As the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, many people turn to whiskey for their winter cocktail. But there's another dark spirit that drinks just as well in the colder months: Italy's amaro.
The word amaro literally means "bitter" in Italian. And that's just what these spirits are, to varying degrees. Made by infusing a neutral spirit or wine with a blend of botanicals, Amaro is always aged in either a barrel or a bottle. Each expression uses a very specific recipe of ingredients like herbs, flowers, bark, and citrus peels to create its own unique character, which varies greatly based on where it's produced. Tempered by adding sugar, some amari are sweeter than others, but all have an underlying herbal bitterness, creating the intense and refreshing flavor that has made it such a popular drink in Europe.
While many countries have their own versions of of the liqueur, Italy produces some of the best known, including Campari, Cynar, Lucano, and Montenegro.
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"Amaro is a very typical thing to drink after a meal in Italian culture and, like wine, each amaro says a lot about the region in which it is produced," said Leonardo Vena, fourth-generation family member and marketing manager for Amaro Lucano. Amaro is often drunk neat, on the rocks, or with a splash of soda water as an aperitif or digestif. "The salumi and meats found in antipasti are fatty," said Vena, "and the bitterness and botanicals in an amaro help cleanse the palate."
Amaro also melds well with the basic addition of a sturdy rye or even a shot of espresso. But bartenders and mixologists are finding ways to craft interesting, flavorful cocktails with the liquer, which blends well with spirits due to its low proof and complex flavor profile.
"It's funny because my family has been using Lucano in cocktails for years, and I just found a ton of old recipes from my grandfather," said Vena. "Recently, there has been a major increase in the frequency with which amaro is used in cocktails." Here are a few of our favorite recipes.
New York City
In New York, there's no better amaro bar to visit than Amor Y Amargo, an East Village closet-sized joint that is essentially "all amaro everything." Beverage director Sother Teague, whose past credits include a stint as research chef for Alton Brown's "Good Eats" television show, is a mad scientist of bitters with endless knowledge about the ins and outs of amari from around the world. On a recent visit to the bar, he poured a sample of perhaps the bitterest amaro ever created. Sips were taken, gags were stifled–he keeps this one on hand for those who come in claiming they are looking for the most aggressive amaro they can find to see if they can back up their tough talk.
Another great spot for amaro cocktails is The NoMad Bar in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan. Here, bar director Leo Robitschek has put together a cocktail program that allows the amaro component to shine in each beverage. Some are new creations, while others play on classic cocktails like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned. Try The Gentlemen's Exchange, which blends rye whiskey, Foro amaro, and cold brew coffee for a little caffeine tingle to amplify your buzz.
If you're in Brooklyn, stop off for a beverage at Clover Club. This bar/restaurant has a drinks menu that reads like a cocktail history book, with explanations provided of different categories of drinks. Currently, on the fall menu you can find the Prospect Park Sour, made with rye, amaro Abano, lemon, orange, and maple syrup–a perfect way to warm up on a chilly night.
In Los Angeles, Osteria Mozza, true to its Italian roots, has an impressively extensive amaro list featuring traditional Italian offerings, as well as some interesting homegrown selections from Colorado (Leopold Bros. Fernet) and San Francisco (Fernet Francisco). Indeed, there is a decent amount of American amaro now on the market, as the trend continues to catch on all across the country and distillers attempt to capture an indigenous amaro flavor.
Seattle, Washington's Cannon bills itself as a "whiskey and bitters emporium." True to its credo, amaro is featured in a number of cocktails on offer, including in some the bar's barrel-aged selections, like the Latin Trifecta which blends tequila, Cynar, and sherry in a Westland single malt barrel.
Billy Sunday, located in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago, is no stranger to the joys of bitter spirits either, combining wormwood tincture bitters with gin, Milanese Fernet, Sibillini Amaro, and the unusually named Syrup of Maidenhair into a cocktail called The Victorian. The bar also features an interesting play on an Old Fashioned, substituting Rabarbaro, a rhubarb amaro, for the usual Angostura bitters.
And, of course, Italy has its fair share of amaro cocktail bars as well. In Milan, Leonardo Vena recommends Nottingham Forest and Rita & Cocktails, two cocktail bars on the forefront of modern Italian mixology. And in Rome the exclusive, reservations-only Jerry Thomas Speakeasy works amaro into many of its drinks in compelling and imaginative ways.