The Italian tradition of amari is steeped in centuries of history. Amari are Italian liqueurs made from herbs and plants mixed with an alcoholic base. The result is a bitter beverage with varying flavors, levels of sweetness, and alcohol content. Amari were originally brewed for medicinal purposes—the combinations of herbs, plants, botanicals, and sometimes spices were believed to have a variety of positive, detoxifying effects on the body. Today, not much has changed.
Italians don’t typically use amari in place of medicine, but they are widely believed to have beneficial properties that aid in digestion. Most big meals, especially eaten at restaurants, are finished with a small glass of some sort of amaro. Amaro means bitter in Italian, and these bitter liqueurs certainly help alleviate some of the uncomfortably-full feeling that happens after an overindulgent meal.
For every region of Italy, there are probably dozens of options. Not all of them are widely commercially available, but many are. One of my favorites is Il Vecchio Amaro del Capo from Calabria. Most often, amari are consumed after a meal as a digestivo (digestif), but they are also commonly enjoyed as an aperitivo or as part of a cocktail. Negroni and spritzes are two of the most well known amaro cocktails, but with the rise of popularity in amari, many more are becoming available.
Montenegro, Lucano, and Averna are all well known and commonly enjoyed. They are balanced, not excessively bitter but also not incredibly sweet. Fernet Branca is another common amaro that is on the more bitter end of the spectrum. Vermouth falls into a funny category—while it is made very similarly to a classic amaro, it is wine based as opposed to grain alcohol based. Vermouth is often found alongside amari in cocktails. Other types of amari are made with black truffles, artichokes, green walnuts, and other bitter, flavorful ingredients.
We’ve already mentioned Negroni and Spritzes, but what other amaro based cocktails are there? The Americano is simply a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, Campari) with the gin replaced by soda water, and a Negroni Sbagliato is a Negroni with the gin replaced by prosecco. Both of these incarnations of the Negroni are lighter, more easily drinkable cocktails that are great for starting off the evening. The Garibaldi is another common cocktail made with amari. It is a light, citrusy cocktail made with orange juice and Campari. The popularity of amari means that new drinks are being created all the time, and many bars with creative cocktail lists will feature some new and exciting amaro based cocktails. You can find another post here about more Campari-based cocktails.
One of my favorite amaro cocktails is the Siciliano, a cocktail that includes cold coffee, Averna, and sweet vermouth (find the recipe here). It’s light, pleasantly bitter from the coffee and amaro, and caffeinated. Perfect for sipping outside on a summer evening. You can stock up on a variety of amari at most liquor stores, taste, and decide which you like best. Happy sipping!
Julia Terranova is a Brooklyn born, Italian-American student with a love of Rome and all things Italy. She spends her time cooking for friends and reading as many cookbooks as she can find.