Amaro | Italy’s Bitter Liqueur

Harry Lambourne
17th August 2023

Amaro is an all encompassing term for bitter, herb-infused liqueurs which are produced throughout Italy.

We’re talking about Amaro here because they’re a kind of grape brandy, which is distilled and blended with aromatics. Each Italian region, even the lesser known ones, will have their own take on this delicious tipple and we’re here to take you through it in greater detail.

Lambrusco Vines in Emilia-Romagna | Lesser Known Italian Wine Regions
Emilia-Romagna – One of Many Sources of Great Amaro

In terms of taste, you can expect them to have a bitter edge, which is combined with fruity and herbal notes. Each one has their own distinct style, so it’s worth trying them all!

While you may think you haven’t tried an amaro before, there are a few which are actually very common. Campari, Aperol and Fernet Branca are perhaps the best known versions.

Although, we’ll look at some others such as Cynar, Amaro Nonino, Averna Amaro and Amaro Montenegro. Once you familiarise yourself with them, you’ll note doubt see them pop up in restaurants and bars across the UK.

So, let’s take a look at Amaro. We’ll look at how it’s made, some of the most famous versions and different ways you can drink this luscious liqueur.

How Is Amaro Made?

Essentially, Amaro is made from distilled grape brandy. With distilled grape spirit, a base wine is produced, then a high sugar spirit is added to it. This raises the ABV and stops the fermentation process. You’ll see similar methods applied to the production of fortified wines like sherry and port.

To give Amaro its distinctive flavour, it must be infused with aromatics. Each Amaro has its own secret recipe, some with over 100 botanicals. There are a few different ways which these aromatics can be extracted.

One is via tincture or infusion. Here, the aromatics are left to macerate for a long time in an alcoholic solution which enables for them to be extracted.

The other is a process known as percolation which is a bit like brewing coffee. In this process, hot water flows over the aromatics which are placed on top of a filter. This is a quicker process but some believe that it alters and dilutes the original aromas of these aromatics due to the high temperature of the water.

The most common, and indeed the most effective, is actually incorporating the aromatics into the distillation process itself. This allows for much more finesse in the final products as the aromatics and inextricably linked to the alcohol itself, so they’re incorporated more absolutely.

Different Styles of Amaro

Each Italian region has there own take on Amaro, so we don’t have time to discuss them all. However, we will discuss the most common ones. You’ll almost certainly have encountered some of these before. The others are also common Amaro that you’ll likely spot next time you’re out and about.

Fernet Branca

This is quite a bit boozier than your average bitter, coming in at 39% ABV. The base ingredient is actually beetroot. It is made into a form of molasses which is then used as a distillate or sweetener. The flavour is deeply bitter and medicinal and has been described as a ‘grown up Jägermeister‘.

Aperol

This is a striking orange-red colour that has found much success in the form of a spritz. Everyone knows about Aperol, even if you didn’t realise it was an amaro. With Aperol, orange and rhubarb are certainly the most dominant flavour here, but there are many other nuanced and secret botanicals that Aperol keeps under their hats.

Averna

This is on the sweeter end of Amaro and first came around in 1868, when a monk gifted a secret recipe for the drink to a Sicilian textile merchant. The recipe contained a whopping 60 ingredients and has been passed down for over 150 years. This is Sicily’s flagship Amaro and while the full recipe will never be known, most assume it contains orange, lemon, liquorice and pomegranate.

Amaro Averno
Amaro Averna – Sicily’s Flagship Bitters
Campari

This is a staple across bars in the world. From the bitter and boozy Negroni, (and the Sbagliato variation), to the tropical Jungle Bird – bartenders have utilised this wonderful particular bitters in a variety of different ways.

Once more, the Milanese liqueur which was created in 1860 is made from a highly secret recipe. Many assume that the chinotto is a key part of the recipe. The chinotto is a specific style of sour orange. The reason some don’t immediately group it in with other amaro liqueurs is because it is especially bitter, this is why many won’t opt to drink it neat.

Cynar

This particular amaro is perhaps best known for its role in the ‘Venetian Spritz‘. The label features an artichoke front and centre and that’s because artichoke leaves are the only ingredient which is public knowledge. The other 12 remain a secret. While it doesn’t taste of ‘artichokes’ per se, it does have a slightly vegetal taste, which distinguishes it from some other amaro liqueurs.

Montenegro

This is perhaps the most well-known of the traditional amaro liqueurs. Amaro Montenegro is produced in Italy’s food capital Bologna. It’s got a syrupy sweet quality, which perfectly balances the bitter edge. The recipe boasts around 40 botanicals including baking spices, sweet and bitter oranges, artemisia, marjoram, oregano and coriander seeds.

Nonino

The Nonino family has been distilled grappa and other grape brandy since the end of the 19th century. From 1933, the began mixing brandy with herbs from the mountains in Friuli. This led to a light, herbal and citrus heavy amaro. It works wonderfully in the famous Paper Plane cocktail, which also uses Aperol.

How To Make A Paper Plane Cocktail
Paper Plane – Aperol & Amaro Nonino

How To Drink Amaro?

This is a matter of some debate and as always personal preference is key. As you can see, there’s a whole heap of cocktails which include these Italian bitters. No matter what you particular style of mixed drink is, then there’s almost certainly one which includes amaro.

However, many of these drinks can be drank on their own. Indeed, we think this is the best way to try them all for the first time. There are subtle differences among them all and if you want to drill down into your particular style of amaro, then try them on their own.

They can be drunk neat, (without ice). Yet, if you prefer something cool, many will opt to add ice. You can also add a small slice of citrus fruit. Orange, lime and lemon are all options.


We hope you’ve enjoyed our guide to the bitter goodness that is this liqueur. Whether you’re off to Italy, or just fancy trying something new from the comfort of your own home – give amaro a try. You won’t look back!


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