Previously, on recommendations from a fancy [insert spirit here] shopgirl, Allison Shoemaker suggested six whiskeys (mostly bourbons), five ryes, six gins, five rums, four Irish whiskeys, and six vodkas. This week, amari. Yes, she will eventually do Scotch.
Amaro—delicious, mysterious amaro, so bitter and so sweet and so botanical—has been somewhat elusive to me. What actually qualifies as an amaro? In my life as a fancy booze shopgirl, representatives for various amaro brands and spirit distributors would come in and provide different answers, and it just didn’t get any clearer. As my shopgirl life is now very part-time, there hasn’t been much opportunity for me to learn gradually, as I have with other spirits. So when it was time to recommend several amari, I had to turn elsewhere.
Enter Amaro, by the James Beard Award-winning writer Brad Thomas Parsons. I had a sneaking suspicion that a book with that title might contain answers, and wouldn’t you know, it did. Parsons’s excellent book contains far more than clarifying information, including recipes for aperitivo, classic, and modern cocktails, suggestions for cooking (and yes, baking) with amari, and most intriguingly, making your own amaro. But the clarity is what matters for our purposes.
Here’s the best bit: Amaro (Italian for “bitter”) is a broad, somewhat nebulous category, so the pursuit of clarity is a fool’s errand. “Generally speaking,” Parsons writes, “amaro refers to the collective class of Italian-made aromatic, herbal, bittersweet liqueurs traditionally served as a digestif after a meal.” To make them, botanicals are distilled or macerated in wine or a neutral spirit, then sweetened. But the key is the combination of bitter and sweet. People will debate many other aspects, but if you’re drinking amaro, you’re tasting bitter, and you’re tasting sweet.
But as is the case with many spirits—bourbons made outside Kentucky, Scotch-style whiskeys made outside Scotland, rums from everywhere, the list goes on—the Italian part is also nebulous. Of the desire of some Italian amaro makers to get D.O.C. protections for their spirits, Parsons writes, “While I can appreciate that sentiment and the inherent sense of pride regarding amaro’s proper birthplace, I feel that the bittersweet genie is already out of the bottle—and given amaro’s increasing popularity with bartenders and cocktail aficionados, there’s no going back.”
So unlike most editions of the shopgirl digest, below you’re going to find not off-the-beaten-path spirits—well, not exclusively anyway—but classics. But you’ll also find two spirits from subsets of amaro, neither made in Italy. If, like me, you’re still learning about this broad, imprecise, delicious category, this should give you a great place to start.
And how do you drink it? With great pleasure. But more specifically, it’s traditionally served alone as a digestif, though they can also be served as aperitifs, and there’s a whole world of cocktail-making to explore. Cin-cin, and read on.
Amaro Montenegro ($30-$40)
One of Italy’s best-selling amari, Amaro Montenegro’s history dates back over 130 years. This amaro is made with 40 botanicals, including oregano, coriander seeds, petite dried oranges, cinnamon, and cloves, for a flavor profile that’s sweet and subtle. This is one of the easiest bottles of amaro to find in a bar or restaurant, and is a great place to start if the category is unfamiliar to you. It’s also great in cocktails—and with tonic, all by itself.
Amaro Nonino Quintessentia (around $50)
Parsons calls Nonino a “gateway” amaro, and The Takeout’s Kate Bernot would agree. It’s also her favorite (and one of mine). It’s made from a family recipe dating back to 1933, with a base comprised of grappa—a Nonino family specialty—and their UÉ Grape Distillate. Like many amari, its recipe is a closely guarded secret. It’s aged in French barriques as well as sherry casks, and offers notes of vanilla, pepper, and orange, among others.
Cynar (around $25)
This is another amaro that’s fairly common and easy to spot behind the bar, but some of that is due to the distinctive label—it’s got a big artichoke right on the front. This spirit comes from the Campari Group, and as you might guess from both the label and the name, it’s artichoke-based. It’s infused with 13 (top-secret) herbs and plants, which mysteriously combine for an herbal, savory flavor that comes with a sweet finish. One distinctive note on Cynar: It’s got a low A.B.V., clocking in at 16.5 percent, so if you’re a bit of a lightweight, this one won’t knock you on your ass.
Averna also comes from the Campari Group, after the company acquired Fratelli Averna in 2014 (per Amaro). But its history goes back over 150 years, when a group of Benedictine monks passed the recipe on to Salvatore Averna. You’ll taste anise, citrus, vanilla, and cola, and less bitterness than many other amari.
Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur ($40-$50)
I love this weird spirit. Our first non-Italian entry, Zirbenz is made from “the freshly picked fruit of the Arolla Stone Pine grown in the Austrian Alps,” meaning pine cones. It’s intensely piney, but not in the way people say gin tastes like Christmas trees. It’s like drinking a forest—a quiet forest, maybe after a rainstorm, maybe when flowers are blooming. The distillery dates back to 1797, but the taste changes with the seasons. Ancient and immediate. I’ll stop writing poetry about it now, at least in this post.
Fernet Francisco (around $45)
I swear that I didn’t just pick this one because it’s an astonishingly beautiful bottle, though I’ve certainly sold a lot of this one to people who spotted it on the shelf and just wanted it on their bar cart. San Francisco loves amaro, and this is its first locally-made option, made from 12 local herbs and botanicals, all hand-picked. Fernet-Branca is by far the most famous fernet, but I love this one, a dry, minty, bitter delight that’s made by a process the company outlines on its website: “We vapor infuse a core distillate using a concoction of secret botanicals then blend with a medley of select herbal infusions using local grape-based brandy and organic natural grain spirit.”
However it’s made, it is a great spirit—and the gorgeous bottle is a nice bonus.