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Think a mouthwatering Italian meal ends with dessert? It doesn’t have to! Once you’ve consumed all the courses and sipped some coffee, you can order one last quintessential Italian drink: amaro.
Amari In Italy
If Italian amaro seems like a bit of a mystery, you’re not alone. I’d never explicitly ordered an amaro from a menu, but I was surprised to find I had consumed amaro before — some amaro are ingredients in cocktails that I love!
You will undoubtedly see amaro liqueur on the menu for bevande, or beverages, at restaurants in Italy. If you’re already familiar with Italian wines, classic Italian cocktails, and the types of Italian bubbly (from prosecco to Lambrusco), it’s time to expand your knowledge to include amari.
To help, we’ve created this guide to amaro so you can learn more about this bittersweet beverage and learn some of the different types to enjoy.
What Is Amaro?
Amaro — which translates to “bitter” — is a liqueur with three key parts: an alcohol (often a neutral corn spirit or wine), a bitterness, and a sweetness for balance.
It can feel challenging to pinpoint what, exactly, this bittersweet liqueur is. Since an amaro (amari, for plural) doesn’t have a set ingredient list, the flavors you’ll encounter vary widely. Different regions of Italy produce different blends of amari based on the ingredients local to that area.
Amaro has existed in some form or another since as early as Ancient Roman times when nobles would drink herb-infused wines or tonics for their restorative properties. Around the 1300s, medieval monasteries began creating their own concoctions of medicinal elixirs, and by the 1800s, different types of amaro were commonly sold in pharmacies.
How To Drink Amaro
Considering their background as tonics, amari have a unique, almost medicinal taste. This isn’t something you’ll have a large glass of and chug — instead, you’ll sip an amaro or perhaps mix it into a cocktail.
Because the herbal ingredients in amari are believed to aid digestion, Italians will often order one during aperitivo or after dinner. There’s a chance you’ve already consumed it in some popular Italian cocktails — Campari, and Aperol are both types of amaro (though they are almost exclusively used in pre-dinner aperitivi cocktails).
When mixed into a cocktail, the bitterness is balanced by other flavors, but the beverage still retains its digestive qualities. This is why drinks like the Aperol Spritz, Negroni, or Americano make the perfect aperitivo hour choice.
You don’t need a cocktail to enjoy that bittersweet flavor, though — they’re delicious straight up or on the rocks, too! It might be served with a slice of lemon or orange rind, and if the bitterness is a little too much, you can always dilute it with some water. Seltzer water makes a great companion in the summer, or you can try hot water during wintertime.
Different Types Of Amaro
As you’ll find out in our travel guides for food lovers, much of Italy’s food and drink are regional. Amari is no exception — the herbs and spices in particular that go into the beverage will reflect the terroir.
Don’t be surprised to see that producers keep their exact recipes a secret, meaning you may encounter ingredients as varied as aloe, anise, or rhubarb. Some amari count upwards of 30 other herbs and roots as their ingredients! The botanical blends for each amaro type are one-of-a-kind, and in some cases, recipes have been passed down for generations.
Unlike wine or iconic foods, no official classifications for amari exist in Italy. However, in general, you’ll encounter two broad families or types.
A Southern or Mediterranean amaro tends to be sweeter, a clearer color, and commonly spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, and coriander.
Then there is Northern or Alpine amaro that embraces more of that bitter quality. The color tends to look darker, and you’ll encounter herbs and flavors found in the local landscape, like peppermint, licorice, and quinine.
Classic Italian Amari To Try
Curious about which Italian amaro brands you should try? We’re sharing the background on some amari you might not have imbibed before and the regions or areas they come from, so when you travel to Italy next, you’ll know what to order off the menu.
Amaro Montenegro – Bologna
Montenegro was first distilled in Bologna in 1885, and the recipe includes over forty botanicals. The final product goes down velvety smooth by combining citrusy orange peel, sweet cinnamon and nutmeg, and slightly bitter Artemisia. The sweeter flavor and orangey aromatics make Montenegro an easy ingredient to play with in cocktails, too.
Amaro Ramazzotti – Milan
Ausano Ramazzotti founded Ramazzotti, a House of Amaro, back in 1815. The amaro is a well-kept secret blend of 33 herbs and roots that has remained unchanged since the company’s start. You’ll get hints of ripe plums, dark berries, and cola, and the amaro is sweet and gently spiced with the faintest bitter edge.
Amaro Meletti – Adriatic Coast
The Meletti family has produced Amaro Meletti since 1870 in the coastal region of Le Marche, with Matteo and Mauro Meletti representing the fifth generation to run the business. Most ingredients, like the anise and natural herbs, come from local growers in the region who work exclusively with the amaro liqueur brand. The flavor is rich and caramel-y with a cloudier, heavier body, so sit back, relax, and sip this one after a big meal.
Amaro Casoni – Emilia-Romagna Region
Casoni has over two hundred years of history and produces amari in northern Italy using locally sourced ingredients and top-secret recipes that are family heirlooms. If you want something to add to a Spritz or Negroni, their Aperitivo 1814 brings just the right amount of sweet and bitter orange, gentian, and juniper. For something that leans more into a licorice flavor, the Amaro del Ciclista (“Cyclist’s Amaro”) tastes heavenly served on ice with orange zest.
Amaro Cardamaro – Piemonte Region
Cardamaro is a vino amaro, or wine-based amaro, that hails from a 4th-generation winemaker in the Piemonte region. One of its star ingredients is Nizza Monferrato or hunchback Cardoon, a winter vegetable from the artichoke family. The beverage pairs well with salty cheese or a charcuterie board; since it’s wine-based, you can use it instead of vermouth in other cocktails.
Vecchio Amaro del Capo – Calabria Region
The Fratelli Caffo distillery dates back to the mid-1800s, and its most well-known product is Vecchio Amaro del Capo. You’ll catch delicate orange blossom, chamomile, intense licorice, and refreshing peppermint. They harvest during the peak season in Calabria for each ingredient, and macerations and infusions happen immediately — meaning you’re treated to the freshest aromas and flavors. Since you should always drink this one chilled, it’s an amaro ideal for a hot summer day.
Amaro Nardini – Veneto Region
The Nardini Distillery has produced spirits since 1779 in Veneto, and while they’re well-known for their grappa, you don’t want to miss out on their amaro. Its smooth texture makes it easy to drink, and you’ll notice an intense fragrance of licorice, mint, and toasted sugar. With an exceptionally earthy, herby flavor, it tastes amazing topped off with a Luxardo cherry!
What kinds of Amari have you enjoyed before, and which one are you most excited to try now? Let us know in the comments section below!
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Photo Credit: Christine Davis