That’s Amari: The Rise of Bitter Italian Spirits

Today’s cocktail culture has a well-established reputation for rediscovering a style of drinking or ingredient that goes from obscure to ubiquitous in the blink of an eye. Take the case of amari, that multitude of bitter Italian tipples. Apart from a few well-marketed brands, amari rarely peek their heads outside fine-dining Italian restaurants.

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Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails bar manager Johnny Schaefer says that guests still ask for a cocktail made with barrel-aged gin and Fernet Branca, even though it’s no longer on the Jacksonville, FL, restaurant’s menu.

Until recently, that is. Now bars and restaurants all across the country are incorporating amari in their drinks; as replacements for aromatic bitters, as one of a handful of ingredients in more assertive cocktails, or as leading lights in drinks on their own. Not so long ago mainly a Northeast-Pacific Northwest phenomenon, more bittered drinking has come on full force around the country.

Why are these bitter potables, which can be spirit- or wine-based and infused and/or aged with herbs, flowers, vegetables, botanicals, nuts, berries and spices, so hot right now?

It’s inevitable, says Joaquin Simo, partner in New York cocktail bar Pouring Ribbons and Alchemy Consulting. People go through stages of cocktail drinking, and as a palate evolves, exploring ingredients with more complexity and depth makes sense.

“I think it’s part of how our collective national palate is growing increasingly able to appreciate bitter,” he notes. “Now people are drinking single-make, pour-over, single-village coffee without cream or sugar, and bitter dishes like kale salad are everywhere.”

Of course, cocktails have always offered more bitter options. The crimson aperitif Campari has come in and out of fashion as an ingredient numerous times in the past 60 years, whether in Negronis, Americanos or simple Campari and Sodas.

Fernet Branca has long been the favored flavor for late-night, restaurant-industry worker shots, especially in San Francisco. A number of bars in the Bay City have even put the dark, black-licorice flavored amaro on tap.

Rose Among Thorns

The Rose Among Thorns cocktail at the Up & Up in New York ($14), made with aquavit, gin and Amaro Montenegro.

But beyond the recent international adoption of the Aperol Spritz cocktail, few other amari have penetrated drink consciousness. They remained for the most part digestifs, meant to aid digestion, sooth dyspepsia, and otherwise serve as a mood-lifting medicinal tonic.

But now, it has become increasingly common to find operations stocking—and using—five, 10, 20 and more amari.

The average customer may still need a bit of reassurance when they spy a bottle of Cynar, with an artichoke on the label, being used to make their drink. But at bars like Pouring Ribbons, known as a place for frequently changing and carefully concocted drinks, resistance is minimal.

A starting point

Consumers in general are a lot more comfortable now with more of these bitter flavors, Simo says. “Fewer and fewer customers need explanations about what these ingredients are.” Still, you have to remember that that most amari are acquired tastes.

“I hated my first few tastes of Campari, but when [mixologist] Tony Abou-Ganim showed me how well it went with orange juice and in a Negroni, it was a revelation,” says Simo. Schaffer points out that once a customer learns to appreciate the attraction of the Negroni and its whisky-based twin, the Boulevardier, they might even be ready to graduate to sipping a single amaro on the rocks.

Unadorned amari have been on the mind of Tina Majethis, beverage director of the Kimpton Hotel’s restaurant 312 in Chicago. At the classic Italian spot, she’s been including amari in cocktails on the frequently changing menu since she came on in 2013. The bar currently stocks about 20.

“We generally put them in our cocktails to let guests know you don’t have to drink them alone,” she says. “When they see it as an ingredient and like the cocktail, they are more likely to sample them on their own.”

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The Camproni Spritz at 312 in Chicago, with Campari, Barolo Chinato, sweet vermouth and prosecco.

Chaim Dauermann, head bartender of The Up & Up in New York’s Greenwich Village, worked with amari frequently at the now-closed ‘Inoteca Liquori Bar and marvels at the change. “It’s definitely interesting to see the growth in amaros in cocktails,” he says.

“We had a lot, and at the time nobody really knew what they were or what to do with them. We found we didn’t move amari unless we put them in a cocktail.”

Mixing with amari

Simo’s current amari drinks include Exile on Main Street (with Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Cardamaro, El Dorado and Scarlet Ibis rums, Benedictine, Angostura and Peychaud’s bitters); Get Up and Go (Wild Turkey 101 Rye, Amaro Abano, Laphroaig Quarter Cask Scotch, Galliano Ristretto, orange and cinnamon bitters); and the double-barrelled amari Indecent Proposal (Rittenhouse rye, Cocchi vermouth Di Torino, Cynar, Nardini Amaro). The cocktails are priced at $14 each.

Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, MA, includes at least six amaro-influenced drinks on its current cocktail list, says bar manager Ashish Mitra. “We’ve been putting amaro in a number of our cocktails from the beginning, and we do really well with them.” Part of that is Boston’s reputation for consuming Fernet Branca, Mitra notes, “and that does translate into putting more amari and bitters into drinks. Our clientele has come to expect it to some degree, because we’ve always done it.”

Strunk Text

The Up & Up’s Strunk Text cocktail, with Cabeza silver tequila, Amaro dell’Erborista, pink peppercorn, chanterelle mushroom, lime juice and celery shrub.

Like Simo, Mitra says that bartenders first incorporate amari as a replacement for aromatic bitters, increasing the amount while building on well-established drink templates. “You get a wide variety and range of different flavor profiles for bartenders to play around with when it comes time to create cocktails,” explains Mitra.

Jacksonville, FL-based Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails features drinks using a number of amari, including the Fireside Chat, made with Smooth Ambler bourbon, Ramazzotti, falernum, apple cider, lemon juice and cinnamon syrup. It’s one of the bar’s top-five drinks, even if the flavor profile might be unusual in the South.

“Things have changed, I know, because we had a drink on the menu made with a barrel-aged gin and Fernet Branca that people still ask for, even though it’s not on our current menu,” says bar manager Johnny Schaefer.

The amaro-forward drinks at Up & Up include The Rose Among Thorns (with aquavit, gin and Amaro Montenegro) and Strunk Text (Cabeza silver tequila, Amaro dell’Erborista, pink peppercorn, chanterelle mushroom, lime juice, and celery shrub), both priced at $14.

“I always found [amari] extremely exciting ingredients to work with,” Dauermann says. “They are already essentially a cocktail in themselves—a spirit base with sweetener and other ingredients, almost an Old-Fashioned. You add a whole lot by adding a little of amaro; the overall complexity of its contribution to a drink makes it close to gin in that regard.”

Amari-influenced drinks at the Russell House Tavern are served chilled, such as in the Cold War (Bacardi 8 Year rum, Amaro Meletti, Zu Bison Grass vodka, Fernet Branca),  or hot, like the Midnight Sun (red wine, Kronan Swedish Punsch liqueur, Booker’s bourbon, Amaro Braulio and Mahia fig spirit). A drink on last fall’s menu that used the explosively menthol Branca Menta as base spirit mixed with anisette proved to be a hit with guests.

Beyond Italy

While amari in Italy developed regional favorites based on local traditions and ingredients, some domestic amari—such as Gran Classico from Tempus Fugit Spirits–are starting to emerge. They’re joining newly imported brands from Italy and other European countries that are developing wider distribution here.

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Amaro (Italian for “bitter”) is an Italian herbal liqueur that is commonly enjoyed as an after-dinner digestif. It usually has a bitter-sweet flavor, sometimes syrupy, and has an alcohol content ranging from 16% to 40%.

There’s even a new brand from a big player: Amaro di Angostura, launched in New York, California and Illinois that’s aiming for national release soon. (While most Italian bitters share ingredient details, Angostura is mum on what’s in their amaro, except to say that it offers “aromas of cinnamon, dark chocolate and unmistakable Angostura Aromatic Bitters.”)

Majethis is currently working out a plan for an amaro flight menu for 312. The flight will include three ½-oz. pours of the bitters organized by impact: entry, middle, and highly intense level. She may even add a flight featuring “friends of amari,” those European digestif variants now showing up more and more on back bars.

Missa Chamness, hospitality manager for The Blue Room restaurant and Belly wine bar, says the two Cambridge, MA, spots have expanded their amaro lists a bit during the past few years by adding brands like Zwack from Hungary and Jelinek Fernet from the Czech Republic. “We currently have 20 different styles on deck, but that is always evolving and changing,” she notes.

On the Blue Room and Belly menus also offer flights and feature them on the post-meal digestif menu. Amari are broken down into three flavor profiles: herbs + botanicals, floral + citrusy, and bitter + dark.

“It is definitely a growing area, we are excited about them and like to educate our guests that are willing to branch out and try something offbeat,” Chamness says.

The popularity of amari is rather surprising, Mitra notes. “If you’d asked me two years ago about the popularity of Fernet Branca, for instance, I would have said it’s all a bit of a novelty and industry trend.” But it’s showing no signs of letting up: “There are adventurous drinkers out there who are more likely than ever before to take a chance,” he says.

If nothing else, it’s a sign that when even the most assertive and spine-tingling of amari receive a warm welcome, American drinkers are willing to learn how to appreciate not only kale salad, arugula and espresso, but their potable, alcohol-based cousin as well.

Jack Robertiello is wine and spirits writer/consultant based in Brooklyn, NY.

SIDEBAR-Cold in the Shadows AmariCold in the Shadows
1 oz. Campari
1 oz. Lime juice
½ oz. Honey syrup (1:1 ratio of honey to water)
½ oz. St. George raspberry liqueur
Anderson Valley IPA

Combine all ingredients except for the IPA in a shaker. Whip shake (shake just a few times) and add in about 1 ½ oz. of IPA to the tin. Fill a highball glass with crushed ice, strain the drink into the glass and garnish with slices of orange and lime and a straw.

Pamela Wiznitzer of Seamstress in New York created this recipe.

I’ll HaveI'll Have What She's Having What She’s Having

1 ½ parts Caoruun gin
½ parts St. Germain
½ parts Aperol
¾ parts Lemon juice
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Shake all ingredients and pour into a coup glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist

Ian Hardie of Huckleberry Bar in Brooklyn created this recipe.

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