Amari (literally "bitter" in Italian) are liqueurs (sweetened liquors) that have been bittered and flavored with botanicals. As for the base spirit, well, anything is game: neutral corn spirit, cane distillate, Everclear (popular among home-brewers), even wine. Same goes for the botanical blends — most amari have upwards of 30 botanical ingredients, most often kept secret.
Regarding my quest to pin down the delightfully, decidedly slippery definition and recipe of amaro, I soon realized I was not alone, nor the first. Writer Olivia Bloom turned to Brad Thomas Parsons's tome back in 2016: "he mentions 25 potential ingredients (rhubarb, cardamom, orange, Chinese herbs, bark, peels, seeds, herbs, flowers, cinchona bark, gentian root, wormwood, angelica root, chamomile, mint, fennel, artichoke, licorice, eucalyptus, juniper, ginger, cardoon, clove, anise, saffron, sage) and uses at least 10 different adjectives (smooth, woodsy, smoky, bittersweet, medicinal, syrupy sweet, bright citrus, floral, vegetal) to describe the liqueur." Helpful, but not totally.
Amaro versus vermouth
Does all this vagueness sound familiar? Yes — because amaro is similar to vermouth. Both are commonly enjoyed before dinner (aperitif); both are x infused with a whole lot of y. But, according to Daniel de la Nuez and Aaron Fox of Brooklyn-based Forthave Spirits, "Vermouth must have a wine component while that is optional for amaro. If the character and balance are primarily wine, it's a vermouth, if the wine is not the most dominant ingredient it can be an amaro."
Id est: a vermouth can be an amaro, but an amaro cannot be a vermouth. Cocktail expert and author of the forthcoming Drink What You Want, John deBary thinks the difference lies culturally: "Americans know Campari, Fernet, Averna, Cynar, Aperol — they are considered cool to drink to most Americans. There's not this image of the old, dusty bottle on the shelf" — an image vermouth has been steadily, but slowly, breaking free of.
Perhaps it's easier to define "amaro" by what it is not?, I asked deBary. "Amaro is so varied. It's like talking about whisky. There's Amaro Montenegro, that's super light and sweet, and has gentle, floral notes, and then there are ones that are super bitter and taste like a Sharpie. It's very Italian in that there's no orthodoxy; whereas with Champagne or Bourbon there are more boundaries, with amaro it's more like an experience."
In our time of hyper-transparent sourcing and minimal ingredient lists, where does amaro — deliberately vague, mysterious, slipperily defined — fit in? deBary again: "Think of amaro more like a culinary product, rather than an agricultural, or ingredient-based product. Amaro is an expression of something that comes from someone's imagination — not of the raw material, or of the time or place." A bottle of amaro is hugely edited and finely tuned — use each bottle's prescripted bitter-sweetness to your advantage and personal taste.
Learning to like 'bitter'
There is something about that cultural difference, about the wealth of European bitter liqueur producers and so few American. Why have Americans, historically, been slower to catch on to bitters?
deBary points to reasons that go way back — reasons biological, and not cultural. "Bitterness is the only way for our tongues to detect toxins," he explains. "We have something like 25 receptors on our tongues capable of detecting bitterness — that's a really complicated perception of that sensation. For salt and sweet on the other hand, we just have one."
de la Nuez and Fox agree: "In the last 20 years we have embraced a more ingredient-focused and adventurous dining culture — that includes bitter espresso and bitter greens — digestivos are an extension of that." If the past two decades of American taste for bitterness were to be expressed as a visual timeline, we'd have espresso giving way to kale, IPA and the craft bar movement to the Aperol Spritz, and then disdain for the Aperol Spritz. What's next?
"It's a bit of an arms race," deBary laughs. "Like hot sauce, there's this performative element that's very classically human. Fernet is a great example of this. Elisir Novo Salus is another — so ridiculously bitter it's like drinking a Sharpie."
How to drink amaro (& what)
While I'm all for trying everything once, I'm not so keen on a whole glass of liquid Sharpie. Thankfully not all amari are that...commanding. Not that rules matter anyway, but amari can be enjoyed both before dinner (aperitif) and after (digestif) — the bitterness works both to stimulate the appetite and help with digestion. (Drinking it neat especially triggers a lot of digestive systems in the body to flush out toxins.) To activate the appetite gently, tone down the bitterness with a splash of soda (an amaro highball), or bubbly wine, or both (as in a spritz).
Here are seven amari to try, from producers of varying size and geographical region, ordered from most versatile to least.
Invented in 1952, Cynar is infused with artichoke leaves and 13 other undisclosed herbs; Campari's — other than boasting a strong scent of fresh chinotto orange peel — 100-plus-year-old recipe has remained similarly guarded. Both are widely recognized — the former for its iconic artichoke label (and intimidating-to-pronounce-aloud name), the latter for its candy hue — and poured for good reason: both are not-too-bitter (zeroes on the Sharpie scale), and are herbal but not distinctively so (making them very happy mixers).
From small-producer St. Agrestis, based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the Inferno Bitter was released last year (after close to a decade of recipe tinkering), purporting to be a very good, less-sugary sub for Campari. Producer Louis Catizone not only achieved this goal (Inferno Bitter really is a remarkable imitation of the beloved bitter red liqueur — in herbal bouquet and mouthfeel — though the lowered sugar makes it feel like its own, distinctive thing), but did so with No Animals Harmed. Catizone uses hibiscus to dye the spirit, not cochineal, in adhering to his own vegan ethos. (And until bottled Campari sodas are available in America (if ever!), Catizone provides an alternate there too.)
De la Nuez and Fox based their recipe for Marseille on one that was arose during the great plague in 17th century Marseilles. Infused with 36 botanicals — from tree barks and roots to seeds and berries, leaves and flowers — and sweetened with eucalyptus honey, the amaro is incredibly flavored, bittered, aromatic, but not too. While this amaro plays very well with others, it's absolutely delicious on its own or topped with soda and an orange twist.
Bruto Americano is like Campari's cousin that's really into camping. From St. George Spirits, inspired by "distiller Lance Winters' formative experiences growing up in California in the 1970s", this bitter aperitivo is infused with Seville orange, balsam fir, and California buckthorn bark among other botanicals. The balsam fir is arresting at first pop — making the dusky ruby liqueur an especially well-suited pairing with citrusy and woodsy gins such as St. George's Terroir or Beefeater.
This reminded me of Jäger. Hear me out: A fellow amaro (who knew!), the St. Agrestis amaro boasts a similar herbal profile (warming spices, cooling menthol finish), although is not as sweet as Jägermeister. Because of the extreme highs/lows, this amaro would be extra yum blended with a sultry spirit (or two), as in an alt-Manhattan, or Paper Plane cocktail.
The Bitter Clove spirit from Haus — new purveyor of lower-ABV (15 percent, to the traditional 20+) aperitifs — is an infused, fortified white wine aperitif that veers closer to vermouth not only in form but also in function. The infusions of warming star anise, clove, and Saigon cinnamon are largely inoffensive, making for a vermouth that's barely bittered. Best on ice or spritzed, though Haus suggests a splash of whisky for a "New-Fashioned".