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Keeping Bar: How to Use Amaro in Your Cocktails

The Aperol spritz is just the beginning

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A collage of Averna amaro, a plum, lemons, and a cocktail

At the end of a meal, you may reach for a glass of scotch or cup of coffee, but according to some bartenders, what you should be reaching for is an amaro. The Italian category of liqueurs (the word means “bitter” in Italian) is wide ranging, and while they’re often served on their own, they also make for great cocktails.

Amari have a long history. According to the book Amaro: the Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs by Brad Thomas Parsons, amari can be traced back to Italian monks who made medicinal elixirs with roots and herbs. Like the amari of today, these blends were known to help stimulate appetite and digestion.

“Amaro is great for digestion,” says Chantal Tseng, a bartender at D.C.’s Reading Room. “After having a big meal, it’s good to have some of the darker, bitter amaros to sip on at the end of the night.” Tseng runs a literary cocktail series at the Reading Room and frequently ties in amaro. Recently, she blended Amaro Averna, absinthe, and cognac garnished with a dried lemon coin for a potent, bitter drink.

Cocktail bars around the country are putting amaro at the center of creative drinks. Amor y Amargo in Manhattan is dedicated to the bitter drinking liqueurs and incorporates them into all of its cocktails. The Di Pompelmo, for example, combines grapefruit liqueur, Aperol, tequila, and hopped grapefruit bitters. At Bar Alter in Miami, bartenders blend piney and floral Braulio Amaro with Dolin Blanc vermouth and soda water for the refreshingly herbal Weekend at Peloni’s. At Watchman’s in Atlanta, the Harvest Spritz features rum, rose vermouth, plum, lemon juice, L’Apertivo liqueur, cava, and seltzer water.

To find out how to use amari in cocktails at home, we chatted with Tseng and Thomas Moore, divisional bar training manager of Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants, a Chicago-based group with a portfolio that includes Beatrix, Bar Ramone, and Antico Posto.

Amari are versatile

The versatility of amaro means you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment. “Amari play with pretty much anything from bourbon to whiskey to gin to tequila to sherry and fortified wines,” says Tseng. Take bourbon, for example. “Choose whichever bourbon is your preference, and then if you want something that’s rich, dark, and bitter, add that to your cocktail. Add citrus and stir it with vermouth. Or, serve it over ice with orange oil essence to bring out the citrus notes,” she says.

While Tseng and Moore encourage home bartenders to have fun with amari, Tseng says the rule doesn’t apply to every single type of amaro. “A very fascinating exception to amari, that does give people pause, but at the same time bartenders swear by it, is Malört.” she says. “It’s a very bitter spirit that does tend to takeover.”

Use them to add complexity to a drink

Adding bitters to a drink is a classic way to make it more complex. To boost that complexity, though, you can swap out the bitters for an amaro. Tseng says, “If you’re using it in a cocktail, amari can play so well with bitter types of spirits and work with things like vermouth and sherry.” For example, she recommends stirring sherry into a Manhattan (rye, sweet vermouth, bitters) and swapping out the bitters with amaro. “When you have an aromatic-style cocktail that you would add bitters to, you can make it more bitter by adding amaro.”

Moore finds that Amaro Montenegro is especially useful for adding complexity to cocktails. “I like it stirred in Old Fashioned variations,” he says. “It sort of subs in for the sugar and the bitters in an Old Fashioned to get this great drink with a bit more complexity.” The Amaro Montenegro gives the drink notes of winter citrus.

You can drink amari before a meal too

While most amari are considered digestifs and meant to be enjoyed after a meal, lighter amari also work as aperitifs. A classic example of this is the Negroni, a blend of citrusy, bitter Campari, gin, and sweet vermouth. There’s also the immensely popular Aperol spritz. In general, Tseng recommends opting for one of the red amari, like Campari, Aperol, or Amaro Nonino, for aperitifs. “You can have them with tonic and stir them with dry sherry. That’s a great apertivo,” she says.

Moore also likes Amaro Nonino. “It tends to be a little bit on the sweeter and less bitter side,” he says. “It makes it really easy and approachable, and delicious by itself.”

Lia Picard is a freelance writer eating her way through Atlanta.