which stimulated the appetite before a meal (apéritifs) and eased digestion (digestif) after a meal if taken straight that would largely compose the genre of amaro which became hugely popular.

A good deal of amaro production became centralized in Italy as monastic orders were forced out of their original countries via anti-clerical laws, and as individuals such as Gaspare Campari, Angelo Gentile, and Felice Vittone began to produce their own styles of bitter liquors. In the past 150 years, a mind-blowing number of varieties and producers have followed. Some styles center around specific ingredients: Rabarbaro, for example, relies heavily on Chinese rhubarb, but beyond that the rest is at the producer's discretion. Alpine styles don’t refer to specific ingredients, but rather a close proximity to any Alpine region whose botanicals serve only as a loose guideline as to what they include. Finally, there are styles such as fernet, which, in addition to having no specific ingredients, is not directly related to any specific region, and even the name’s origin remains clouded in controversy. But somehow it has become every bartender's favorite shot.

Bartender Alex Bachman of Billy Sunday in Chicago is responsible for amassing the largest collection of amaro in the country. Bottles, all of which were self-imported from Italy, date back as far as the early 1900s.

Billy Sunday

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