It was nearly a decade ago when Joe Campanale, co-founder of Brooklyn restaurants Fausto and LaLou, encountered his first amaro caldo (“hot amaro”), and he’s been preaching its restorative power ever since. After a long, cold, very damp morning on a wild boar hunt in the countryside of Panzano, Tuscany, he and his companions—chef Mark Ladner and editor and writer Michael Wilson—took a break from their excursion to warm up and recharge at a nearby café where Campanale noticed several locals sipping a steaming drink from small, clear glasses. “It was a local amaro and hot water,” recalls Campanale. “I ordered one and it was rejuvenating, spicy and smooth, and warmed me up immediately.”
Think of it like amaro and soda, but with snow tires. Rich with dried herbs and spices, citrus peels, and aromatic botanicals sweetened with sugar or honey, each amaro resembles a custom tea blend, and raising its temperature has a similarly transformative effect. In a winter wonderland of Hot Buttered Rum, toddies, mulled cider and Irish Coffee, the amaro caldo is an austere, two-ingredient, moody stranger, but the diverse spectrum of amaro brands and styles presents countless mix-and-match options and flavor profiles to choose from—though staying in the range of “not too sweet” and “not too bitter” tends to offer the best results.
Alpine-style amari, which come with a built in warming spice profile redolent of woodsy forest floors and cozy mountainside chalets, are especially at home in the amaro caldo template. At Fausto, Campanale first experimented with Amaro Braulio for the house amaro caldo before settling on Antico Amaro Noveis (both made in the shadow of the Alps and aged in oak barrels). He serves it in a small rocks glass with an orange twist. “When you add the hot water, it makes the botanicals more aromatic,” he says. “You don’t need to stick your nose into the glass to smell them, the aromas come right up to meet you.”
Dan Zeiders, beverage manager at Per Diem in Lititz, Pennsylvania, calls on Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro—an alpine amaro rich with natural smoke from rhubarb root and a distinctive jamminess from wild mountain berries—as his go-to. After tempering a mug or small glass, he adds one-and-half ounces of the amaro and approximately two-and-half ounces of hot water, stirring in a generous pat of salted Irish butter until it melts. “Warming Sfumato opens up the midpalate flavors that are often masked by its prominent smokiness,” says Zeiders. “You get a lot more of the beautiful bitterness, baking spice and alpine notes, with a subdued smoke quality.”
As a general rule, Stephen Andrews of Chicago’s Billy Sunday suggests leaning toward a richer, low-ABV (nothing north of 30 percent) wine-based amaro “with a nice amount of residual sugar,” such as the barrel-aged, moscato-based Cardamaro. He stresses the importance of starting with a tempered glass and favors the same ratio of one-and-a-half ounces amaro to two-and-a-half ounces hot water. “Keeping it simple and balanced is key.”
At Amor y Amargo in New York, meanwhile, the rum-based Varnelli Punch Fantasia, rich with notes of butterscotch and coffee, stars in a drink called the Bald Mountain. (Punches, a category of fruit-, rum- or chocolate-based Italian liqueurs, are typically served warm, and often diluted with water.) “Many amari are ready-made for drinking hot, and you can almost approach them as a tea concentrate,” says head bartender Blake Walker. “Ideally you want a hot drink that is balanced with quite a bit of sweet, a little bit of citrus—not too much—and pretty heavy aromatics and spices.” Walker is partial to hot fernet, and often finds himself reaching for High Wire Distillery’s Southern Amaro, with ingredients like local Charleston black tea, which make it a natural choice for a caldo.
While Walker doesn’t expect to see a surge in amaro caldo offerings at bars that do not already stock a deep amaro backbar (the drink is not a common sight even in its native Italy), he notes that with the temperature dropping and outdoor seating remaining a common fixture of the city’s dining landscape, there’s never been a better time to explore the template. At Amor y Amargo, a new hot-water kettle has been acquired for this very purpose. “A year ago, if you’d ordered an amaro caldo at our bar, the answer would have been no,” says Walker. “Now, it’s emphatically yes.”