Spurred by the rising popularity of brands like Fernet Branca and Campari, over the last several years there’s been a mini-boom of American-made bitter liqueurs modeled after classic amari, and bitter aperitivi, many of which are unlike anything you might find in Italy.
In order to get a feel for how these American bitter liqueurs stack up against their Italian counterparts, we tasted nearly 20 American renditions of aperitivi, amari and fernet. Here, the top bottles from our tasting, the stories behind them and what they taste like.
Leopold Bros. Aperitivo
Where it’s made: Denver
ABV: 24 percent
The story: “Making 10 to 20 different botanicals work in harmony is very challenging, which makes it rewarding when you get the balance right,” says Todd Leopold, distiller at Leopold Bros. He was one of the first in the States to make an amaro and an aperitivo. For the aperitivo, he’s blended in three distinct varieties of flowers and herbs—hyssop, Roman wormwood and genepi—which he then colors with cochineal (a highly-concentrated extract made from tiny insects cultivated on cactus paddles in Peru). “The larger firms stopped using natural cochineal in the early 2000s, switching instead to petroleum-based Red Dye No. 40,” says Leopold. “We thought it would be a shame to see a 200-plus-year-old liqueur ingredient disappear.”
How it tastes: This ruby-red aperitivo has flavors reminiscent of an old-school face powder compact—in a good way. Aromatically, it shows distinct notes of roses, Indian spices, turmeric, mint. These follow through on the palate, but are met with a red cherry liqueur note, reminiscent of a far more delicious version of a Luden’s cough drop. $30 | Buy
St. George Spirits Bruto Americano
Where it’s made: Alameda, California
ABV: 24 percent
The story: While he originally set out to make a fernet, after three years, distiller Lance Winters landed on a recipe for this fantastic aperitivo. This bottling is uniquely Californian, made from Central Valley-grown Seville oranges and flavored with cascara sagrada bark from the California buckthorn tree. He bottles it at the same ABV and sugar levels as Campari, which makes it an easy sub in classic cocktails. “It’s got this smell that’s sort of a cross between woodsy cinnamon and sandalwood—without being specifically either one,” says Winters. “Cinnamon has that danger of going into the Fireball ridiculous place and this doesn’t do it, it stays in the savory side of things.”
How it tastes: Winters will only divulge four of the 14 ingredients that go into his texturally complex aperitivo. There are heaps of woodsy notes and warming spice flavors, like ginger and cinnamon, with a through line of bitter orange. Makes for a top notch spritz or Negroni. $28 | Buy
Don Ciccio e Figli Cinque Aperitivo
Where it’s made: Washington, D.C.
ABV: 15 percent
The story: Francesco Amodeo’s family has been making liqueurs since the 1880s. From 1951 until 1980, his two grandfathers made liqueurs together in the basement of one of their homes on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, until an earthquake hit, collapsing the entire house. Today, Amodeo makes two aperitivi, three amari and a fernet, inspired by their recipes, in a 2000-square-foot warehouse in the middle of D.C. The Cinque is so named for his grandfathers’ aperitivo that included five botanicals; he, however, makes his with 12.
How it tastes: This lower-alcohol aperitivo is like a lighter, fresher version of Aperol, with bitter orange intensity and lots of gentian on the palate. Amodeo amps up the orange character by blending in some of the spent mash from his mandarin liqueur. $40 | Buy
Where it’s made: Santa Barbara, California
ABV: 23 percent
The story: For ten years, Doug Margerum ran the impressive wine program at the Wine Cask in Santa Barbara and moonlighted as a winemaker, during which he spent a lot of time in Italy drinking amaro. “Nonino was my early favorite (love the orange peel), but now I find it too sweet,” says Margerum. “I like Ramazzotti since it has red fruits; Meletti is light and caramelized and I like it in the summer; Averna is the bomb—dark and high alcohol—while Montenegro is more my style with less alcohol.” Now that he’s fully turned his attention to winemaking, he’s been able to spend four years tweaking his dream amaro recipe, one that he hoped could be an amalgamation of all of his favorites. The result is based on late-harvest red grape spirit infused with dried orange peels and garden herbs, like sage, thyme and lemon verbena, that is then aged in old 225-liter French oak barrels kept outdoors to achieve the maderization that makes his amaro so unique.
How it tastes: It’s unsurprising that a winemaker would produce an amaro with a distinct wine character. This lovely bottling has tons of fruit to it—dates, plums and prunes, oranges and lemons, somewhat reminiscent of a Torino-style vermouth with bitter edge and mouthwatering acidity. $50 | Buy
Where it’s made: Brooklyn, New York
ABV: 30 percent
The story: Nicholas Finger and Fairlie McCollough worked as sommeliers in the Batali-Bastianich restaurant group before spending some time traveling around Italy, where they decided to join forces on an American-made amaro. Now, the two make St. Agrestis in Brooklyn, aging their amaro in second-hand whiskey barrels from the nearby Van Brunt Stillhouse. This, their first attempt, aims to “strike a middle ground between Lucano and Montenegro, two of our favorites,” says Finger. They’re working on other expressions, too.
How it tastes: While St. Agrestis is noticeably herbal, with cool, refreshing peppermint and a sage-inflected finish, the dominant flavor here comes from the unexpected addition of sarsaparilla, making it like a punchy stop at the A&W root beer drive-in. $38 | Buy
Where it’s made: Chicago
ABV: 35 percent
The story: For a distillery centered around spirits made with botanicals—most famously, gin—making an Italian-style bitter liqueur was a no-brainer. Their fernet, a very bitter sub-set of amaro, relies on a heavy dose of saffron and myrrh (both traditional ingredients) alongside galangal (not so traditional).
How it tastes: Of all of these bottlings, this was perhaps the most classic example of the style, with the right burn, astringency and balance on the palate. It pours out a deep cola brown with outstanding bitterness and a wallop of black licorice. $52 | Buy
Where it’s made: San Francisco
ABV: 40 percent
The story: Inspired by San Francisco’s insatiable love for Fernet Branca, investment guy Max Rudsten, Ben Flajnik (winemaker, famous for his turn as the bachelor on The Bachelor) and Farid Dormishian (master distiller for Falcon Spirits, where he created the exceptional Botanica gin), set out to make one of their own. They use as many local Bay Area ingredients as they can, including rhubarb, bay laurel and chamomile.
How it tastes: In an effort to mitigate the intense bitterness of the fernet style, some domestic distillers are too heavy handed with sugar. This one, made from 12 different aromatic ingredients, is admirably light and dry. $40 | Buy