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A Guide to Smuggling Rare Amaro Back from Italy

Where to shop, what to look for and how to get it back in one piece.

Rare Italian Amaro

There are people who can travel for weeks around Italy with nothing but a simple carry-on bag, hopping between locales with the ease of a globe-trotting bon vivant. I am not one of those people. While I tend to over-pack for certain (read: all) climates and occasions, there’s really one reason why I choose to be weighted down with a cumbersome, oversized roller bag when I should instead be focused on ease of mobility: “suitcase amaro.”

Besides asking what my favorite bottle is, the most common question I tend to get is: What amari should I bring back from Italy? The question, to be precise, is aimed at bottles that can’t be had in the U.S. My own standing record for a single haul is 13 bottles, but these days I’m usually bringing back an average of four to six per trip. But my growing cache of “suitcase amaro,” as these border-crossing bottles are referred to in the industry, is nothing compared to the variety of amari you can find traveling through Italy—from hyper-regional releases limited to just a few hundred bottles per year to special-edition or limited-release bottles from bigger brands.

I think of these bottles as spirited souvenirs. After all, amaro is more than a drink—it’s a moment; the people you’re with, the ritual involved and where you’re drinking it is as important as the liquid. With the relatively modest monetary commitment, it’s worth picking up a bottle with a funky label or a brand you’ve never heard of to commemorate that moment. And even if the bottles I’ve brought back home have sometimes left something to be desired, they continue to inspire memories with every glass shared.

Here’s a lineup of some of my favorite amari not available in the U.S., along with tips on where to buy them and how to get them home in one piece.

Bottles to Look For

Amaro Braulio Riserva Speciale (Bormio, Lombardy)
This annual limited release of Braulio, the classic alpine-style amaro from Bormio, is aged in smaller Slavonian oak barrels and comes in at a slightly elevated 24.7 percent alcohol by volume compared to the standard 21 percent. It’s also less filtered than the traditional Braulio, resulting in a more intense presence of herbs and botanicals, which many aficionados claim is closer to its historical expression. The cat’s out of the bag with this one and it’s become a must-bring-back bottle among bartenders and sommeliers alike. It’s fairly easy to find and quite affordable, and will be worth four times what you’ll pay for it back home.

Amaro San Simone (Turin, Piedmont)
Despite never advertising or marketing their brand, this classic Piedmontese amaro is the pride of Turin, and you’ll find it stocked in bars and cafes across the city. It’s a well-balanced and approachable aromatic amaro, but I’m particularly hooked by the bottle itself—from its elegant shape to the funky typeface, which always reminds me of one of Saul Bass’ Alfred Hitchcock one-sheets. It’s a favorite of the sommelier Victoria James, whose family is from Manta and Bagnolo—a short drive from Turin. And after spending a week in Turin during a Slow Food conference, Taylor Mason, chef and owner of LUCA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, became so hooked on San Simone that he rushed to a 24-hour grocery before his 6:00 a.m. train to scoop up three bottles to bring back home.

Averna Riserva Don Salvatore (Caltanissetta, Sicily)
When I visited the Averna factory in Caltanisetta, Sicily, in the fall of 2017, I was allowed a look inside a “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-like warehouse filled with a wall of grappa barrels reaching to the ceiling. My suspicions that this would be a release to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Averna’s founding in 1868 turned out to be on the mark. Coming in at 34 percent alcohol by volume, Averna Riserva Don Salvatore—named for Don Salvatore Averna, who was gifted the secret formula from the monks of the San Spirito Abbey—is aged in grappa barrels for 18 months, amplifying the warm Sicilian bouquet with notes of dried fruit. There was an extremely limited run of 1,868 bottles barrel-aged for 24 months that were gifted to friends of Campari, but the 18-month-aged bottles have wide distribution in Italy.

Campari Cask Tales (Milan, Lombardy)
If you appreciate a barrel-aged Negroni or Boulevardier, then finding a bottle of Campari Cask Tales should be a priority. Released to honor the 150th birthday of Davide Campari, son of founder Gaspare Campari and the innovator behind much of Campari’s global marketing efforts, Campari Cask Tales is finished in second-fill oak bourbon barriques (likely supplied by Gruppo Campari-owned brand Wild Turkey), which impart a slight smokiness while mellowing the sharp bitter notes. This is a very limited release sold in stores across Europe as well as a handful of international airport duty-free shops, including Turin-Caselle Airport in Italy.

Rare Italian Amaro

Amaro San Marco Sarandrea (Collepardo, Lazio)
Amaro San Marco Sarandrea, an amaro that dates back to the end of World War I, was created by Paolo Sarandrea and his brother Marco using herbs and botanicals sourced from the Ernici Mountains of Lazio. Be on the lookout for other Sarandrea expressions, including the Old World-style Ciociara, a carciofo made with artichoke leaves, and an amaro tonico with alpine herbs and spices.

Vecchio Amaro del Capo Riserva (Limbadi, Calabria)
Vecchio Amaro del Capo, which for years was only available in Calabria, has gone on to become the top-selling amaro brand in Italy. In 2015, they released Vecchio Amaro del Capo Riserva, an expression barrel-aged in Slavonian oak and available in a numbered, limited-edition run bottling, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their first contemporary distillery in Santa Venerina, Sicily. While Amaro del Capo is traditionally served chilled straight from the freezer, the Riserva, which is 37.5 percent alcohol by volume, is meant to be sipped at room temperature.

Campari Soda Bottles (Milan, Lombardy)
Available in Italy since 1932, these low-alcohol, single-serve aperitivi are sold in a distinctive bottle designed by Italian Futurist artist Fortunato Depero, and are the epitome of Italian style. They’re also available in five-, eight- and 10-packs, but they’re not for sale at airports, so stop by a grocery store near your hotel to stock up.

Menta Variations
You’ll find just two representations of this style of mint-flavored amaro in the U.S.: Fernet-Branca Menta and Fernet Vittone Menta. In Italy, you’ll undoubtedly discover more mint versions of popular brands, including Ramazzotti Menta (Milan, Piedmont), Santa Maria Al Monte Menta (Genoa, Liguria) and Amaro Lucano Menta (Pisticci, Basilicata), which is available exclusively at the Lucano company store in Matera, along with a grappa-based Amaro Lucano.

Amaro Minis
If you’re looking for quantity or aren’t quite ready to commit to bootlegging bottles of amaro back to America, airplane-friendly mini-bottles of amari are abundant in Italy. You can now find Fernet-Branca, Amaro Montenegro and a few other bitter minis in the U.S., so load up on the unfamiliar and unexpected. While you’re at it, dig around the carousel of magnets at gift shops where you can often find liquid-filled amaro bottle versions.

Where to Buy Them

When buying amaro during your Italian adventures, you can either pick up bottles as you travel, take your chances and search around your last stop or wait until the airport gift shop. There are risks and rewards inherent with all of these options, but it’s helpful to find a one-stop shop with plenty of choices. Eataly, with locations across Italy, offers a great selection with some regional highlights in the mix. If you’re headed through Rome, the Italy-based cookbook author Katie Parla recommends Enoteca Costantini across from Piazza Cavour; the enormous wine and spirits shop that has a floor-to-ceiling selection of amari with over 30 different labels, including hard-to-find bottles. Other shops to check out when traveling through Italy include Enoteca Iemmallo in Milan, Enoteca Mascari in Venice, Enoteca Buonivini in Palermo and Enoteca Partenopea in Naples.

Regardless of where you are, go out of your way to seek out grocery stores, wine and liquor stores and even bars and cafes. “The smaller the spot the better,” says Victoria James. “Many of these shops are coffee or snack bars that also happen to sell some wine and spirits. This is where you find the gems.” James also recommends checking out local wineries to see if they produce anything outside of wine, or ask them to point you in the direction of a good local distiller. And when in doubt, Google Maps is your best friend for searching for nearby shops.

What About Vintage Amaro?

If you’re on the hunt for vintage amaro, then you’re in the right country, but searching for old bottles in Italy will take a bit more shoe leather and unexpected detours than popping into a grocery store. “The best advice I can give is to do some stretches and start walking,” says Sammy Faze, a Chicago bartender and photographer. “I look into the windows of every shop I walk by and quite often old bottles will be on display and haven’t been moved in years.”

Faze’s frequent travel partner, bartender Julia Momose of Kumiko, is hooked on sourcing old bottles in Italy; she advises to always be respectful. “Store owners know the value of their product, and they are becoming more in tune with the rising value of older bottles,” she says. “Often times, the old bottles are not for sale and are kept as keepsakes for the shop itself. Tread lightly, and perhaps they will be willing to part with their little piece of history.”

If you’re hoping to buy a bottle directly off the shelf at a bar or restaurant, James agrees that kindness is key, along with spending a little money in their bar or restaurant to begin with. “Then maybe if you ask nicely they might sell you a couple cool bottles… but don’t get greedy and ask for more than a bottle or two.”

How to Get Them Home

Bring an Extra Bag: I always throw a medium-sized duffel in my checked bag to help split the load between two bags and accept that I’ll be paying for an extra bag fee and penalties for being over the weight limit. I’ve stopped stressing out about policies on checking alcohol from one airline to the next (though writer Camper English has a thorough roundup) and put them through. I always claim every bottle on my customs form and, so far, everything’s made it through without any issues.

Pack it Up: “Bubble wrap is key,” says Momose. She also brings along plastic wrap, which she uses to cover potentially leaky seals and fragile tax stamps of older bottles. On her many trips between Italy and America, Parla tells me she’s never had amaro confiscated—only horse meat and guanciale. “I put things in my checked luggage. If I’m being a responsible adult, I’ll slip amaro bottles into a wine diaper, otherwise I’ll simply wrap in a sweatshirt.”

Handle with Care: James prefers shipping directly from a winery or distillery, especially when dealing with large quantities. But beware: Mason spent over 500 euros on amaro (“Lots of cool, funky obscure amari, including a 3-liter bottle of Amaro Lucano”) to bring back to his team. Three weeks later, he received a notice saying his package had arrived at the shipping facility, but was damaged and sent back to Italy. While he mourned for all that he had to leave behind, he remains grateful for the four bottles he managed to tuck away in his suitcase.

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Tagged: amaro, bitter hub, travel