Until it was completely unified as a country in 1871, Italy was composed of a collection of divided states, each with their own customs and cultural traditions, as well as a diverse range of economies, climates and geography. Many of these regional differences are still on display, including the tradition of Italy’s well-known digestivo—amaro—which despite being a broad and loosely defined category, still displays key characteristics driven by provenance.
Amaro’s origins in Italy date back to medieval monks and friars who used locally grown and sourced roots, barks, herbs and botanicals to create tonics and elixirs for medicinal purposes, including stimulating the appetite as well as aiding digestion. Meanwhile, Venice’s pivotal role as a gateway for global trade routes helped introduce new spices to Italy, like cinnamon, cardamom and ginger, which have since become important ingredients in amari.
While a small glass of one of these bittersweet liqueurs is always welcome after a rich meal, amaro transitioned from being taken as medicine to being consumed for pleasure a long time ago. And while the category lacks unified regulation and stylistic definitions like you’ll find with wine, beer, whiskey and other spirits, there are indeed several general styles, driven both by key ingredients and region, that help serve as signposts to better understanding flavor profiles.
Light- and medium-style amari, for example, are among the most abundant offerings available. As the name implies, light amaro is typically lighter in color, with a lower ABV and often on the sweeter side of bittersweet. Medium amaro possesses a moderate alcohol level and a pleasing balance of bitter and sweet, rounded out with varying degrees of citrus and herbal notes. These gateway amari are ideal stepping-stones to exploring the world or amaro and are versatile in cocktails ranging from Manhattan variations to Negronis. Light- and medium-amaro are produced all over Italy and Sicily; those hailing from the latter are epitomized by the use of the island’s famous citrus and Mediterranean herbs.
In some cases, the style of amaro is classified by its use of a key ingredient. For example, the rabarbaro style of amaro is defined by its use of Chinese rhubarb root, which imparts a distinctive natural smokiness to the blend along with an earthy medicinal note that’s typically rounded out with a juicier berry and citrus profile. Carciofo amaro, meanwhile, contains artichoke leaves, which impart a bitterness along with a savory vegetal backbone. And fernet, a bracingly bitter style of amaro, is both defined by its formula of common ingredients, including aloe ferox, saffron, myrrh and mint, as well as its higher alcohol content and that unforgettable bitter bite.
Alpine amaro is an example of how both ingredients and place of origin are codified over time as a “type.” The style refers to its distinctive sense of place through the use of high-altitude botanicals like gentian, wormwood and juniper that grow on the slopes and valleys of mountain ranges, helping impart a distinctive, bracing forest floor profile. It’s unmistakable once you get acquainted with it.
So how do you navigate this incredible spectrum of amari? Here’s a look at three specific styles by way of their archetypal expressions, with expert tips from bartenders on approaching these flavor profiles for mixing cocktails.
Sicilian | Averna
Made in Caltanissetta, Sicily, since 1868, Averna’s bright bouquet of oranges, lemons and pomegranates captures the sunbaked Sicilian spirit in a bottle. Bartenders, in particular, turn to Averna as both a base ingredient and a modifier in Whiskey Sours, highballs and Manhattan variations like the modern-classic Black Manhattan, which swaps Averna for vermouth. “Bitterness is always at the forefront of every amaro, but with Averna you get a sweetness that brings depth and can add a frothiness to a shaken cocktail,” says Los Angeles bartender Chris Ojeda. “The orange and lemon oils bring a touch of brightness to stirred cocktails along with silkiness and body.” New York bartender Lynnette Marrero leans on Averna for its texture and aromatics, adding that “the bitterness is not as much as other amari so it has a nice transition for people sensitive to bitterness.”
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Alpine | Braulio
Made in the Italian Alps near the border with Switzerland, Braulio is one of the best-known brands of alpine-style amaro. Its signature ingredients of gentian, juniper, wormwood and yarrow offer a full-bodied blend that’s enhanced by additional aging in Slavonian oak barrels. Due to its distinctive aromatic profile, New York bartender Will Oxenham uses Braulio in a supporting role for cocktails, pairing it with dark spices like cocoa nibs, mace, allspice, cloves and cinnamon. “An Old-Fashioned with mezcal or rye, with a just a lick of Braulio can be such a thing of beauty,” he says. “I love the pine-needle-fresh aromatics that bound out of the glass, both on the palate and on the nose.” Like mezcal, Braulio has a distinctive, assertive flavor profile that can add intrigue to drinks even in small amounts. “Braulio brings so many interesting twists and turns to a cocktail that you have to let Braulio drive the bus and be OK where it takes you,” says Chris Ojeda, who takes advantage of Braulio’s alpine aromatics in juleps and Champagne cocktails. “The aromatics are so pronounced with Braulio that it can change a simple cocktail from good to great.”
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Carciofo | Cynar
With an artichoke emblazoned on the its label, Cynar is the poster boy for the style of amaro known as carciofo, named for its use of artichoke leaves as a key ingredient (Cynara scolymus is the Latin name for artichoke). Made in 1952 from a secret blend of 13 unique plants and herbs, Cynar is slightly vegetal with a pleasing caramel sweetness and a low ABV (16.5 percent) that makes it particularly versatile. Will Oxenham is drawn to using Cynar in spritzes, highballs and sours. “With its inherent bitterness and slightly lighter body, Cynar is one of the more versatile brands in the amari category,” he says. “It’s fantastic as either the base or a supporting role and works beautifully with a broad spectrum of spirits.” One of the modern classics that exemplifies Cynar’s versatility is Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy, a rye Manhattan variation that splits Cynar with the sweet vermouth. “Whiskies tend to shine when paired with Cynar,” says Lynnette Marrero, who loves working with Cynar for its “bitterness and texture.”
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