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What Makes an Amaro Riserva?

September 19, 2022

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro


What Makes an Amaro Riserva?

September 19, 2022

Story: Brad Thomas Parsons

photo: Lizzie Munro

The niche, limited-edition subcategory of amaro is on the rise stateside. Here are the bottles to seek out, and what sets them apart.

The world of amaro is vast and ever expanding. Diving into this world leads to many potential detours, whether it’s exploring a specific style like alpino or fernet, or hunting down vintage bottles from the 1960s to experience a taste of the past. Pursuing the “riserva” style of amaro has been a more specialized challenge, as many of these bottles are available only in Italy. But with more imports on the horizon and a growing number of American producers experimenting with their own interpretations of the style, there’s never been a better moment to take the plunge into this particular subset.

 In the wine world, the category of riserva is used as an official signifer to describe wine typically made with higher-quality grapes that has undergone a longer aging period, resulting in a wine of greater standing. Italy’s amaro category doesn’t have as many (or any, really) standardized rules. But when you encounter a riserva amaro, you can generally expect an expression that has experienced additional aging, a slightly higher percentage of alcohol by volume, and, in almost every case, a unique bottle and special packaging produced in limited quantities. These riserva offerings also come with a higher price tag, but for fans of amaro, they offer a deeper dive into the category. It’s akin to having a signed first edition of a book from your favorite author on your shelf, but not so rarified that you’ll never pop the cork or twist the cap to actually enjoy with friends.

“A riserva, in my experience, has always been the standard product (or very close to it), from a botanical and process perspective, up until the time it’s, well, not,” says Skip Tognetti, the founder of Seattle’s Letterpress Distilling. “This generally has meant some sort of barrel aging or additional aging, or a different type of barrel if the flagship version of the product is already barreled.” Tognetti also notes that a riserva is, in a literal sense, “reserved”—that is, limited to a smaller production. For Forthave Spirits owners Daniel de la Nuez and Aaron Sing Fox, who recently released their own Reserve 1 Amaro, the key is an additional age denomination. “It has to have more age, and possibly a different production treatment, that can transform an existing product into something very special,” says de la Nuez.

Within the realm of highly coveted “suitcase amaro,” worthy of a treasure hunt, riserva bottles should be at the top of your list. Although the category is still fairly niche, new releases rolling out from Italian legacy brands as well as innovative takes by amaro producers on the domestic front promise that it’s a subcategory worth your attention—and patience. Here are seven amaro riservas worth seeking out. But remember, they’re limited: If you see a bottle, pick it up.

Caffo Vecchio Amaro del Capo Riserva

Produced in limited quantities in Italy in 2015 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Distilleria Caffo in Calabria, Caffo Vecchio Amaro del Capo Riserva made its debut in the U.S. in late 2021. The original Amaro del Capo—made with a blend of 29 herbs, roots and other botanicals with a distinctive taste of bittersweet orange, chamomile and licorice—is one of the top-selling amaro brands in Italy and is known for its suggested serve: neat at -20°C, all the better to beat the southern Italian heat. For the Riserva, a brandy made from southern Italian grapes and aged between 30 and 50 years is infused with those same 29 botanicals, then rests in former oak brandy barrels for six months.

“The riserva version of Amaro del Capo is like the grandfather of the original, with more complex and nuanced notes of coffee and butterscotch with hints of clove and smoke,” says Dan Zeider, bar manager at Per Diem in Lititz, Pennsylvania. “It finishes with the delicate kiss of flamed orange that would be perfect to stand in for Cognac in a classic Vieux Carré.”

  • Price: $88
  • From: Limbadi, Calabria, Italy
  • ABV: 37.5%

Bordiga St. Hubertus Amaro Riserva

First created by company founder Pietro Bordiga, the amaro’s historic recipe has remained unchanged since the distillery opened in 1888, still using foraged and organically grown alpine herbs and botanicals like licorice root, dandelion, masterwort, gentian, aloe and angelica. The amaro’s namesake, St. Hubertus, is the patron saint of hunters; the region’s native chamois (a goatlike animal) adorns the label, almost daring you to twist open the cap.

 “The flavor profile is a medley of licorice, dried tobacco leaf and savory herb—all these notes are laced with a light freshness of mint, which creates something truly memorable and signature in its style,” says Matt Chavez, bar manager of Ci Siamo in New York. “Its wave of rootsy bitterness clings to the palate long after the initial sip. It’s definitely not an entry-level amaro and is certainly for the more adventurous.”

  • Price: $47
  • From: Cuneo, Piedmont, Italy
  • ABV: 47%

Amaro Lucano Essenza Riserva

In 2016, Amaro Lucano Anniversario, a special-edition release to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the company’s founding, became available stateside. The bottling, based on an original recipe from Cavalier Pasquale Vena, proved so popular that it became part of the permanent portfolio. A riserva version was launched late last year in honor of the opening of Essenza Lucano, the interactive multimedia museum in Pisticci Scalo celebrating the history of the amaro brand. 

The Essenza Riserva has been aged for 12 months in barriques that first held amarone wine (three different times), then grappa before finally being filled with Lucano Anniversario. “The wine imparts a sensation of smoke, and these five steps in aging for 12 months make it very complex,” says Lucano co-CEO Francesco Vena, who compares the trio of Amaro Lucano, Lucano Anniversario and Lucano Essenza to a vertical of wine. “We suggest you enjoy it in a large chardonnay glass to really open up all the flavors and drink it a bit cold, [pulled] right from the fridge about a minute before you serve it.”

The first-season release is limited to 5,000 distinctively shaped copper-colored bottles, due in the United States this November. “This is more than a celebratory release,” says Vena. “It’s meant to be a top-quality product in our portfolio.” As the Lucano slogan goes, Cosa vuoi di più dalla vita? (What more could you want from life?)

  • Price: $69.99
  • From: Pisticci Scalo, Basilicata, Italy
  • ABV: 34%

Forthave Spirits Reserve 1 Amaro

Forthave Spirits founders Aaron Sing Fox and Daniel de la Nuez not only went bolder, but bigger, with this summer’s release of Forthave Spirits Reserve 1 Amaro. Limited to 380 1.75-liter bottles, Reserve 1 is the first in what is intended to be an annual launch of Forthave’s riserva take on the distillery’s signature Marseille Amaro. “In simplest terms, it’s Marseille that’s been aged with added distillates,” says Fox. “It’s in the same family but meant to show an integrated, elevated version of something that we’re already very proud of and love.” 

A base spirit, composed of the 36 post-maceration botanicals used to make Marseille, is distilled and infused with a fresh batch of those herbs and barks, then sweetened with three varieties of raw, wild honey. The mixture is then aged for three years in stainless steel, glass demijohns and various used oak whiskey barrels. The plus-size bottles are already popping up at popular New York spots, including The Four Horsemen, Wildair, Frenchette, Estela and Altro Paradiso. “We already moved through a bottle in two weeks, and it isn’t exactly priced to sell,” says Tony Milici, the bar manager at Rolo’s in Ridgewood, Queens. “Reserve 1 has been my favorite purchase in my short spirit-buying career,” Milici adds. “It retains a lot of what we know and love about Marseille, but the fresh herbs and barrel aging almost smooths out the smoke and gives the spirit a heavenly texture.” 

  • Price: $222
  • From: Brooklyn, New York, United States
  • ABV: 32%

Amaro Nonino Quintessentia Riserva

Created as a tribute to third-generation distiller Antonio Nonino, Amaro Nonino Quintessentia Riserva calls on the family’s proprietary ÙE Nonino grape distillate, aged more than five years in oak barriques and small casks. Now, for the first time, the entire amaro blend undergoes an additional two years in barrels. Representing the sixth generation of the Nonino distilling family, the brand’s web communications manager Francesca Nonino notes, “To us, the Riserva tastes like a perfect meeting point between an amaro and a spirit. You can definitely taste our Quintessentia, but this double-aging brings it to a new level of depth and complexity.”

In the Riserva, the citrus notes of the classic Quintessentia take a back seat to the more woody, autumnal forest floor profile, all balanced with dried fruit and vanilla that will take your Paper Plane on a whole new trajectory or make a more nuanced substitute for Cynar in a Little Italy. But the higher cost will likely have most drinkers savoring it as a special-occasion digestivo rather than a go-to cocktail ingredient.

Currently available in select markets in Europe, the first U.S. wave of Amaro Nonino Quintessentia Riserva will be limited to 3,000 bottles, likely allocated to bars and limited retail outlets in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Though it was originally scheduled to be released this summer, due to the ongoing supply chain issues its arrival has been delayed to January 2023; it will be well worth the wait.

  • Price: $100
  • From: Percoto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy
  • ABV: 35%

Amaro Amorino Riserva

Skip Tognetti, owner of Letterpress Distilling in Seattle, is already on Batch #5 of his now-annual riserva version of his signature Amaro Amorino. Past releases have been aged, from six months up to a year, in American single malt or rye barrels. Batch #5, limited to 356 bottles, rested for eight months in a 30-gallon 2bar bourbon barrel, resulting in a higher proof. “People generally expect consistency from spirits and liqueurs, but with the riserva, I wanted to be able to play a little,” says Tognetti. His experiments include an upcoming batch using a barrel that once held bourbon and then gin; another project is currently resting in barrels that once were filled with aged bourbon and then amaretto.

Casey Robison, a bartender at The Doctor’s Office in Seattle, is especially drawn to the current batch for its old-school, cola-like qualities, and has no hesitation putting it to work in a cocktail. “It’s exceedingly pleasant, like an herbal root beer with notes of sassafras, vanilla, malt and a teeny bit of bitter chocolate,” he says. 

  • Price: $47
  • From: Seattle, Washington, United States
  • ABV: 40%

Braulio Riserva Speciale

Still available only in Europe, Braulio Riserva Speciale remains one of the most sought-after expressions to bring back to the States among bartenders, sommeliers, wine geeks and amaro enthusiasts alike. While the availability of imported and domestic takes on the alpino category of amaro is on the rise, Braulio still sits at the top for its distinctive sense of regional terroir. Braulio Riserva has a slightly elevated alcohol by volume—24.7 percent compared with the original’s 21 percent; the limited-edition, numbered, annual release is less filtered and aged in smaller barrels for up to 24 months. Like the recent bottle and label redesign for Braulio, the Riserva will eventually see a new look as well. Rumors continue to swirl that it’s only a matter of time until Braulio Riserva will be officially available in the U.S., but until then, keep an eye on the backbar of amaro-friendly venues and if you see a bottle hiding out, ask for a pour.

  • From: Bormio, Lombardy, Italy
  • ABV: 24.7%

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