Italian cuisine is filled with dishes that don’t sound so appetizing when translated into English: vermicelli (little worms); spaghetti alla puttanesca (whore-style spaghetti); calzone (trouser legs). The names usually describe how the food looks. But the Italian bar includes a drink that gets its off-putting moniker—amaro—from how it tastes: bitter. You’re well advised to drink it despite the foreboding name.
In fact, if you’ve sampled the charms of a Negroni cocktail—equal parts gin, vermouth, and Campari—you’ve already tasted amaro in the latter ingredient. These pungent aperitifs and digestifs shine as cocktail additives, and lately Americans are discovering what Italians have known for centuries: They taste great on their own.
Amari (the plural) evolved from digestive aids and medicinal tinctures quaffed by the ancient Romans. Monasteries carried on the tradition in the middle ages and by the 19th century they were bottled and branded. Certain botanical flavorings—anise, angelica, marjoram, cinnamon, gentian, rosemary, saffron, fennel, and cardamom—predominate. Others, like artichoke, rhubarb, and cinchona (quinine), define style categories (carciofo, rabarbaro, and china, respectively).
Strictly speaking, amari are Italian products, but the term is often applied to traditional bitter drinks made throughout Europe, like France’s Amer Picon, Germany’s Jägermeister, and Hungary’s Unicum. Predictably, the New World’s craft sector has discovered amaro’s possibilities, often with a regional tie-in. Amaro Angeleno of Ventura, California, bills itself “an amaro of place,” using local ingredients and aiming at capturing the spirit of southern California. “It’s lighter, it’s golden, it’s versatile,” says founder Stephen Sakulsky. “The oranges all come from Ojai. Focusing on a citrus note was one thing we wanted to do because that’s the history of Los Angeles and Orange County.” While amari in America are often used for mixing, a vogue for drinking them neat is also fomenting, especially in San Francisco, which is something of an amaro capital. At Bar 821, which specializes in amari, owner Khaled Dajani says that the challengingly bitter Fernet became popular after Fernet-Branca marketed it strongly to bartenders. “Naturally, it had a trickle-down effect. It was a genius move.”
Another eroding stricture is the concept of taking them only at certain times of day: traditionally that meant drinking the aperitif type before dinner and digestif after. Today scheduling may be based on alcohol content (they range from 11% ABV to north of 40%) or relative sweetness (Aperol is almost a soft drink, while Fernet is one of the lowest in sugar), or simply by yen. Another way of distinguishing amari is by the source of base alcohol. Most are made from grain alcohol, but Amaro Nonino uses grappa, a brandy distilled from pressed grapes, as a base.
Associating amaro with cocktail bitters (the kind that come in a tiny bottle to be added by the drop) is understandable. The major difference is concentration. Drinking bitters straight and in volume would be a bit like taking one of those viral internet cinnamon-eating challenges. The must-try amari, on the other hand, can be braved neat, on the rocks, or with soda water…without leaving a bitter taste in your mouth.
9 Must-Try Amari
Amaro Angeleno—23%, $35
Based on the flavor and personality of southern California, Angeleno has a laid-back energy informed by Ojai oranges, honey, and local herbs.
Try it in—Angeleno Heights, the company’s own bourbon or rye cocktail; amaro.la
Amaro Averna—29%, $30
This Sicilian import is a good gateway, with its sweet notes, compared with tarter amari. Cinnamon and licorice meet caramel and lemon.
Try it in—Mezcal Negroni with mezcal and sweet vermouth
Amaro Nonino—35%, $50
Hailing from Friuli, Italy, this is a grappa-based amaro that combines oranges, cinnamon, licorice, and quinine with the sweet funk of the wine.
Try it in—Old-Fashioned, with sugar and cherries, but no other bitters
This well-known amaro lives up to its bitter reputation, but is perhaps better described as zesty, with cherry and orange and herbs such as fennel and quinine.
Try it in—Negroni, with gin and sweet vermouth
This outlier in the amaro realm gets nose crinkles when the artichoke ingredient is called out. But while vegetal, it has the sweet smoothness of caramel to make it alluringly savory.
Try it in—Blood and Sand, with scotch, Heering cherry liqueur, and Cynar in place of vermouth
The most medicinal of this group, Fernet Branca is nevertheless worth making the effort to approach for its introduction to woody herbs, saffron, and root beer.
Try it in—Fanciulli, with rye and sweet vermouth
Greenbar Grand Poppy—20%, $29
Another southern California product, this one uses grapefruit and the state poppy as the local touchstones. Also smacks of pepper and berries.
Try it in—The company’s own Golden Poppy, with white wine and grapefruit juice; greenbardistillery.com/grandamaro
Martini & Rossi Riserva Speciale Bitter—1872 28.5%, $30
This new entrant is inevitably compared to Campari, as it was designed for a Negroni. However, it is less bitter and shows off nutty and saffron notes more readily.
Try it in—Boulevardier, basically a Negroni with bourbon in place of gin
Its name looks like a comic-book sound effect, but in the mouth it’s much subtler, with nuts, savory herbs, lemon peel, and caramel.
Try it in—Zwack Fizz, with lemon juice, simple syrup, and seltzer, the liqueur replacing the usual spirit in a Gin Fizz