Amaro No Longer Just an ‘Afterthought’

Bittersweet, but so good


t’s not amaretto. It’s not amore. Rather, amaro (“bitter” in Italian) is a potent liqueur originally created by monks for medicinal purposes centuries ago. It’s made by infusing aromatic botanicals in a neutral spirit or wine — then aged and sweetened. The result? A bold bouquet of bittersweet flavors that might take some getting used to, but definitely worth the initial wince for that unmistakable spicy finish.

With this power to warm and soothe, it’s no surprise that Europeans traditionally sip it post-dinner as a digestif, usually served neat at room temperature. Here in the States, however, amaro is now taking center stage in cocktails — and with dozens of wildly diverse brands, from Campari (bright red and citrusy) to Jägermeister (inky brown, medicinal, and minty), the liqueur has exploded in popularity among craft bartenders.

“I love using amaro in cocktails,” says Cari Hah, bar manager at LA’s Big Bar. “It lends such a beautiful depth of flavor, as well as a texture and viscosity that rounds the drink out.”

Over the last decade or so, American amaro options have gone from nearly nonexistent to more than 20 made by distilleries throughout the country. “With both European and U.S. amari, very different expressions abound, making the search for your preferred style a matter of taste,” says Dario De Conti, co-owner of Napa’s Ca’ Momi Osteria, home to the West Coast’s largest amari collection.

Here, a few USA-made amari to try now.

Bittermens Spirits, Westfield, N.Y.
Fashioned after pre-WWII Amer Picon, an Alsatian-style liqueur, Amère Nouvelle is a beautiful, buttery-yellow color with flavors of bitter orange and spices on the palate.
How to drink it: Pour over ice. Throw in a splash of pomegranate and lime juice to taste. Stir and top with sparkling water.
Details: 30 percent ABV. $25/375mL;

Breckenridge Distillery, Breckenridge, Colo.
Hailing from the world’s highest distillery at 9,600 feet, this amaro features 13 botanicals, dried fruits, and roots. The result is an Alpine-style liqueur usually dominant with gentian root flavors.
How to drink: Drop a shot in an IPA for a Colorado version of amer bière.
Details: 36 percent ABV. $32/750 mL;

High Wire Distilling Co., Charleston, S.C.
Made with local ingredients, such as yaupon holly, Dancy tangerine peel, Johns Island mint, and Charleston black tea, this amaro is dark in color with dominant notes of citrus and tea.
How to drink it: Riff on a classic Negroni by swapping out the Campari or Aperol with amaro.
Details: 30 percent ABV. $32/750mL;

Brad Thomas Parsons is America’s go-to expert on all things bitter and boozy. His new book, Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs With Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas, is essential to a cocktail connoisseur’s book collection. Part travelogue and part encyclopedia, Amaro demystifies the digestif with animated anecdotes, well-researched history, and drink recipes. $26;

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