In 2016, frequent Punch contributor Brad Thomas Parsons wrote in his book Amaro that “the diverse world of herbal, bittersweet liqueurs that fall under the umbrella of amaro is about to set off a loud, collective ping on drinkers’ radars.” In the years since, brands that helped spark a bitter revolution (Averna, Fernet Branca, Nonino) were joined by a wave of newly imported—and later, domestic—bottlings. Drinkers welcomed the aromatic newcomers that graced their modern Manhattan variations. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a contemporary cocktail menu that doesn’t feature at least one amaro drink. In fact, the thirst for amaro has spawned dedicated amaro libraries, and even incited a frenzy for vintage expressions and smuggled bottles.
Unlike Scotch or bourbon, for instance, amaro lacks any official regulations or classifications as to its production method. As such, the best way to explore the nebulous, ever-expanding category is often to simply dive in and taste various renditions, learning to differentiate regional botanical profiles and bitterness levels from bottle to bottle. Below, you’ll find a few essentials to help navigate the old and the new within the ever-growing world of amaro, from bitter and bracing fernet to smoky, fruity rabarbaro.
Bottles to Try
Parsons recommends beginning with the following three bottles—each expressing a distinct point of view—to get a taste for what the category has to offer, and shares his notes on why each deserves a spot on your home bar.
Where it’s from: Caltanissetta, Sicily, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange, lemon, pomegranate
ABV: 29 percent
“Averna is an iconic representation of a classic Sicilian-style amaro, a bright bouquet of oranges, lemons and pomegranates rounded out with Mediterranean herbs. Its familiar cola-like profile and pleasingly bittersweet taste make it an ideal gateway amaro to further explore the diverse category. Try it neat in a chilled rocks glass or over a large ice cube, or in a number of cocktail specs, like the modern-classic Black Manhattan or a shaken whiskey and amaro sour.”
Where it’s from: Bormio, Lombardy, Italy
What’s in it: Gentian, juniper, wormwood, yarrow
ABV: 21 percent
“One sip of Braulio, the definitive example of an alpino-style amaro, transports you to the snow-covered slopes and valleys of an Italian mountain range. The full-bodied, barrel-aged amaro’s distinctive forest-floor profile is awash with pine needles, spearmint, chamomile and a lingering floral bitterness. Perfect on its own (ideally next to a fireplace) or warmed up in an amaro caldo or caffè corretto.”
Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista
Where it’s from: Muccia, Marche, Italy
What’s in it: Bitter orange peel, cinchona bark, cinnamon, clove, gentian, honey, rhubarb root
ABV: 21 percent
“It’s difficult to classify Amaro Dell’Erborista as a specific style of amaro. With its simple label and flip-top closure, the understated brown glass bottle may look like a humble, homemade, farmhouse-style beer, but one sip will have you scrambling for words to describe the experience. The unfiltered amaro is sweetened with local raw honey and aged for at least seven months, developing a slightly smoky profile rich with notes of sandalwood and dried, candied fruit. Neat is the way to go, but feel free to add a couple of ice cubes and a splash of soda.”
Traditionally enjoyed on their own as aperitifs or digestifs, amari have, in recent years, become central components in a fleet of modern cocktails. Apart from the aperitivo classics that have become menu mainstays in the wake of Negroni fever—Americano, Garibaldi—amaro cocktails are fixtures at bars that claim no thematic or conceptual tie to Italy. In part, this stems from amari’s ability to add depth and complexity even in small amounts. A half-ounce of Cynar, for instance, can transform the Manhattan into the Little Italy, Audrey Saunders’ modern classic that leans on the artichoke amaro for a pleasing herbal twist. In Sam Ross’ Paper Plane, a distant riff on the Last Word, equal parts Amaro Nonino and Aperol join forces with bourbon and fresh lemon juice in what’s become a modern classic showcase of amaro.
The Amaro 50/50
It is no coincidence that amari star in the 50/50 format, a composed shot consisting of two pours in equal measure. Complex, lower-proof and bittersweet, they are an apt foil to an array of spirits, bitters and modifiers. The Hard Start, Damon Boelte’s Fernet Branca/Branca Menta combo (devised as a hangover remedy for those working the brunch shift), opened the doors to an ever-widening crop of 50/50 shots, including the Ferrari (Fernet/Campari) and the M&M (mezcal/Montenegro).
As the temperature drops, one of the more comforting ways to enjoy amaro is in the amaro caldo (literally “hot amaro”) format. Infinitely variable and dead-simple, the combination of amaro and hot water can adapt to any mood. As Parsons notes in his story on the drink, “Each amaro resembles a custom tea blend, and raising its temperature has a similarly transformative effect.” All you need is a tempered or double-walled glass mug, like these amber-hued ones from Kinto. For amaro neat, any cordial glass will do, but why not keep a small selection of mismatched examples so guests can select their own glass after dinner.
Amaro, by Brad Thomas Parsons
Though he admits in the first chapter that “there isn’t a rulebook when it comes to amaro,” Parsons’ Amaro is as close as it comes—not for its prescriptive qualities (none of that here), but its ability to appeal to the amaro-curious and -converted alike. Dive in to find your next favorite recipe—there are dozens to choose from.