When the “feels like” temperature drops to single digits, you might, out of habit, mix up a Hot Toddy or an eggnog, two staples of the frigid season. Yet a blast of cold weather is the ideal time to crack open a bottle of amaro. The warming, bittersweet backbone of these Italian liqueurs and their signature notes of bright citrus and bracing alpine botanicals are the perfect prescription to help defrost the winter doldrums.
With their inherently complex profiles, amari are complete unto themselves, but paired with bold spirits like peated Scotch, earthy mezcal or rich Demerara rum, amaro’s dynamic versatility comes into sharp focus. And a three-ingredient approach to the whole affair offers an effortless build with maximum results. In my current cold-weather rotation are a Cynar-spiked Manhattan variation that's become my go-to nightcap, a rum-influenced Negroni riff as well as a modern take on a Prohibition-era gin classic. When I want to hear the clink of an oversized ice cube in a rocks glass, however, I turn to the simplicity of an amaro and mezcal 50/50 that's become a word-of-mouth industry favorite as well as the unexpected combination of amaro, Scotch and gin from a beloved Italian restaurant.
Considered a modern classic, Audrey Saunders’ Little Italy is the quintessential “brown, bitter and stirred” cocktail and the perfect warming nightcap for a brisk winter night. This kicked-up Manhattan variation, first served at Saunders’ Pegu Club in 2005, is built on high-proof rye whiskey, bolstered by Italian sweet vermouth and the bitter bite of Cynar, an artichoke-based amaro. The final touch is a skewered trio of Italian Luxardo maraschino cherries (try adding a splash of cherry syrup to the mixing glass for a welcome old-school touch of richness—we won't count it as a fourth ingredient if you don't).
The Hanky Panky dates back to 1925 and is the most famous cocktail credited to Ada “Coley” Coleman during her time as head bartender at the American Bar at The Savoy hotel in London. Her equal-parts gin and sweet vermouth cocktail calls for two dashes of the bracingly bitter and herbaceous Fernet Branca, but, as with many classics, variations are bountiful. The Local Hanky Panky, featured on the opening menu of Leo, the new Williamsburg, Brooklyn, restaurant and café from Mike Fadem and Joey Scalabrino of nearby pizzeria Ops, is a gin cocktail to consider when it’s too cold for a Gimlet. Fadem enlisted Steven Reker, formerly of Roman’s and Achilles Heel, to assist with the cocktail menu at Leo.
Reker’s take features all New York–made ingredients, swapping out the usual whisper of Fernet Branca with a half-ounce of Brooklyn-born Arcane Fernet. “When mixing Fernet into a cocktail, it’s so easy for it to take the lead and overpower everything,” says Reker. “The Arcane is a deliciously soft and inviting Fernet and it really sings with the Forthave Blue Gin. Together they give the cocktail a subtle minty quality, and the Little City vermouth broadens the drink, giving it nice warmth and spice with its ‘birchy’ character,” says Reker.
At Officina, chef Nick Stefanelli’s tri-level Italian restaurant and market in Washington, D.C., bar director John Filkins helms Salotto, an intimate 12-seat amaro library stocked with dozens of contemporary and vintage releases. “When I think of a great winter drink, I look for something that warms you up, has great texture and has notes of baking spices like cinnamon, clove and allspice,” says Filkins. His Sangue di Gambi, named after a notorious Italian pirate from the early 1800s, marries aromatic Demerara rum with Varnelli Amaro Sibilla, a rich, alpine-inspired amaro, and Cappelletti Vino Aperitivo, a bright bitter, for a rich and complex Negroni riff. Filkins notes that the Sibilla, from the mountains of Italy’s Marche region, “adds a richer texture,” while the lighter and sweeter wine-based Cappelletti, from Alto Adige, “helps lift the cocktail to balance the other spirits.”
The amaro-based 50/50 is a popular shift drink among bartenders and often travels under portmanteau names that allude to their key components, like the Ferrari, equal parts Fernet Branca and Campari. The Mezcaletti, which partners mezcal with Amaro Meletti, is no exception, but Richard Boccato elevates what could’ve been knocked back as a quick shot by adding orange bitters and serving it over a big chunk of ice, transforming it into a bold, winter-friendly cocktail. Italian-born Boccato first made the drink at his Brooklyn bar Fresh Kills in 2016; it’s since made its way west as a staple on the menu at his Bar Clacson in Los Angeles. “As they say: What’s not to like?” says Boccato. “The Meletti lends both floral and confectionery notes to even the most rowdy of mezcals, and the orange bitters are like the pepper on the pastrami.” I'm usually not one for mezcal cocktails but the Mezcaletti comes on with a "Wonder Twins power, activate!" quality that I can't deny.
The shelves along the backbar of Luca in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, are lined with an impressive collection of amaro bottles—an unexpected sight for an Italian restaurant located in the middle of Amish country. Dan Zeiders and his bar team send out countless after-dinner amari flights, but amaro cocktails continue to be one of the best ways to help spread the bittersweet word. Piedmontese Amaro Sibona was the starting point for Zeiders’ austere Inverno Luce (“winter light” in Italian), one of the first drinks he created and an off-menu favorite at Luca. “Sibona has a great balance of sweetness and bitterness without being overpowering,” says Zeiders, who found it complementary to the malty and smoky flavors of Glenlivet scotch. A half-ounce of St. George Terroir Gin amplifies the subtle herbaceousness of the amaro with notes of bay laurel, evergreen and juniper. “In the end,” says Zeiders, “like its name, this drink is a harmonious glint of warm sunshine in the dead of winter.”