Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
When you first develop an interest in amaro, that’s about when you know your spirits/cocktail geek cred has begun to shine through. There are, after all, no shortage of whiskey or gin lovers out there—plenty of people happy to make do with basic mixed drinks, or beer, or a glass of wine. Hell, we love all of those things. But amaro represents a more advanced level of alcohol appreciation—a tipple for the connoisseurs that is surging in popularity, but will likely never become truly mainstream.
Why not? Well, because amaro can be challenging. These bottles are often packing huge, bold, intense flavors that simply overwhelm many palates that aren’t ready for them. They don’t tend to appeal to lovers of boxed white zinfandel or can after can of White Claw, but they’re beloved by bartenders, amateur mixologists and explorers of more assertive flavors. There’s no easier way to announce your status as a spirits geek than by ordering a neat amaro before or after dinner.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly falls under the overarching umbrella of “amaro”?
The word amaro is Italian for “bitter,” and the term is generally applied to a class of Italian herbal liqueurs that classically are, as the name would imply, on the bitter side. There are similar liqueurs from a variety of other European nations, including Germany, France and the Netherlands, but Italian amaro brands are by far the most widespread. Despite the name, however, not all amari (the plural of amaro) are particularly or intensely bitter—they all just have a bitter component, which is typically balanced out by a mild-to-high level of sweetness. This means amari can be found in a wide range of bitterness, sweetness and alcoholic strength, varying between that of wine or vermouth (15% ABV) and distilled spirits (40% ABV). It is common to consume amaro neat, or with ice/seltzer/tonic, but they have also become very popular tools for bartenders to create modern cocktails.
Amaro is produced via macerating herbs, fruit, roots, flowers and bark in alcohol to extract their flavors, this base alcohol usually being either distilled spirits or wine. The resulting infused spirit is then sweetened and aged, sometimes in casks similar to the aging process of spirits such as whiskey. Many classical amaro recipes date back decades or centuries, with roots in alchemy, medicine or monasteries, and many have historically been regarded as remedies to common ailments.
As for the array of herbs, spices, roots and fruits that may be used in amaro production, the options are nearly endless—comparable and similarly vast to the wide array of botanicals that may be used in gin. Wikipedia alone notes all the following common ingredients: gentian, angelica, cardoon, cinchona (china), lemon balm (melissa), lemon verbena (cedrina), juniper, anise, fennel, zedoary, ginger, mint, thyme, sage, bay laurel, citrus peels, licorice, cinnamon, menthol, cardamom, saffron, rue (ruta), wormwood (assenzio), and elderflowers (sambuco).
The question becomes, then: With so many amari out there, which do you really need to try? Which are considered “essential,” and have plenty of uses for your home bar? And that’s where we can help. If you’re trying to put together the perfect home bar lineup of amari, consider these five bottles to be the ideal starting point.
ABV: 29% (58 proof)
Averna might be considered a good baseline example of a classic Italian amaro. It’s part of a category loosely referred to as “medium” amaro, which implies a sort of middle-of-the-road profile of moderate strength and intensity, while also being fairly balanced in terms of the push-and-pull between bitter and sweet. It’s near the center of the bullseye for this category, which means it’s an excellent option for someone to sample amaro for the first time.
Averna has been produced in Sicily since 1868, and has a pleasantly citrus-forward flavor profile. It’s fairly thick and unctuous in terms of texture, dark brown in color, and packs some moderately intense notes of caramelized sugar, vanilla, orange citrus, rosemary, sage and anise. This gives Averna a profile that is delicately balanced between sweetness, richness, savoriness and herbal bitterness, with an herbal finish that reins in the sweeter elements.
Averna is popular as a stand-alone digestive, but it also makes a great cocktail ingredient, infusing whiskey drinks with dark coloration and exotic richness. In particular, it’s an integral ingredient in the Black Manhattan, a riff on the classic cocktail that simply swaps out your favorite sweet vermouth for Averna. It’s a spectacular cocktail that may well change your taste in Manhattans permanently.
ABV: 23% (46 proof)
Montenegro could be considered a close cousin to Averna, another “medium” amaro that has some of the same flavor characteristics, and is likewise among the most popular and widespread brands on the market. It’s distilled in the city of Bologna, Italy, is a bit lighter in color than Averna, and is made with a whopping 40 botanicals, which include vanilla, orange peel and eucalyptus. Like Averna, its history dates back to the 19th century, and it’s been in production since 1885.
Montenegro is a favorite of many bartenders and spirits geeks for neat drinking, combining bold, assertive flavors with a fairly approachable ABV. This is a pretty damn rich dram, though, and may be perceived as too sweet or syrupy for some. On the nose, Montenegro is actually quite flora, with some lovely rose petal/rose water notes, along with citrus, anise and additional spice. On the palate, Montenegro is very unctuous and quite sweet, without as much of a bitter balance as many other amari. Here, there’s a whole lot of vanilla, nuttiness and red fruit flavors—lots of red berries and citrus, along with tea-like maltiness and spice. Bitterness is quite mild in comparison to many other amaro, making this an easy drinking one, as long as you don’t find it to be too sweet.
As for the cocktail applications, they’re practically endless, but try it in this much richer, sweeter Negroni riff.
ABV: 39% (78 proof)
The average spirits consumer has no doubt heard of Fernet Branca, and specifically associates the term “Fernet” with it, but Fernet is actually an entire amaro subcategory, while Fernet Branca is a specific brand. Fernets tend to be a stronger, drier, more herbal and more intensely bitter subset of amaro, with botanicals that often include myrrh, rhubarb, quinine, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, mint and saffron. These liqueurs are popular all over the world, but nowhere more so than in Argentina, where Fernet Branca mixed with Coca Cola is perhaps the country’s most famous and beloved alcoholic beverage. In fact, Argentina consumes roughly three-fourth of all the Fernet Branca produced worldwide.
Fernet Branca has been produced in Milan, Italy since 1845 and is one of the stronger amari in terms of both proof and its assertive punch, which is only increased via oak aging. Its flavor is intensely herbaceous, quite bitter and very “fresh,” veering between pine needles, fresh herbs and a strong “minty” profile that is the hallmark of the style. Surprisingly, the flagship Fernet Branca apparently doesn’t contain any actual mint—the “minty” flavor is instead the product of saffron, which both contributes color and results in a menthol-like flavor in high concentration. Fernet Branca Menta, on the other hand, is a sweeter variation actually made with mint.
Fernet Branca tends to be a divisive spirit thanks to its intensity—the strength of its bitterness is too much for many new drinkers to handle, and those who dislike it sometimes describe the mint flavor as “toothpaste”-like. It’s very much an acquired taste among amari, which is funny considering that it may very well be the first amaro that many drinkers have a chance to sample, when it’s not all that well suited for that task.
Used in small quantities, Fernet Branca can be a very valuable cocktail tool, of course, adding fresh herbaceousness and bitterness to otherwise sweet drinks. In this way, it can be used as an alternative to other bitter liqueurs or spirits such as Campari or absinthe.
ABV: 35% (70 proof)
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia, often referred to simply as “Nonino” by bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts, is a good example of how ABV doesn’t necessarily track directly with intensity or bombasticness in the amaro world. Despite the fact that Nonino has an alcoholic strength greater than the likes of Averna or Montenegro, it is actually comparatively mild in terms of mouthfeel and flavor intensity. This makes it popular as a “lighter” amaro option, although its popularity is also tied to being an integral component in several now-classic cocktails.
The Nonino distillery has been in operation since 1897, primarily producing grappa (Italian grape brandy), but they’ve also occasionally produced grappa-based amaro. This particular brand is relatively recent by amaro standards, not coming around until 1992. It’s made with a complex blend of botanicals, stated to include the following: thyme, quinine, gentian, wormwood, rhubarb, saffron, bitter orange, galenga, liquorice, quassia and tamarind.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia possesses a notably lighter texture than the likes of Averna or Montenegro—less syrupy and viscous. It has some of the same sweetness, but its presentation feels more delicate and easy to drink. Orange citrus is a major flavor note, and it blends very well with citrus-based drinks, while containing subtle herbal bitterness as well. In general, the approach here is nuanced, without any element sticking out too sharply or strongly.
Nonino is now especially beloved for the fact that it’s an essential ingredient in the modern classic cocktail known as the Paper Plane, a Last Word variant invented in the mid-2000s. A simple, four equal parts combination of bourbon, Aperol, lemon juice and Nonino, the amaro plays perfectly against the citrus and whiskey to create an insanely refreshing, easy to drink, easy to love cocktail.
ABV: 17% (34 proof)
Presenting: The best-kept secret in the world of amaro. From the name, you would be forgiven for assuming that Cardamaro was an amaro flavored with cardamom—that’s certainly what I assumed it would be until looking into it more closely. Instead, this lighter strength, Milan-based amaro is something entirely different. It’s wine based rather than being based on grappa or neutral spirits, and gets its name from being infused with cardoon thistle rather than cardamom. Cardoon, along with blessed thistle, are both artichoke relatives, and both are found in Cardamaro, making this one a cousin to the better-known (and stronger) amaro Cynar. Like other amari, Cardamaro is likewise infused with many other botanicals, and then rested in oak.
With its lower ABV, Cardamaro is very approachable, but it retains a huge amount of flavor and an impressively full mouthfeel, punching well above its weight class. Its flavor profile, meanwhile, lands somewhere between sweet vermouth and bigger amari such as Averna or Montenegro—lightly sweet and fruity, with vinous notes merging with light herbal bitterness, spice and caramelized sugars. There’s a touch of cocoa here, and vanilla, anise, red fruit, mint and fresh grassiness, along with a mild bitterness that lingers and slowly clears the sweetness. All in all, Cardamaro is impeccably balanced and extremely easy/pleasant to drink neat, but you can also use it in place of vermouth to craft especially flavorful cocktails. It can also be subbed in for wine in certain recipes, and it plays great within such confines as the classic whiskey sour.
One downside to the lower ABV, however, is the fact that Cardamaro won’t last as long as other amaro before spoiling, so it should be chilled after opening. However, the lower ABV also has its benefits—if you’re in a liquor control state, and your state ABC stores don’t stock Cardamaro, you may still be able to find it from wine sellers or even grocery stores. Because Cardamaro is a mere 17% ABV, it can also be ordered directly from many wine shops, making it that much more versatile.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.