Amaro, an herbal, bittersweet Italian liqueur, finds its origins in medieval health care. Obsessed with the restorative powers of alchemy and natural botanicals, medieval monks and friars in abbeys across Italy often experimented with mixing and matching liquor and wine with herbs. The monks stuck mostly to ingredients that could be found nearby, ensuring that over the centuries different amari (the plural form of the drink) began taking on regional peculiarities. Bitter orange in Sicily. Rhubarb in Alto Adige. Artichoke in Milan.
The backwoods elixir was used to aid digestion and stimulate the appetite. Because sugar was a high-priced commodity, most varieties were quite bitter. It wasn’t until the 19th century that amari began to edge into commercial production. Some of the bigger brands today were formed around this time: Fernet-Branca (1845), Amaro Lucano (1894), and Campari (1904). Now, two centuries later, amaro is having its moment. From London to Tokyo, mixologists are employing amari in their cocktails and in-the-know consumers are ordering the stuff after dinner.
What Is It?
Amaro, which means “bitter” in Italian, consists of an herb or botanical distilled in a neutral liquor or wine. The more well-known players are Campari, a bright citrus infusion often used in cocktails such as the Negroni (gin, Campari, sweet red vermouth), and Fernet, some mixture of myrrh, rhubarb, chamomile, cardamom, aloe, and saffron in a grape-based spirit, often served as a digestif.
But there are many others, ranging from lighter-tasting varieties (Montenegro, Nonino, and Vecchio Amaro del Capo) to sugary (Averna, Meletti, Ramazzotti) or piney (Bràulio) to bold and smoky (Zucca Rabarbaro, Sfumato Rabarbaro). Prices per bottle range from US$20 or so to hundreds of dollars for the vintage stuff.