In 2017, I compiled a High Fidelity–style list of my essential amari for PUNCH, a mix of desert island bottles that spanned the spectrum of the diverse and sometimes daunting category of Italian liqueur. Since then, the shelves of backbars and liquor stores have become ever more crowded with new releases, whether imports from Italy or homegrown regional expressions from across America. This lineup of new-look bottles represents an eclectic mix of foreign and domestic releases that are all worth seeking out, to try on their own or in a cocktail.
Not long after finalizing this list last month, the bars and restaurants where you might normally go to sample amari were ordered to close to slow the spread of COVID-19, leaving bartenders, spirit producers and importers facing an uncertain future. For now, however, liquor stores and bottle shops are considered an essential service (at least in New York where I live). So although we don’t know when we’ll be able to meet again at the bar, in the meantime, you can still take an amaro adventure at home via your favorite neighborhood spirits stores.
Where it’s from: Catania, Sicily, Italy
What’s in it: Angelica, bitter orange peel, cinnamon, ginger, licorice, nutmeg, saffron, vanilla
ABV: 29 percent
For nearly a century, Amaro dell’Etna was content to remain a homegrown amaro, little-known outside of Sicily. But thanks to its recent arrival in the United States, it has become a new favorite among amaro aficionados. “It’s perfectly balanced, just sweet enough and a little savory with a nice big smack of bitterness,” says Melissa Watson, of the San Francisco craft spirits shop Bitters and Bottles, who recommends Amaro dell’Etna to amaro fans looking for something new to try.
While there’s a familiar sweetness, Amaro dell’Etna packs an added complexity thanks to 15 of its 26 herbs, plants and other botanicals being sourced from the rich, volcanic soil at the base of Mount Etna. “What we find unique about Amaro dell’Etna is how multiple herbs seem to pop on the palate,” says Stephen Fromhart, owner of Amaro Spirits & Wine in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “You can simultaneously detect the bitter orange peel, a bit of licorice, and a touch of cinnamon, but there is even more complexity that you taste but can’t quite name, resulting in an intensely herbaceous experience.”
Amaro Dente di Leone
Where it’s from: Saint-Marcel, Aosta Valley, Italy
What’s in it: Dandelion, elderberry flowers, genepy, gentian, holy thistle, wormwood, yarrow
ABV: 32.6 percent
La Valdôtaine, a vest-pocket distillery in the Aosta Valley, the smallest and least-populated region of Italy located in the northwest corner of the country, has been producing spirits since 1947. While their complex Amaro Dente di Leone is grounded in the company’s historical traditions, it was actually first released in early 2017, coming to America just over two years later. The name (“lion’s tooth”) refers to the intensely aromatic wild dandelion, one of the amaro’s primary ingredients that grows throughout the alpine valley and has long been reputed by herbalists to contain magical powers.
I first spied a bottle, with its distinctive shape and seafoam green label, high up on the backbar at Dante in Greenwich Village (it was brought back from Milan by owner Linden Pride) and later at Luca, an Italian restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Amaro Dente di Leone has quickly become a house favorite. “For me it’s about refinement and balance,” says Luca chef and proprietor Taylor Mason. “It has a lot of complexity going on—spice, sweetness, cola, and coffee notes—but it’s so well balanced and it demonstrates so much of all the inherently romantic and delightful elements amari has to offer.” Mason describes it as “the most well-rounded” amaro in his collection. “It proves to have so much opportunity in cocktails, but for me it shines on the straight pour.”
Try it in: Coda di Leone
Campari Cask Tales
Where it’s from: Milan, Lombardy, Italy
What’s in it: Because of its deep secrecy, alcohol and water are the only official ingredients Campari will share beyond aromatic plants, bitter herbs and fruit, but it’s a safe bet that gentian root, orange peel and chinotto are in the mix.
ABV: 25 percent
The good news is that Campari Cask Tales, one of my favorite suitcase bottles previously available exclusively at Heinemann duty-free shops, finally made it to the U.S.; the bad news is that it’s a limited release that remains highly allocated. Campari Cask Tales debuted in Italy in 2018 in honor of the 150th birthday of Davide Campari, the son of founder Gaspare Campari, who led the charge on much of Campari’s early global marketing outreach. The special blend is finished in second-fill oak bourbon barrels, which mellows out Campari’s trademark sharp bitter bite with slightly sweet, creamy notes and a bit of smoke.
“This one was huge for us, and then it was gone. Every time they allocated more to us, we sold it in a day or two,” says Bitters and Bottles’ Melissa Watson, noting that customers would often buy more than one bottle at a time. She suspects the price point made it more of a hit with the home market rather than bars. With the suggested retail price for the 1-liter bottle hovering around $70, this will likely remain a special occasion bottle to enjoy on the rocks, Steve Zissou–style, though it’s tailor-made for a more elevated take on a Negroni or Boulevardier.
Cappelletti Pasubio Vino Amaro
Where it’s from: Aldeno, Trentino–Alto Adige, Italy
What’s in it: Alpine herbs, blueberries, mountain pine
ABV: 17 percent
The latest expression from the stellar lineup of Cappelletti amari and aperitivi imported by Haus Alpenz, Pasubio Vino Amaro is based on the first amaro recipe from Giuseppe Cappelletti, dating to the early 20th century. The oxidized, aged Marsala wine base is flavored with herbs, barks and wild blueberries sourced from nearby Mount Pasubio in the Dolomites. It’s lightly bitter with notes of mountain pine, herbal root beer and a slight smokiness characteristic of rhubarb root.
“I love having Amaro Pasubio in our fridge at all times, for the fact that it is so versatile,” says Jose Cordon, bar director at Felix Trattoria in Venice, California. “On its own it’s a beautiful, smoky, dark fruit and herbaceous amaro, but with the fortified red wine base and its lower ABV, it can be used in so many fun vermouth-style applications.” At Felix, Cordon pairs it with a touch of almond orgeat topped with a generous pour of Cleto Chiarli Lambrusco del Fondatore, which highlights the dark fruit notes in the Pasubio, and serves it in a rocks glass finished with a blackberry and mint garnish. Cordon notes that he also likes to swap Pasubio for Averna in a traditional Black Manhattan, dubbing it a Blue Manhattan in a nod to the subtle blueberry flavor.
L’Aperitivo Nonino Botanical Drink
Where it’s from: Percoto, Friuli, Italy
What’s in it: 18 botanicals including gentian root, rhubarb, lime and orange
ABV: 21 percent
Renowned as producers of award-winning grappa, the Nonino family’s elegant Amaro Nonino has long been an essential bottle for any home bar. Last summer, however, they introduced L’Aperitivo Nonino, an all-natural expression inspired by their grandmother’s recipe for a bianco aperitivo. It’s a sophisticated bottle worth seeking out: Grown at or near the Noninos’ distillery in Friuli in northeastern Italy, 18 roots, fruits and flowers are dried at a low temperature to maintain their natural colors and fragrances. These botanicals infuse Nonino’s proprietary ÙE Grape Distillate Fragolino Cru Monovitigno, resulting in a rich, golden-hued aperitivo whose Friulian terroir stands out among the rising crowd of red bitters. It has a subtle bitterness with a fresh burst of sweet, aromatic citrus that’s dynamic in cocktails and at home during aperitivo hour, especially complemented by spritzy bubbles, whether from tonic, soda or sparkling wine.
Where it’s from: Kansas City, Missouri
What’s in it: Cardamom, coffee, gentian, juniper berries, orange peel, spearmint leaves, star anise, vanilla beans
ABV: 31 percent
Whether served side by side or combined in a caffè corretto, coffee and amaro have a long history as an after-dinner couple. Caffè Amaro, from Kansas City’s J. Rieger Distillery, captures these two contemporaries in an amaro that’s perfect on its own as an end-of-night nip but also has an affinity for whiskey and rum drinks, or even in a highball over ice with tonic water. J. Rieger co-founder Ryan Maybee found most coffee liqueurs too sweet and spent many years experimenting with his own version at his bar Manifesto. Maybee and J. Rieger’s head distiller, Nathan Perry, partnered with K.C. coffee roasters Thou Mayest, incorporating a cold brew of their single-origin Sumatra into a rich, aromatic, bittersweet blend that takes on an extra layer of character from a brief resting period in whiskey barrels. “A lot of customers are skeptical about American amaro, but seem to make a big exception for this one immediately,” says Bitters and Bottles’ Melissa Watson.
Don Ciccio & Figli Ambrosia
Where it’s from: Washington, D.C.
What’s in it: Blood orange, carrot, cantaloupe, turmeric and nine proprietary botanicals
ABV: 15 percent
Since the launch of their signature Amaro delle Sirene in 2014, Washington, D.C.’s Don Ciccio & Figli has been at the forefront of modern domestic amaro producers, thanks to their expansive and creative lineup of amari, aperitivi and liqueurs created by Francesco Amodeo, whose family had been making liqueurs for three generations on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Last spring, Amodeo released an orange Starburst–colored aperitivo called Ambrosia as a modern alternative to the namesake ingredient in the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. He turned to his family’s archives, basing his contemporary formula on a 1908 recipe, adding blood oranges from Florida and cantaloupes from nearby Virginia along with carrot and turmeric. It’s the sweetest expression in the Don Ciccio & Figli portfolio, and comes on bright and citrusy with a juicy background that’s perfect for just about any spritz formula.
Forthave Spirits Marseille Amaro
Where it’s from: Brooklyn, New York
What’s in it: 36 different plants, tree barks, roots, seeds, berries, leaves and flowers, including cinchona, eucalyptus, gentian, raw honey, rhubarb root and spearmint
ABV: 36 percent
From their “lab” in an industrial warehouse in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Forthave Spirits’ founders Aaron Fox and Daniel de la Nuez dedicate three months from start to finish for each batch of their signature Marseille Amaro, a standout among the many small-batch amaro producers. “Our methodology is that everything must be plant-based,” say Fox and de la Nuez. “All the plants must be organic and nothing used is processed.” They expertly achieve a complex and pleasingly assertive profile, with a bracing balance of cooling and warming sensations through a mix of three dozen types of dried leaves and flowers, roots and barks, and seeds and berries. The unfiltered amaro is sweetened with two different kinds of raw honey from an apiary in Ithaca, New York, reminiscent of the local raw honey used in Varnelli’s Amaro Dell’Erborista.
I prefer it neat, but for cocktails, Death & Co. bartender Sam Johnson plays off this amaro’s affinity with honey as a reliable approach, pairing it with spirits like Calvados and bourbon. “Its aroma and palate remind me of wildflower honey, which is balanced by a mentholated bitterness that tastes like eucalyptus, mint, cinnamon and clove,” says Johnson. “I’m always pleasantly surprised by how it decides to play with the other ingredients.”
Heirloom Pineapple Amaro
Where it’s from: Minneapolis, Minnesota
What’s in it: 26 ingredients including cinnamon, ginseng, pineapple and quassia bark
ABV: 30 percent
With their Milwaukee company Bittercube Bitters, Ira Koplowitz and Nick Kosevich were OG ambassadors of the modern bitters boom. In 2016, they partnered with Brandon Reyes to produce a line of botanical-driven liqueurs under the Heirloom brand, produced at Minneapolis’ Lawless Distilling. One of their more unique offerings is a pineapple amaro. “It’s my story in a bottle; it’s a love letter to Italian amari written by a Puerto Rican living in Wisconsin,” says Reyes. “It’s a curious balance of juicy tropical fruit with woodsy bitterness punctuated by caramelized sweetness. Everything from pineapple upside-down cake to roasted meat can be perceived amongst the complexities found in the bottle.”
The roasted sweet flavor is courtesy of fresh Queen Victoria pineapple from South Africa, which is puréed skin-on and macerated in rum, which is then redistilled and added to a neutral spirit base. At Kindred, in New York’s East Village, head bartender Charlotte Mirzoeff spotlights it in her popular Breakfast Manhattan, which calls for Nardini Mandorla grappa and pineapple amaro in addition to the expected sweet vermouth. “The almond grappa is deep and chocolatey, so the pineapple amaro brings a really refreshing fruit character while also supporting the spice notes in the vermouth and bourbon,” she explains. “I like that it’s not super pineapple-forward. It’s more like caramelized pineapple with an interesting bitter spice character—and the backbone is kind of savory.”
Cardinal Spirits La Boîte Amaro
Where it’s from: Bloomington, Indiana
What’s in it: Green cardamom, licorice, orange and star anise
ABV: 20 percent
As both an aperitivo and digestivo, amaro is intertwined with our relationship to food. At Cardinal Spirits in Bloomington, Indiana, co-founder Adam Quirk and head distiller Justin Hughey purposefully created their La Boîte Amaro with food pairings in mind. They turned to Lior Lev Sercarz, a chef and owner of the famed New York City spice shop La Boîte, who developed a bespoke spice blend of 15 botanicals—including licorice, star anise, green cardamom and dried orange—that are macerated in a base of distilled red wine. Best served slightly chilled, it’s delicate and less bitter than most amari, with a bit of lingering smoke and pops of citrus. “It’s different, in all the right ways,” says Scott Stroemer, the head bartender at Pacific Standard Time and The Laurel Room in Chicago. “If there’s a Venn diagram of amaro, vermouth and Barolo Chinato, this is in the space where they all meet.”