If you’ve been to an upscale cocktail bar at some point in the last three years, then there is at least a 75% chance that you’ve listened to one or more lectures on the sensory pleasures of amaro from an overzealous alcohol evangelist. This class of Italian liqueurs has invaded the U.S. mixology scene and become seemingly every bartender’s favorite tipple, although they’re still somewhat intimidating to more casual drinkers. But you’ve definitely seen the bottles. Those colorful-looking wine bottles stashed next to the whiskey and rum? Those are amaro.
If you still haven’t been given a good, working definition of these spirits, though, allow me to do so for you: Amaro is a category of herb-infused Italian liqueurs that typically vary in strength from the 15-40% ABV, usually consumed as an aperitif or post-dinner digestif. They’re made by macerating various “herbs, roots, flowers, bark and/or citrus peels” in alcohol, which may be wine or a neutral spirit, and then aging to specification. Depending on the flavorings used—which can be everything from gentian root to juniper to cardamom and many, many others—the profile of any given amaro can range from sweet, fruity and syrupy to intensely herbal, piney or minty, as it famously is in the case of that hipster favorite, Fernet Branca (which is an amaro). One thing defines all amaros of all styles, and that is bitterness. Some may be bracingly bitter, while others possess gentle bitterness, but all amaro will feature some degree of palate-cleansing bitterness.
Beyond that basic definition, amaro becomes a matter of personal taste and specific applications. A drinker may love the aggressive bitterness and herbality of Fernet, or the more rounded profile of something like Ramazzotti, or the syrupy richness of Averna. It’s a category you have to explore for yourself, and one of the best ways to do so is via cocktails. Because they can provide balancing bitterness, and because each amaro tends to have distinctive and different flavors, picking up a few bottles of amaro can greatly enhance your ability to produce distinctive cocktails.
With that in mind, I was curious to try this bottle from Palisade, CO’s Peach Street Distillers, because American-made amaro is still very much a niche category. Most of what you’ll see in a cocktail bar comes from somewhere in Italy or greater Europe, so I wondered: Just how does our American effort measure up? The results were illuminating.
The first and most unusual thing to note is the alcoholic strength of this Colorado amaro, which will be something of a shock if you’re used to most of the classic Italian brands. The most commonly stocked European amaros in the U.S. fall in a middle range of ABV that is considerably lower than what we think of as standard for “hard liquor”—just look at Ramazzotti (30% ABV), Lucano (28%), Averna (29%), Montenegro (23%) or Braulio (21%). This is what is considered typical. It’s a huge disparity, then, that Peach Street’s Amaro weighs in at a heavy 90 proof, or 45% ABV. That’s far and away the strongest amaro I’ve ever heard of, and it makes its presence felt. That’s certainly something you need to take into your calculations if you’re using this as a cocktail ingredient, given that your amaro in this case might well be stronger than your liquor base!
In terms of profile, this amaro immediately reminds me somewhat of one of my favorites: Averna. Averna is famous for being on the sweeter and richer side of the spectrum, without an intense bitterness, and this one from Peach Street follows suit. On the nose, I get vanilla bean and rose petals, along with citrus and lots of dark fruit. Booze is a given; there’s plenty of that as well, backed up by cinnamon spice, herbal notes and elements of mint and grass. Everything about this stuff is big, bold, assertive and complex, which is clearly what they were going for.
On the palate, this amaro is slightly fiery, which you would have to expect, given the ABV. It’s an explosion of fruit and spice that unfolds, with plenty of residual sweetness and firm (but reserved) bitterness. Cherry, apricot and orange fruit tempt the taste buds, along with notes of rosewater, pine, anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds and about a dozen other spices I can’t hope to single out. There’s a quality to the sweetness that reminds me slightly of the nutty aspect of nougat candy filling, and plenty of vanilla as well. Given the ABV, it’s not the kind of thing you’re going to drink as an aperitivo, but after dinner? Sure. Imagine this fitting into the place that a little snifter of brandy would have in English society.
I was curious how exactly this would compare with Averna when tasting directly, so I brought the bottle home and had a little taste-off. As I thought, they’re fairly similar, although there are some differences. The Averna stands out for its texture, which is more viscous, thick and silky than the Peach Street Amaro, despite being lower ABV. I would say the herbaceousness of the Averna is also slightly more intense, while the Colorado amaro obviously presents its alcoholic content more assertively. All in all, though, I think you could probably sub this stuff in for Averna in most recipes without changing the end result too badly.
To that end, allow me to provide one of my favorite cocktail recipes featuring amaro: The Black Manhattan.
Black Manhattan Recipe
– 1.5-2 oz rye whiskey, or high-rye bourbon
– 1 oz amaro (Averna or Peach Street) Note: You can also sub in half amaro, half high-quality vermouth (such as Carpano Antica) for a milder profile
– 2 dashes orange bitters
– 1 Luxardo cherry
Pour whiskey, amaro (and vermouth, if using) and bitters into a mixing glass. Fill with ice, and stir until well chilled. Strain into a cocktail coupe, with cherry as garnish. Enjoy the way that amaro transforms one of the world’s best-known cocktails.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.