Eighty miles southeast of the sunbaked Sicilian street markets and historic piazzas and palazzos of the seaside capital Palermo, you’ll find Caltanissetta, known for its rolling hills and abundant citrus groves. This unassuming commune is also the birthplace of Averna, which for over 150 years has stood as the archetype of the classic Sicilian style of amaro, epitomized by the bright citrus and fragrant Mediterranean herbs of the region.
It was at Caltanissetta’s Abbazia di Santo Spirito where Benedictine monk Fra Girolamo bequeathed the historic formula for the order’s locally beloved elixir to Don Salvatore Averna, as a demonstration of gratitude for the textile merchant’s devotion to the abbey and surrounding community. The Abbazia di Santo Spirito remains the oldest standing church in Caltanissetta; the back garden still grows the fruit and botanicals that lend their flavors to this amaro.
Averna’s secret recipe, passed down from generation to generation, has remained true to the original formula, whose key ingredients of bitter orange, lemon and pomegranate are rounded out with a bouquet of delicate Mediterranean herbs. Even today, Villa Xibol—founder Don Salvatore’s former country home, which has since been converted into a production facility—remains the heart and soul of Averna. It’s where the herbs, roots and spices, along with essential oils from the fruit, begin their journey with a slow maceration.
While amaro can be a tricky category to classify, some of these bittersweet herbal liqueurs are defined by a key ingredient, such as artichoke for carciofo-style amaro, or rhubarb root for rabarbaro-style amaro. Regionality can play a role as well, with alpine amari featuring high-altitude botanicals like yarrow and juniper in complex herbal blends that instantly evoke a snow-covered forest.
Amari made in southern Italy and Sicily are traditionally a bit sweeter and built around a backbone of citrus. They typically fall in the mid-proof range, making them an accessible gateway to the category. You’ll encounter many locally made amari across Sicily, and while most are content as a regional curiosity or a souvenir to bring home in your suitcase, some, like Averna, have become ambassadors of the style globally.
While a bottle of Averna is a common sight on late-night tables in bars and restaurants across Italy, the amaro is much more than an after-dinner drink or nightcap, and its versatility shines in cocktails. Bartenders reach for it to incorporate warm herbal characteristics, rich texture and bright citrus notes into a number of inventive, genre-bending drinks.
“Personally, I love amaro for aperitivo, maybe even more than at the end of the meal,” says James Beard Award-winning Seattle chef and cookbook author Renee Erickson, who takes her Averna over ice with a splash of soda and a wedge of blood orange. “Amaro forever” is the unofficial motto at Barnacle, her jewel box of an Italian-style aperitivo bar, and she recalls Averna as the first amaro she was really drawn to. “Averna nudges up to the bitter and the sweet really well,” she says.
A simple, easy-to-drink cocktail like the Averna Limonata, a mix of lemon juice, Averna and simple syrup over crushed ice, is a perfect example of the amaro’s ability to play nice in a pre-dinner format. It’s also a natural player in coffee cocktails, like the Caffè Tonic, a modern approach to ammazzacaffè (meaning “coffee killer”), the Italian custom that marks the transition from dolci and caffè with a small glass of amaro to mellow out the caffeine. Add Averna to equal parts tonic and cold brew, and you’ve got a nighttime classic that doubles as a daytime pick-me-up.
For some, however, the ritual of taking amaro after dinner—either on the rocks or neat, often with subtle twists based on the brand or region—is the ideal way to experience amaro. “I think about Averna in the same way I approach pizza and my other cooking, which is through a lens of Sicilian cuisine. Simplicity is key,” says globetrotting pizza consultant Anthony Falco, who spent nearly a decade driving the influential pizza program at Brooklyn’s famed Roberta’s.
Averna’s classic after-dinner serve is simple, but seasonal: Add a splash of Averna to a small tumbler over ice, and garnish with a citrus peel and/or fresh herbs like sage in the fall, lavender in the spring or mint in the summer. “There is already so much great flavor built into this amaro that drinking it neat is most likely the way I would consume it,” says Falco. When he’s not sipping it neat (or admittedly, sometimes shooting it back), he prefers it in a glass with some ice, an orange peel and fresh mint, swirling the glass to open the aromatics for a multisensory experience.
How you decide to drink your amaro can be determined by the season, time of day, who you’re with or the occasion. But no matter how you take it, it’s hard not to let it transport you. Because who wouldn’t rather be in Sicily right now?