Translated from the Italian, its name is less than inviting: bitter. But when amaro finds its way into a cocktail it becomes a pleasant surprise. What’s more, many of these pungent liqueurs are quite friendly when enjoyed neat or on the rocks.
If the term is unfamiliar, it’s not because amari (that’s the plural) are so rare. One of the most popular examples in the world—Campari—is a key ingredient in the Negroni cocktail. But you won’t find the word amaro on its bottle. Instead, Campari is labeled as an aperitif. That may be because the category is so loosely defined. Amari include before- and after-meal liqueurs (even, some say, vermouth) and may be made all over Europe and the United States. But the roots trace to the ancient Romans, who developed them as remedies from medicinal-tasting roots. Nevertheless, by the 19th century they were refreshing enough to be branded and bottled.
Their flavor spectrum is almost undefined. Amari like Averna, Nonino and Hungary’s Zwack are nuanced blends of botanicals that may include anise, angelica, marjoram, cinnamon, cinchona, gentian, rosemary, saffron, fennel and cardamom. Others have dominant flavors, like the artichoke in Cynar and the rhubarb in Zucca Rabarbaro. Alcohol level can also vary greatly—from 10 to almost 50 percent—as does sugar content. Aperol is almost a soda pop compared with the woody, rooty Fernet-Branca.
Predictably, the microdistilling movement in the U.S. has discovered its charms and is creating amari that reflect a sense of the place. Amaro Angeleno and Greenbar Grand Poppy, both from Southern California, smack of oranges and grapefruits respectively. The always-trendy San Francisco has become something of an amaro capital, with bars specializing in it, especially the challenging Fernet variety.
The choices may be wide, but don’t confuse amaro with cocktail bitters, those concentrated tinctures that come in a tiny bottle and are used by the drop. Leave drinking those in volume to the millennials who indulge in cinnamon-eating challenges.