Collecting vintage bottles of amaro (a.k.a. “dusties”) has become a passionate, often obsessive hobby for a number of wine and spirits industry insiders. Increasingly, those outside the industry are starting to have access to amari, too, stretching back to the midcentury, inspiring them to seek out rare bottles on their own.
But when you head down the rabbit hole, there are a whole lot of unknowns. What ingredients are in the bottle, and how will age effect the botanicals? What are the production methods and have they changed over the years? Principally, pinpointing the exact year of production is difficult. You can clearly taste changes in brands like Fernet-Branca from decade to decade, yet the producer will claim that the ingredients and production methods have remained the same since the 1800s.
“You don’t often have the specifics on a producer or production methods or the specific details of the vintage when it comes to amaro,” says Union Square Hospitality Group’s Associate Wine Director, Jenni Guizio. “But for me, that’s kind of what’s fun about it.”
While there is certainly more of a crap-shoot element to purchasing older amari (versus, say, wine), it tends to be a fairly affordable risk compared to the highly inflated prices of other vintage spirits, like whiskey and Chartreuse. Most bottles of vintage amari or aperitivi range from $40 to $250 a bottle for a taste of a bygone era.
“These bottles carry wonderful nostalgia, and I think consumers really connect with what can be seen as a window into the past,” says Oskar Kostecki, spirits buyer at Chambers Street Wines in New York, who notes that, more so than bartenders and sommeliers, it’s typically non-industry buyers who are shopping their selection of vintage amari. “The fact that some of these brands don’t exist anymore—the changes in formulas, and the industrialization of production for some large producers… it all resonates with our customers.”
In an effort to better understand the selection of vintage amari currently available in bars and retail shops, I sent out a bitter Bat Signal to summon a panel of fellow nerds for a roundtable tasting of approximately 20 different bottles. The gathering, hosted at Fausto in Brooklyn, included PUNCH’s Talia Baiocchi (Editor in Chief) and Jason Diamond (Deputy Editor); Joe Campanale (co-owner of Fausto); Jenni Guizio (Associate Wine Director at Union Square Hospitality Group); and Aaron Sing Fox and Daniel de la Nuez (co-founders of Forthave Spirits). And while he wasn’t there with us, a big thank you to Sole Agent’s Alex Bachman for providing additional background information on many of these bottles and brands.
Where: Padua, Veneto, Italy
ABV: 11 percent
Of this bottle, which kicked off the tasting, Fox cautioned that he and de la Nuez didn’t think that Aperol, the classic aperitivo bitter created in Padua in 1919, stood up well with age, noting the difficulty of creating something shelf-stable at 11 percent alcohol by volume. “It’s still really pretty and delicate, but it was probably so much more expressive when it was fresh and young,” said Fox. “Also, there’s no way this was the same recipe.” And would Baiocchi, the co-author of Spritz, consider making a vintage Aperol Spritz with this mid-century bottle? “I would spritz the hell out of this,” she said without missing a beat. “This has a floral element to it that’s gentian-like that I’ve never had from Aperol before. It’s also definitely more bitter than Aperol today—and drier.”
Cora Americano Aperitivo
Where: Turin, Piedmont, Italy
ABV: 18 percent
While Cora was once a “powerhouse producer,” according to Bachman, they went out of business around 1979. This particular Americano (a wine-based aperitivo bittered with gentian) was likely created following the success of Campari, which became popular among American expats in the 1920s and continued in the years following World War II. Baiocchi wondered whether this was originally colored red (which could’ve faded with age) as de la Nuez checked off several artificial colors while scanning the metallic C-3PO-like label. I got a lot of oloroso sherry notes (think, stewed fruit and nuts), though the flavor ultimately fell a bit flat. Baiocchi was reminded of the quina wines of Jerez, noting that the “bitterness and gentian comes right in at the end, then swings back to oxidation,” concluding, “I would definitely have this with old Campari in an Americano.”
Ottavio Riccadonna Vermouth Chinato Amaro
Where: Asti, Piedmont, Italy
ABV: 16.5 percent
Ottavio Riccadonna, whose namesake brand was acquired by Gruppo Campari in 2003, began making Piedmont wines and vermouth in the commune of Canelli di Asti in 1921. Bachman considers this particular expression a “one-off oddball,” noting that amaro production lacks the government oversight seen with Barolo Chinato, a bitter aromatized and fortified Barolo wine, which has DOCG status. Baiocchi loved the cinchona-spiked blend, comparing it to an “old-school Punt e Mes, but with way more going on.” de la Nuez noted that the well-balanced sweetness was likely due to many producers making their own caramel syrups in the 1960s and ’70s, before the outsourcing of commercial blends became standard.
Cinzano Vermouth Amaro
Where: Turin, Piedmont, Italy
ABV: 16.5 percent
Started in 1757, Cinzano remained a family-owned business until 1985; after several mergers and acquisitions, it has been part of the Gruppo Campari portfolio since 1999. The bold red, white, blue and gold label of this vermouth amaro was very of the era, inspiring Campanale to compare the bottle to a pair of bell-bottoms. We all found it tasty, but aside from the bartender-beloved Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino, we didn’t have many contemporary vermouth amaro expressions to directly compare it to. “It’s a little less sophisticated than the [Ottavio] chinato,” said Campanale, “but it’s held up really nicely.”
Distilleria Alpe Amaro
Where: Hône, Aosta Valley, Italy
ABV: 38 percent
Both the art deco label and the contents of the bottle of this alpine-style amaro from Distilleria Alpe (founded in 1948, still in production and owned by Calvetti family), hailing from the mountainous northwest region of Valle d’Aosta, made it one of our most memorable picks. Diamond praised the vintage travel poster design of the label, and I wasn’t the only one who mistook the ominous looking shadow puppet figure for a spaghetti western Man with No Name anti-hero, rather than a gentle, pipe-smoking alpine climber. The blend of 20 mountainside herbs had given way to sweet notes of honey on the nose, with familiar Italian-pastry-shop pops of marzipan and candied orange. (Bachman noted that when you smell toasted nut, marzipan and cake frosting, it’s usually a sign of oxidization.) Campanale and de la Nuez both recommended having this at the end of a meal as a replacement for dessert given its sweetness.
Distilleria S. Giuseppe Alpestre of Carmagnola
Where: Torino, Piedmont, Italy
When: late 1980s
ABV: 49.5 percent
“Let’s rip the Band-Aid off,” said Guizio, as she cracked open the cap of the boldly medicinal Alpestre, whose über-dry, savory profile she best described as “liquid oregano.” Campanale and de la Nuez both commented on how the Alpestre—originally created by monks from the Marist brotherhood who fled France due to anti-clerical persecution and found refuge in Piedmont—exemplified the spectrum of amaro’s Italian journey, from monks’ elixir to pharmaceutical aid to key component of post-World War II night-life culture. This nearly 40-year-old bottling, packed with 34 different herbs and botanicals and barrel-aged for up to 10 years, is all smack-you-in-the-face aggression. Baiocchi summed it best, describing it as, “like Vicks VapoRub, but inside your body.”
Amaro S. Maria al Monte
Where: Genoa, Liguria, Italy
ABV: 40 percent
With the Santa Maria al Monte, whose secret recipe has been passed down by the monks of the Madonna del Monte Sanctuary since its creation in 1858, we had the benefit of being able to taste the 1960s version alongside a contemporary bottling. While not technically a fernet, it possesses many characteristics of the category, including an elevated level of alcohol. Fox noted how, in the vintage bottle, “the primary botanicals have decreased and now the mint is louder, the citrus is louder.” Baiocchi was put off by a “crazy metallic taste” from the contemporary version; de la Nuez agreed that the contemporary version had less character. “It’s kind of out of balance—there’s sweetness over here, bitter over here, aromatics over here kind of hiding at the end. The older one is much more cohesive.”
Florio Amaro della Campagnia
Where: Trapani, Sicily, Italy
When: early 1970s
ABV: 34 percent
Founded in 1833 by Vincenzo Florio in the western port city of Trapani, the Marsala wine-based amaro was a direct competitor with Sicily’s best known amaro, Averna. Bachman noted that, while Averna focused their efforts on exporting to a bigger global market in the 1960s and 1970s, homegrown amaro brands like Florio and Amaro dell’Etna remained favorites in the domestic market. The Florio, which stopped production in the 1980s, was the only Sicilian amaro we sampled and delivered on the region’s signature style of being slightly sweet and vicious with pronounced bitter orange notes. “It’s strong and delicious,” said Campanale. “This one tastes very Italian to me.”
Where: Marseille, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, France
ABV: 30 percent
Its lack of availability in the United States is just one of the reasons Amer Picon is such a desirable bottle among bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts. Created in 1837, Gaétan Picon’s namesake blend, inspired by his grandmother’s recipe, was first developed as a tonic for wounded and sick soldiers during the Algerian War. But as the French Foreign Legion’s taste for Picon traveled back home to France with them, the brand gained in popularity, eventually becoming an ingredient in a number of classic cocktails. We reached back to the 1940s for this special bottle, produced in Marseille but made for the Spanish market, which dates back to before the recipe was modified and the alcohol content lowered to 18 to 20 percent (which occurred in the late 1960s and early ’70s). This 30-percent ABV example was fairly light and nuanced. It put Guizio in the mind of Fig Newtons, while Baiocchi observed that “its bitterness isn’t a pungent bitterness—it’s sort of mellow and gentle.”
Amargo Antico Amaro di Grappa
Where: Rome, Lazio, Italy
ABV: 30 percent
The Amargo Antico from Angelini Francesco was the only grappa-based amaro we tried, and one of the few bottles where you could taste how the actual base spirit had aged over the years. “The almond and raisin notes of the grappa just meld really well,” said Fox. Though this bottling was produced in Rome, the botanicals were sourced from Piedmont. “I like where it lands,” said de la Nuez. “It’s got one foot in that southern Meletti land and one foot toward the Alps. It’s straddling two styles.” Bachman, who praised this blend for its “wild, yeast-driven nose,” noted that this was one of the early favorites of the Billy Sunday staff and industry regulars. However, he said, in the past few years, the fairly easy-to-source old bottles have become much harder to uncover.
Vlahov Amaro Zara
Where: Bologna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
When: 1940s and ’50s
ABV: 40 percent
When it came to the Amaro Zara we were lucky to have two bottles of what Bachman calls the “treasured alpine amaro of the Vlahov family,” from two successive decades. Bachman shared that the inconsistency in flavor profiles for the same brand was due to the fact that the producer was making his amaro in Italy, but sourcing the botanicals from Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast using whatever botanicals were available at the time. “They had a blueprint for their recipe, but no guarantee for the quality or availability of what they need to source year over year,” he said. The bottle from the 1940s was very aggressive and medicinal. “I think it’s a fernet, basically,” said de la Nuez. The botanicals in the bottle from the 1950s, however, were more pronounced. “Age plays a part,” said de la Nuz, “but I think the formulation is completely different”
Radis Amaro d’Erbe
Where: Trieste, Friuli, Italy
ABV: 32 percent
Still in production, Radis Amaro d’Erbe is the only alpine-style amaro produced by the Stock Spirit Group, one of Poland’s leading spirits companies with more than 40 European brands in their portfolio. Originally produced in Trieste, it was made in the city sourcing alpine ingredients from a variety of surrounding mountain ranges. “This reminds me of Braulio,” said Baiocchi. “It’s not as aggressive, it’s not as minty, but there’s something that hits the high notes of an alpine profile.” With notes of cola, citrus and licorice, I found it a bit sweet for a northern Italian-style amaro.
Amaro Silano Bosco
Where: Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
ABV: 35 percent
Founded by Raffaelo Bosco in Cosenza, Calabria, in 1864, Amaro Silano Bosco remains in production (and is now available in the United States), still using a local, DOC-protected licorice root as a key ingredient. Like its Calabrian cousin, Vecchio Amaro del Capo, it is often stored in the freezer and served chilled. Baiocchi described it as “a mash-up of Braulio and nocino,” and Fox, too, was picking up the distinctive taste of walnuts. “This is unlike anything we’ve had today,” said de la Nuez.
Where to Find Vintage Amari
For more amaro in the wild, stop by some of these bars, restaurants and retail shops across the country.
Chambers Street Wines
The go-to for nerds and consumers hunting old aperitivi and amari, New York’s Chambers Street always stocks affordable versions of both stretching back to the 1950s, with a knowledgeable staff to help guide you to the perfect bottle. 148 Chambers Street, New York
Come for the delicious pasta, stay for the vintage amari. Along with a lineup of contemporary amari and aperitivi bitters, Fausto co-owner and Italian wine expert, Joe Campanle, maintains a rotating lineup of vintage bottles available at a very reasonable price of $15 for a one-ounce pour. 348 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, New York
The Four Horsemen
This snug Williamsburg restaurant and wine bar (LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy is one of the owners) is known for their excellent wine list and selection of natural wines, but they have recently been adding an eclectic lineup of vintage amari to the menu. 295 Grand Street, Brooklyn, New York
Inspired by the cuisine of Rome, Danny Meyer’s take on an Italian trattoria has rounded out their excellent wine selection with an equally eclectic lineup of amari, featuring several allocated and hard-to-find bottles. If it’s a special occasion, ask your server to surprise you with something from their impressive vintage amari collection. 2 Lexington Avenue, New York
Amor y Amargo
One of America’s first bars wholly devoted to amari and bitters opened in 2011 and this tiny, 240-square-foot bar remains a station of the cross for amaro pilgrims around the world. They’re known for amari flights, bitter cocktails and a secret stash of off-menu “suitcase bottles” gifted to proprietor Sother Teague from globetrotting regulars. 443 East 6th Street, New York
Named for the Italian phrase meaning “coffee killer” (basta with dessert and espresso, bring on the amaro), this East Williamsburg trattoria stocks over 60 bottles of Italian and domestic amari, plus amaro-spiked cocktails and a limited selection of vintage amari. 702 Grand Street, New York
This Logan Circle bar carries the largest selection of amari in the United States and specializes in rare and vintage bottles, including over 200 varieties of fernet. Throughout the year, they offer limited-seating, deep-dive vintage amaro tastings hosted by the knowledgeable staff. 3143 West Logan Boulevard, Chicago
The Milk Room
By day this location in the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel is a humble espresso bar, but at night it turns into an eight-stool, candle-lit, reservations-only bar devoted to vintage spirits. You can have your 1960s Campari on its own or in a Boulevardier made with vintage bourbon. 12 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago
Jamie Boudreau’s elegant, award-winning Seattle bar boasts the largest spirits collection in America, with 4,000-plus different labels, including a deep-cuts Captain’s List of vintage amari and liqueurs. That pour of 1890 Amer Picon could be yours if you happen to have $950 to spare. 928 12th Avenue, Seattle
Nick Stefanelli’s Michelin-starred restaurant is a relaxed oasis amid the surrounding industrial Union Market neighborhood it calls home. Settle in for a prix-fixe tasting menu of Italian specialties, but be sure to inquire about having a nip or two from the stash of vintage amari he’s been collecting and adding to the bar. 1340 4th Street NE, Washington, D.C.