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?
That’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, cataloging your life through an 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 all-Italian-born lineup is arranged by style, featuring light, medium, vino amaro, carciofo, rabarbaro, alpine, “funky” and fernet. The space to feature 15 bottles seems like a lot of room, so no offense to any classic Italian examples that are missing (through no fault of their own).
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.”
The Essential Amari
Many Italian amaro producers are actually better known for other spirits in their portfolio, and this is the case with Meletti, which has been making a world-renowned anisette since 1871 in the Marche region of Italy. The amaro is based on a formula from founder Silvio Meletti, first produced in the early 1900s 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.
- Price: $23
- From: Ascoli Piceno, Marche, Italy
- ABV: 32%
Caffo Vecchio Amaro del Capo
The Distilleria Caffo was founded in 1915 in Santa Venerina, Sicily, before later moving production to Calabria, in the toe of Italy’s boot. It remained a fairly local southern Italian amaro through the 1970s, but is now one of the top-selling brands in Italy. Part of the brand’s success comes from generations of local pride as well as marketing campaigns encouraging consumers to drink Amaro del Capo ice cold, straight from the freezer, at -20°C (-4°F), better to combat the heat of a Calabrian summer. Made from 29 herbs, flowers, roots and fruits of the region, Amaro del Capo possesses an aromatic cola-like sweetness, with notes of lemon and licorice, and is just as restorative when served neat. Caffo’s riserva expression, previously only available in Italy, is worth seeking out and savoring.
- Price: $28
- From: Limbadi, Calabria, Italy
- ABV: 35%
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia
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.
- Price: $56
- From: Percoto, Friuli, Italy
- ABV: 35%
“Averna embodies Sicily to me,” says Damon Dhanens, a bartender at Sisters and Brothers 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 amaro enthusiast who works at Vetri Cucina, uses the musical note of a middle C to describe it. “This is always where I start when gauging what someone is looking for.”
- Price: $41
- From: Caltanissetta, Sicily, Italy
- ABV: 29%
For nearly a century, while Averna, Sicily’s most iconic amaro, rose to prominence throughout Italy and the world, Amaro dell’Etna was content to remain a homegrown brand, barely known beyond the island. But things changed in late 2017, when it arrived in the United States and quickly became a favorite among amaro enthusiasts. Made from 26 herbs, plants and botanicals—15 of which are sourced from mineral-rich soil on the slopes of nearby Mount Etna—this bottling has an herbaceous backbone and rich pops of citrus, but also possesses a bold, warm spiciness. Sommelier and photographer David Sawyer once described this as a love child of Amaro Nardini and Braulio, and I couldn’t agree more.
- Price: $30
- From: Catania, Sicily, Italy
- ABV: 29%
“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. Although 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.
- Price: $30
- From: Pisticci Scalo, Basilicata, Italy
- ABV: 28%
Like the Noninos, the Nardinis are famous for their grappa; their distillery, founded by Bortolo 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; Joe Keeper, of Bar Keeper in Los Angeles, describes it 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, general manager of food and beverage at Great Jones Distilling Co. in New York, 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 industry colleagues with a goodbye (or often hello and goodbye) shot.
- Price: $35
- From: Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, Italy
- ABV: 31%
Vino amaro, the bittersweet category that uses aromatized and fortified wine as a base, represents a small but growing subset of amaro. Cardamaro calls on a Piedmontese moscato from the noted Bosca family (who have been making wine since 1820), which adds a vinous texture that’s reminiscent of vermouth or oloroso sherry. It also crosses over into carciofo territory, as it’s infused with cardoon (a relative of the artichoke) and blessed thistle, then aged for six months in new oak barrels for greater depth of flavor.
- Price: $25
- From: Canelli, Piedmont, Italy
- ABV: 17%
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 bottle’s label 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, 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.
- Price: $36
- From: Padua, Veneto, Italy
- ABV: 16.5%
Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro
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, Italian for “smoke”) gets its earthy smokiness from rhubarb root, the key ingredient that defines a rabarbaro-style amaro. But the jamlike sweetness from macerated alpine berries and mountainside herbs also offers a dotted line to the category of alpine amari, like Braulio. “I cannot count the ways I love Sfumato,” says Dhanens. “It’s smoky, sweet, bitter—my everything.”
- Price: $24
- From: Aldeno, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
- ABV: 20%
Created in 1875 by chemist Francesco Peloni in Bormio, in the Italian Alps, Braulio is one of the best examples of an amaro that shows its terroir with every sip. The brand reveals only four key ingredients, but its highly aromatic profile is awash with pine, spearmint and chamomile, as well as warming spices and a floral bitterness. Or, as Sherman describes it: “my favorite after-dinner mint.”
- Price: $40
- From: Bormio, Lombardy, Italy
- ABV: 21%
Varnelli Amaro Sibilla
The two amari made 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, a signature ingredient of both his namesake amari is the local raw honey used as a sweetener. Sibilla is pleasantly bitter with a profile of dried, candied fruit and forest floor flavors rounded with coffee and honeysuckle.
- Price: $46
- From: Muccia, Marche, Italy
- ABV: 34%
Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista
I know that having two songs by the same band back-to-back on a mixtape is generally to be avoided, but what I love most about Varnelli is the fact that it offers 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, 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 enthusiast or industry person in the house when they order Dell’Erborista,” says Cochran.
- Price: $52
- From: Muccia, Marche, Italy
- ABV: 21%
Keeper describes Fernet-Branca as the Kleenex of amari. “Customers are often surprised that other fernets 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.
- Price: $42
- From: Milan, Lombardy, Italy
- ABV: 39%
Fernet del Frate
Of the many styles of fernet—hailing from Italy, the Czech Republic or elsewhere in Europe, or Mexico and across the United States—Fernet del Frate 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 Dhanens calls it a go-to fernet for fernet lovers. “I love Fernet del Frate—especially the incense-like, myrrh characteristics and how dry it finishes.”
- Price: $74
- From: Kallnach, Bern, Switzerland
- ABV: 44%