A Beginner's Guide To Amaro
So, What Is Amaro?
Amaro is a Italian herbal liqueur. Amari (which is the plural of amaro and also the Italian word for “bitter”) are often bitter-sweet and typically drunk as a post-meal digestif – like a classy liquid Rennie – but you’ll also find them imbibed around the world as a pre-game apéritif to kickstart an evening. Depending on what amaro you’re drinking, its strength can range from that of a strong wine (around 16%) to a hardened spirit (around 40%). Amari is basically what the Italians with taste and nice shirts have been drinking for generations while you and your ancestors have been busy getting in rounds of three-for-five Jägerbombs. And let’s be honest now, MOB: being “into gin” has been blasé since 2013 and there’s only so many craft IPAs you can consume before you start to smell like a BrewDog. What you need in 2021 is a drink with real sophistication and verve; a drink that speaks for you and all your dark and brooding Heathcliff-and-Cathy-shouting-on-the-Yorkshire-moors complications. There’s no better time than now to get into amaro.
Why Should You Be Drinking It?
Well, for one, it’s delicious. Plus, a dinky glass of amaro is a sophisticated serve that’s easy to get your hands on but not one that's easy to "get". That’s part of amaro's appeal. It’s the drinks-equivalent of watching an art-house film or a genuine piece of cinéma vérité rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. If an ice-cold lager is whatever latest flick The Rock is starring in then amaro is a Fellini picture: a slower, richer product that you might take a while to warm to. Yes, some amari can taste a bit mouthwash-y but you’ve got to allow your palate time to mull it over. This isn’t a drink you can just neck back without so much as a second thought. Nonetheless, if you are after that sort of experience, there’s plenty of easy-drinking amaro-based cocktails (like the Jungle Bird or Aperol Spritz) that are worth exploring. We’ll even recommend some for you to try in this guide.
Drinking your amari neat, however, will require a more concerted effort on your part. It’s a bit like when you’d have to teach yourself how to enjoy the intense and briny flavour of olives when you were younger. Although that might not sound like a lot of fun at first, once that bitter-sweet switch does flick, they’ll be no going back. You won’t even be able to think about ending a meal without a night-cap of something deep, dark, and mysterious.
What Amaro Should You Be Drinking?
Unlike the world of wine where you might already have a vague sense of what you like (i.e. you drank too much pinot grig at uni and can’t stomach white anymore), knowing where to start with amaro can seem a little daunting. There’s not a huge amount of advice out there and tucking into a bottle without any prior knowledge could mean that you end up with a syrupy liquid that’s only going to end up collecting dust at the back of your drinks cabinet. To help you avoid that, here’s a brief rundown of the most popular amari on the market and what you can expect from each:
An essential component in a host of cocktails including – but not limited to – the Negroni, the Americano, and the Boulevardier, Campari is an easy liqueur to spot on the shelves thanks to its Clifford the Big Red Dog complexion. I’d recommend Campari to anyone as a friendly entry point into the world of amari due to the fact it is both bittersweet and piquant without being overwhelming either. Campari is especially excellent when paired with something citrussy and is often drunk as an apéritif rather than a digestif. Think of it like the friend you’d bring along to a party when you know you want to have a late one. And here’s a fun fact to bring up at cocktail hour: Campari originally got its bright red colour from carmine dye, a pigment that was made by crushing cochineal insects. Yum.
Try it in: A Campari Soda. Simply mix one-part Campari to three-parts soda (aka sparkling water) and enjoy.
Cynar is an amaro made from 13 different herbs and plants, with the most prominent of the bunch being the one that’s immortalised on the bottle’s snazzy label: the artichoke. Yep, we’re talking about artichoke liqueur here, baby. But don’t be fooled into thinking that Cynar tastes anything like Carciofi alla Romana. Cynar, which has a darker edge to it than its happy-go-lucky cousin Campari in both its flavour and appearance, is a bitter and sultry addition to your cocktail trolley. Yes, it’s got a “vegetal” note which you might not have heretofore been familiar with, but that’s part of its appeal. It’s got layers, man.
Try it in: A Cynar Spritz. This herbal liqueur really shines when combined with bubbly Prosecco and a splash of soda water.
Out of all the myriad amari that exist in the world, this bright orange apéritif is the one that you’ll likely be the most familiar with. Aperol has fully made it into the mainstream and we’ll challenge you to find a bottomless brunch in the country that doesn’t have an Aperol Spritz somewhere on its drinks list. While Aperol, on its own, might lack the brunt you’d want from a Christ-it’s-been-a-long-day sundowner, it really shines when paired with other alcohol under a blaring summer sun. Aperol’s zesty flavour can add a real summery dimension to a cocktail and it’s favoured as an alfresco serve in the warmer months for that very reason. This is a rooftop party amaro, my friend.
Try it in: An Aperol Spritz. Aperol + Prosecco + soda + an orange slice = a brunch classic.
Fernet-Branca is not for everyone but those that love it, do so with a fervent and unadulterated passion that’d put Gomez Addams to shame. Initially marketed as a cure for cholera, stomach ache, and a medley of nervous disorders, Fernet-Branca has an unsurprisingly medicinal quality to it. It’s the forbidden liquid you’ve always wanted to drink from the medicine cabinet – an unapologetic menthol punch on the schnozz that’s strangely (and seductively) enticing. Drinking Fernet-Branca almost feels wrong. Which is what makes it oh-so-right.
Try it in: A glass with some ice-cold Coca Cola. Yes, it might sound a bit bizarre but this sweet and herbaceous combination is hugely popular in Argentina of all places and makes a refreshing change from your bog-standard Jack and coke.
This Milanese liquor is made from an infusion of rhubarb roots and a treasure trove of various weird and wonderful herbs. The result of all that potion work for you, the curious drinker, is a garnet beverage with a bittersweet, fruit peel tang that lingers on the palate. Zucca Rarbarbaro is an amaro that’s as fun to drink as it is to say in a thick Italian accent. Go on, give it a go: Zucca Rabarbaro. It sounds like the name of an Italian racecar driver. Class.
Try it in: A Z&T. Combine a glug of Zucca with some quality tonic water and you’ve got a super refreshing serve on your hand.
Averna is a lot sweeter than most amari out there and tends to be favoured for its signature burnt caramel bass note. If you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth, then this is probably the amaro for you, MOB. It sort of tastes like a bottle of Coca Cola that’s sorted its life out. Like, it’s read some feminist literature, adopted a more pared-back fashion sense, got a real job, and grown a sexy beard or something? That might not be the most worldly or cosmopolitan of tasting notes, but you just try sipping on some Averna and tell us that we’re wrong.
Try it in: A Black Manhattan. Mix two-part rye whiskey to one-part Averna, alongside a few dashes of Angostura and orange bitters, for a dark and interesting drink that’ll make you seem über sophisticated.
Amaro Meletti is an Italian digestivo flavoured with anise, saffron, and a heap of aromatics. The exact Meletti family recipe is a closely guarded secret and even the finest sniffer dogs known to man would be hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly what’s gone into this glorious amber liquid. Whatever that recipe is, though, there’s no denying that the resultant drink is awfully nice. As you’d expect from an amaro, Meletti is fairly bitter up-front but it leaves you with a sweet end-of-the-second-date kiss towards the end. Melletti is a drink that’ll linger on your mind and palate for a while.
Try it in: A tall glass with some soda water. There’s not a load of official Meletti-based cocktails out there but pouring this amaro over ice with something fizzy shouldn’t fail you.
Amaro Montenegro is a traditional amaro that’s been distilled in Bologna since 1885. It’s been consumed – in some shape, way or form – ever since. Why? Because it’s bloody delicious, MOB. Made from a top-secret blend of over 40 botanicals (including vanilla, coriander seeds, orange peels, nutmeg, eucalyptus and cinnamon), Amaro Montenegro might sound like it’d be a bit of a hodge-podge, but this amari maintains a delicate balance between those flavours to make for a real nuanced sipper. The combination of its rich, almost creamy mouthfeel and the brooding, bitter aftertaste it leaves behind is what makes it a drink you’ll find yourself returning to on a regular basis.
Try it in: A Montenegroni. Combine two-parts Amaro Montenegro with one-part sweet vermouth and one-part gin for a cocktail that’s dangerously easy to drink. Especially considering its punchy alcohol percentage
Dispense Amaro is unique in that’s a proper London-meets-Sicily creation bottled over here in good old Blighty. A product of the talented Asterley Brothers distillery, Dispense is actually made by hand in a traditional workshop. A workshop located somewhere around SE23, to be exact. A combination of 24 botanicals (including gentian, hops, and wormwood) with an old school Sicilian amaro recipe is what gives Dispense its individual, and unmistakably modern, flavour profile. It’s easy to understand its fruit peel-y appeal and, when it comes to sheer drinkability, there might not be a better amaro on the British market.
Try it in: A glass with a single cube of ice.