Amaro is an italian word that literally means “bitter”. In the broadest sense, amaro is simply a bittersweet liqueur made by infusing a combination of herbs, spices, barks, and flowers into an alcoholic base spirit or wine. It’s important to realize that although the Italian term “amaro” seems to be the most popular way of describing this broad category of beverages; there are similar concoctions from France, Switzerland, Germany, etc.
As with so many things, we likely have the ancient Greeks and Romans to thank for amaro. Early wine-making techniques were crude and many of the wild-fermented Roman and Greek wines were quite strong (14-16% alcohol). Since these early wines were so potent, it was not uncommon to dilute them with spring or sea water. Often, the wines were sweetened with honey or mead, and infused with various herbs, spices, and flowers. This was done partially for the healing properties it was believed these herbs contained but also to make rugged ancient wines more enjoyable. In this way, many ancient wines more closely resemble modern day vermouths.
Although the ancient Romans didn’t have distillation, knowledge of distilling spread from the Islamic world to the Holy Roman Empire at some point during the 12th century. It is believed that the Islamic Golden Age polymath, Al-Kindi, developed a rigorous method for distilling wine in the 9th century that eventually found its way to the School of Salerno. The School of Salerno became renowned for having the greatest body of medical knowledge in the known world. This incredible body of knowledge was largely due to their interest in Islamic innovations in science and over time this knowledge would be preserved and spread throughout the network of monasteries in Europe. Many of the desirable compounds in herbs are more soluble in alcohol than they are in oil or water and this is why nearly all European spirits have some close tie to monastic herbalism as well as a strong link with medicinal usage. Basically, for thousands of years people have been infusing herbs and spices into alcohol and claiming its medicine and we applaud them for that.
A Range of Botanicals
As fascinating as this history is, we’re here to talk about amaro. Having a rough understanding of how the practice of distillation spread across Europe helps us understand why many regions developed distinct styles of amaro based on the various herbs and botanicals available to them. For example, in the alpine regions around Savoy that include parts of Switzerland, France, and Italy, they lean heavily on wormwood for many of their bitter liqueurs we call Genepy. In Sicily, Vecchio del Capo leans on a combination of local calabrian plants and other botanicals available through their maritime trade network.
Unfortunately, because amaro is such a broad term, there is no convenient way to categorize them. While many can be grouped by region like Alpine amaro, others are clustered around a common ingredient like chinese rhubarb in Rabarbaro amari (plural form of amaro) which contain a uniquely smoky aroma and flavour. Others still are categorized predominantly by how they are enjoyed like an aperitivo (before a meal) or a digestivo (after a meal). Even the lines between amaro and vermouth can be easily blurred as in the case of Moscato and Barolo Chinato which are high quality wines infused and fortified with cinchona bark and other botanicals. Vermouth is usually made from low quality and neutral wines but there is no clear delineation of the two, and Punt e Mes is a bitter Italian vermouth that straddles this line even more.
In the Glass:
Though today most amari boast a higher alcohol percentage, there are plenty of amari made today that contain lower alcohol percentages like Aperol and Cynar. Fernet on the other hand tends to be closer to 40% alcohol and is often minimally sweetened, and is deeper, darker, and more intense than other amari. Fernet-Branca is the best-known in North America largely due to its success skirting prohibition by selling itself as a cough medicine rather than a recreational beverage. But these are all generalities. For this reason, it seems best to group amari more by family resemblance than by any rigid methodology.
The diversity of amaro is as rich as its ongoing history and half the fun is the adventure of it. If you like complex and bittersweet flavours, the best way to get started is to sit down at a quality cocktail bar and start trying different amari. Most amaro has a traditional way of being enjoyed but don’t feel bound by that. While it’s great to use an aperitivo and digestivo to punctuate your meals there’s so much more you can do. Try substituting some vermouth with amaro in your favourite stirred drinks. Argentines swear to the superiority of a Fernet and coke (and so do I). Add a splash of soda water or sparkling wine to your amaro and you’ve got a refreshing spritz.
The beauty of amaro is that there are as many ways of enjoying it as there are of making it and you couldn’t exhaust them all in a lifetime. -Tristan