When you write a book devoted to the subject of amaro, it should come as no surprise that the question you’re asked most by readers, bartenders, friends and strangers alike is, What is your favorite amaro?
It’s nearly impossible for me to answer. Like Rob Gordon, the obsessive record shop owner played by John Cusack in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, cataloguing your life through ever-changing series of Top Five lists can be a daunting proposition. My favorite amaro depends on where I am, who I’m with, my mood, the occasion and time of day, to name just a few variables.
As such, the below list is merely a snapshot of those that I enjoy most frequently, taking stylistic diversity into account. This mostly all-Italian lineup is arranged by style, featuring light, medium, carciofo, rabarbaro, alpine, “funky,” fernet, American-made and a wildcard favorite. The space to feature 15 different bottles seems like a lot of room, but you’ll note some classic Italian examples are MIA (through no fault of their own), and among the growing American-made amari scene, I limited it to just two picks.
So while this is a strong list of essentials, it’s a personal list, and if you ask me to revisit this a week from now (or even tomorrow), it’s subject to change. To sum it up, I turn to Nick Hornby once again: “Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”
Where it’s from: Ascoli Piceno, Marche, Italy
What’s in it: Anise, clove, gentian, orange peel, saffron, violet flower
ABV: 32 percent
Many Italian amaro producers are actually better known for other spirits in their portfolio, and this is the case with the Melettis, who have been making a world-renowned anisette since 1871 in the Marche region of Italy. Their amaro is based on a formula from founder Silvio Meletti first produced in the early1900s and later perfected and reintroduced four generations later by his great-grandson. It’s equally at home consumed neat or with ice, and its lighter profile (and affordable price) makes it an all-around crowd pleaser in cocktails. “We consider Amaro Meletti to be our entry-level amaro for customers who are curious, but cautious,” says Susan Baldaserini of the Reed Street Bottle Shop in Coxsackie, New York.
Where it’s from: Percoto, Friuli, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange peel, cinchona bark, galangal, gentian, licorice, quassia, rhubarb root, saffron, tamarind
ABV: 35 percent
The Nonino family is famous for their award-winning grappa, but their Amaro Nonino Quintessentia stands out as one of the most elegant expressions of amari on the market. Benito and Giannola Nonino, who run the family business with their daughters Antonella, Cristina and Elisabetta, introduced Amaro Nonino in 1992, reformulating a family recipe from 1933 using grain alcohol and brandy as a base along with their proprietary grape distillate, which is made from the whole grape—skins, pulp and juice. The bittersweet blend is then aged for five years in French oak and ex-sherry barrels. With its subtle herbal bitterness and notes of orange peel, burnt caramel and tamarind, it’s a lighter gateway amaro that’s perfect on its own, but is also a key ingredient in modern amaro cocktails, like Sam Ross’ Paper Plane.
Where it’s from: Caltanissetta, Sicily, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange, lemon, pomegranate
ABV: 29 percent
“Averna embodies Sicily to me,” says Damon Dhanens, bar lead at Barnacle in Seattle. “A little dark, a little bitter, but with an herbal citrusy brightness.” Its production dates back to 1868 in Caltanissetta, Sicily, and until 2014, when Averna was acquired by Gruppo Campari, it remained a family-owned business. This was one of the first amari I started asking for by name on a regular basis (I love it neat in a chilled glass or over a large hunk of ice). It’s not too bitter, not too sweet—with a flat cola-like quality. Max Sherman, a Philadelphia amari enthusiast and former bar manager at the Palizzi Social Club, uses the musical note of a middle C to describe it. “This is always where I start when gauging what someone is looking for.”
Where it’s from: Pisticci Scalo, Basilicata, Italy
What’s in it: More than 30 ingredients, including aloe ferox, angelica root, bitter orange, blessed thistle, elderberry, gentian, musk yarrow, rue, sage, wormwood
ABV: 28 percent
“If people have had Meletti and Averna and want something similar, Lucano is the first place I send them,” advises Dhanens. Produced in the southern region of Basilicata (located on the instep of the boot on the map of Italy), Amaro Lucano was founded in 1894 by Pasquale Vena and is currently run by the family’s fourth generation. It’s a medium style with a rich complexity and balanced herbal bitterness, and aromatic notes of licorice and cinnamon. While it’s a frequent go-to as a digestivo, one of my preferred ways to drink it, and a favorite low-ABV drink in general, is with tonic water and a lime.
Try it in: Lickety Split
Where it’s from: Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange, gentian, peppermint
ABV: 31 percent
Like the Noninos, the Nardinis are famous for their grappa; their distillery, founded by Bartolo Nardini in 1779, remains one of the oldest in Italy. The grain-based blend is made with just three key botanicals—bitter orange, gentian and peppermint—that reveal a complex harmony of flavors, which Joe Keeper, of Bar Keeper in LA, describes as “reeking of the bitterness found in dark chocolate with notes of licorice.” I often overlooked Nardini when I first got into amaro, but I’ve since corrected my ways. According to Greg Cochran, bar manager of the New York aperitivo bar Vini e Fritti, others are catching up, too. “It’s getting called for more and more, and it’s perfect for a bartender’s handshake,” he says, referring to the tradition of bartenders greeting fellow industry colleagues with a goodbye (or often hello and goodbye) shot.
Where it’s from: Padua, Veneto, Italy
What’s in it: Artichoke and 12 other secret herbs and botanicals
ABV: 16.5 percent
Carciofo amari are made with artichokes, and Cynar has been the most well-known example of this style since it was created in 1952 by Venetian philanthropist Angelo Dalle Molle. While artichoke is prominently featured on the label of the bottle and is the only known ingredient among the 13 herbs and botanicals, Cynar doesn’t actually taste like artichoke. Instead, a pronounced bitterness shines through that’s rounded out with savory, vegetal notes. The lower ABV gives it an EZ-Pass to cross the bridge between add-a-splash-of-soda aperitivo and served-neat digestivo. And it’s another bottle that’s frequently turned to for cocktails.
Where it’s from: Aldeno, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
What’s in it: Rhubarb root and a proprietary blend of alpine herbs and berries
ABV: 20 percent
Referring to Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro, Remy Samuels of Cordial Craft Wine, Beer & Spirits in Washington, D.C., offers, “It’s like drinking my two favorite things—mezcal and amaro—at the same time.” First imported to the United States in 2016 by Haus Alpenz, Sfumato (the name is a derivation of fumo, meaning smoke in Italian) gets its earthy smokiness from rhubarb root, the key ingredient that defines a rabarbaro style amaro. But the jam-like sweetness from macerated alpine berries and mountainside herbs also offers a dotted line to the category of alpine amaros, like Braulio. “I cannot count the ways I love Sfumato,” says Damon Dhanens. “It’s smoky, sweet, bitter—my everything.”
Where it’s from: Bormio, Lombardy, Italy
What’s in it: Gentian, juniper, wormwood, yarrow
ABV: 21 percent
Created in 1875 by chemist Francesco Peloni in Bormio, in the Italian Alps, Braulio is one of the best examples of an amaro that reveals its terroir with every sip. It shares only four key ingredients, but its highly aromatic profile is awash with pine, spearmint and chamomile with warming spices and a floral bitterness. Or, as Max Sherman describes it: “my favorite after-dinner mint.”
Where it’s from: Muccia, Marche, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter and sweet orange peels, cinchona bark, cinnamon, clove, gentian flower, gentian root, honey, rhubarb root
ABV: 34 percent
The two amari produced by the Varnelli family in the Marche region of Italy—Amaro Sibilla and Amaro Dell’Erborista—will always have a home in my Top Five Favorite Amari list. First produced by Girolamo Varnelli in 1868, one of the signatures of both of his namesake amari is the local raw honey used as a sweetener. It’s pleasantly bitter with a profile of dried, candied fruit and forest floor flavors rounded with coffee and honeysuckle. “It’s a very broad-shouldered amaro, displaying beautiful intensity and deep, aromatic, botanical notes,” says Oskar Kostecki, spirits buyer for New York’s Chambers Street Wines. “It’s full-bodied and rich from start to finish.”
Where it’s from: Muccia, Marche, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange peel, cinchona bark, cinnamon, clove, gentian, honey, rhubarb root
ABV: 21 percent
I know that having two songs by the same band back-to-back on a mix-tape is generally to be avoided, but what I love most about Varnelli is the fact that they offer two complementary, but equally unique expressions. Consider this my version of playing “She’s a Rainbow” followed by “Emotional Rescue”—same band in two different eras, both pretty terrific in their own right. The flip-capped Dell’Erborista bottle and its cloudy contents (it’s unfiltered) are based on a historical family recipe and was first released in the mid-1980s as a tribute to founder Girolamo Varnelli. Of the two Varnelli amari, Dell’Erborista is considered a cult classic among amaro aficionados. “You know you have an amari enthuisast or industry person in the house when they order Dell’Erborista,” says Vini e Fritti’s Greg Cochran.
Where it’s from: Milan, Lombardy, Italy
What’s in it: 27 herbs and botanicals, including aloe ferox, bitter orange, cardamom, chamomile, galangal, laraha, laurel, myrrh, saffron, zedoaria
ABV: 39 percent
Joe Keeper describes Fernet-Branca as the Kleenex of amari. “Customers are often surprised that other fernet exist,” he says. “They think fernet is a brand, not a style.” Created in Milan in 1845 using a blend of 27 herbs and botanicals, Fernet-Branca is undoubtedly the most famous fernet, the category of amaro whose key characteristics include an elevated level of alcohol, lower level of sweetener and a dark hue, along with key common ingredients. I couldn’t not include the iconic brand on this list, but the truth is that I don’t really seek it out to drink neat on its own. I drink it via the Hard Start, a 50/50 shot created by Brooklyn bartender Damon Boelte that’s equal parts Fernet-Branca and Branca Menta, the sweeter, lower-proof, peppermint-forward version of Fernet-Branca. There’s a bit of magic when these two are combined, and while it’s traditionally prescribed as a shot, I prefer to sip it as an end-of-the-night drink in a chilled Old-Fashioned glass.
Where it’s from: Kallnach, Bern, Switzerland
What’s in it: Aloe ferox, angelica, gentian, mint, myrrh, saffron
ABV: 44 percent
Of the many styles of fernet hailing from Italy, Mexico, the Czech Republic and across the United States, Fernet del Frate Angelico is my desert island brand. Imported by Tempus Fugit Spirits, it’s produced in Switzerland, based on the formula for an Italian fernet whose recipe was purchased from the Cusatelli Distillery in Milan in 1930. Refined and balanced, it’s a real sipping fernet, with dry, floral notes and a strong, lingering herbal bitterness. Seattle’s Damon Dhanens calls it a go-to fernet for fernet lovers. “I love Angelico—especially the incense-like, myrrh characteristics and how dry it finishes.”
Where it’s from: Washington, D.C., United States
What’s in it: Three varieties of California artichokes, cardoon and grapefruit, along with 18 secret herbs and botanicals
ABV: 23 percent
Among the many new brands of domestic amari on the market, Francesco Amodeo, the Italian-born founder of Washington, D.C.’s Don Ciccio e Figli, is producing some of the best out there. My favorite in his ever-expanding portfolio is his C3 Carciofo, which is based on recipe dating back to 1911. While technically categorized as an aperitivo, like Cynar, its versatility lends itself as an equally appropriate digestivo. Remy Samuels likes to describe it to her customers as Cynar-like, but if you could actually tell that Cynar was made with artichokes. “It’s lighter-bodied and more bitter, with a pronounced vegetal character.”
Where it’s from: Brooklyn, New York, United States
What’s in it: 20 botanicals, herbs and spices aged for two months in whiskey barrels
ABV: 30 percent
Brooklyn’s first modern amaro was created by sommeliers Nicholas Finger and Fairlie McCollough. I was an early adopter of this local amaro and was drawn to the root beer profile, rounded out with warm Christmas spices. Vini e Fritti’s Cochran describes it as “perfectly bitter and balanced, and without a doubt my favorite of the newer brands.” When I heard that Finger and McCollough recently sold their young business to Steven DeAngelo of Brooklyn’s Greenhook Ginsmiths I stockpiled a few bottles, but new co-owner Louie Catizone, assured me that aside from moving production from Gowanus to Greenpoint and a likely bottle re-design in 2018, the formula (and logo) will remain the same.
Where it’s from: Rheinberg, Wesel, Germany
What’s in it: Gentian, and a host of secret ingredients sourced from 43 different countries that are then aged in Slovenian oak
ABV: 44 percent
Underberg isn’t technically an amaro. It’s a boonekamp bitter, a subcategory of the German kräuterlikör category that are on the dry side of a bitter, herbal liqueur, but it’s easily my most turned-to bottle. It’s also a highly effective end-of-meal digestif, with its aggressively bitter wash of gentian, clove and anise. Underberg is traditionally served in one of their signature, tall-stemmed brass or crystal drinking vessels, and is intended to be consumed in one graceful, but meaningful sip. However, I’ve adopted the Prime Meats method of taking back the iconic, single-serve, 20-milliliter bottles: Place a small cocktail straw in the bottle and throw it back in a spirited sign-off.