Amaro translates to “bitter” in Italian, but the category of bittersweet herbaceous liqueurs is far from one-note. It spans a range of flavors and styles, from light and citrusy Aperol to bracing and minty Fernet-Branca, not to mention countless artisanal brands you may have never heard of.
“The world of amaro is a place where you can go and you’ll never find the end of it,” says Sother Teague, the proprietor of New York City’s bitters-focused bar Amor y Amargo.
If it’s your first visit, you have to start somewhere. And if you’re an amaro aficionado, there’s likely still plenty to learn.
What Is Amaro?
An amaro is a bittersweet herbal liqueur that is made by infusing an alcoholic base, such as a neutral spirit, grape brandy, or wine, with botanical ingredients that include herbs, citrus peels, roots, spices, and flowers; the exact recipes are often closely held secrets. The resulting liquid is sweetened and then aged.
Amari (the plural of amaro) can be produced anywhere, but they’re a cornerstone of Italian culture. Monasteries started making bittersweet liqueurs as far back as the 13th century, touting their healing properties and digestive benefits, and in the 1800s Italian producers such as Averna and Ramazzotti took amari to the masses. Today, amari are most often sipped as pre-dinner aperitivi to whet the appetite or post-dinner digestivi to aid in digestion. “Amaro is a part of every Italian’s life,” says Matteo Zed, the owner of The Court in Rome and the author of The Big Book of Amaro.
Because there is no governing body of amaro, the liqueur defies neat categorization, says Teague. However, every amaro will include a bittering agent (such as the gentian flower, wormwood, or cinchona) and a sweetener. Regional variations will often infuse the alcoholic base with local ingredients, such as bittersweet oranges in Sicilian amari or mountain sage in an alpine amaro. “Amaro is the business card of a territory,” says Zed.
How Do You Drink Amari?
Teague recommends trying an amaro neat, on its own, before mixing it into a cocktail. Italians will typically serve a one-and-a-half to two-ounce pour, says Zed. Once you’re acquainted with a particular amaro’s flavors, you can serve it on ice or add seltzer water for a low-ABV and sessionable drink. Cocktails that feature amari run the gamut, from classics like the Negroni and Aperol Spritz to more modern creations like the Black Manhattan, which swaps out the classic’s usual sweet vermouth for Averna, or the Paper Plane, a Last Word variation that calls for Aperol and Amaro Nonino Quintessia.
You can easily incorporate amari into your favorite cocktails, too. Zed notes that lighter amari work particularly well for mixing: Cardamaro’s wine base makes it a good substitute for sweet vermouth in Negronis and Manhattans, while Del Capo’s orange notes work well in citrusy drinks like a Margarita.
Common Types of Amari
There are no technical classifications for amari, but a rough breakdown by category may be helpful.
Herbaceous alpine amari are often made with pine, fir, gentian, and other plants that are native to mountainous regions. They are typically light in body.
Carciofo amari are made with artichoke leaves, which impart bitter and vegetal notes. They are usually used in tandem with other herbs and barks, meaning most members of this category won’t actually have a noticeable artichoke taste. The most well-known example is Cynar.
Fernet is a category of amari defined by intensely bitter and medicinal flavors. These amari are usually consumed as post-meal digestivi thanks to their strong flavors and viscous texture. Beet molasses historically has been used as the base distillate or sweetener, but according to Teague, amaro producers have begun experimenting with different ingredients in the past 10 years. Fernet-Branca is by far the most well-known fernet amaro.
This type of amaro uses the rootstock of the Chinese rhubarb plant, which takes on a smoky quality when dried. Common brands include Zucca Rabarbaro and Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro.
Tartufo is a type of amaro flavored with black truffles. Amaro al Tartufo is the most well-known.
A vino amaro, such as Cardamaro or Pasubio, is made using wine as its alcoholic base rather than a spirit. Teague notes that these bottles are becoming increasingly popular.
Because the world of amaro is so expansive, you’re bound to find a bottle that suits your palate. These are common amaro bottles you might find on a back bar, including light-bodied gateway amari and intense digestivi. Although our list mainly covers Italian producers with storied histories, both Teague and Zed say that many American companies are doing great work, such as Forthave Spirits in Brooklyn and Eda Rhyne Distilling Company in Asheville, North Carolina.
You’ve almost certainly heard of Aperol, thanks to the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. In 1919, brothers Luigi and Silvio Barberi took over their family’s company and launched the vivid orange-red liqueur in Padua with ingredients that include bitter and sweet oranges and rhubarb. (Drinkers also speculate that gentian and cinchona bark are in the secret recipe).
In Italy, Aperol Spritzes aren’t a short-lived trend but rather a part of everyday drinking culture, says Zed, and are typically consumed as a pre-dinner aperitivo. Aperol’s juicy orange and grapefruit flavors, low ABV at just 11%, and gentle bitterness make it an ideal entry point for someone who is just getting into the world of amaro, says Teague.
This sweet amaro was the first licensed spirit of Sicily. In 1868, a monk gifted his secret recipe to textile merchant Don Salvatore Averna. The resulting 60-ingredient recipe has been passed down for more than 150 years and has since come to define Sicilian amaro, which is known for its prominent citrus notes. Although the recipe is closely guarded, it likely includes bitter orange and lemon, licorice, and pomegranate.
“Averna comes off as kind of maple-y, with toasted walnut shells,” says Teague. “It might be intimidating based on looks, but it’s very approachable.” Both Zed and Teague say they would pour this amaro for a Manhattan drinker who wants to try a new variation like the Black Manhattan, which swaps in Averna for sweet vermouth. It has an ABV of 29%.
Perhaps the most well-known alpine amaro, Braùlio dates to 1875, when pharmacist Francesco Pauloni developed a recipe using ingredients from the landscape of Bormio, Italy, near the Swiss border. The closely guarded recipe includes more than 20 local herbs and botanicals, which are steeped in a neutral spirit and aged in Slovenian oak barrels for two years, rendering a complex and light-bodied amaro with an ABV of 21%.
Teague would recommend Braùlio for a Martini or Gin & Tonic drinker, thanks to its piney notes of juniper and fir. Zed also enjoys the amaro with tonic water and a touch of lime juice. “I think it’s the best aperitivo,” he says.
Beloved by bartenders for its mixability, Campari is an essential component of several classic cocktails, including the Negroni and its many variants, as well as more contemporary additions to the canon such as the tropical-inspired Jungle Bird. Gaspare Campari invented the liqueur in 1860 near Milan. Like most amari, its recipe is a closely held secret, but many drinkers speculate its prominent bitter flavor comes from chinotto oranges.
Although it features in countless cocktails, Campari is rarely sipped neat—perhaps for good reason. “If you’ve never had an amaro before, this one will strike you as quite bitter,” says Teague. Campari has an ABV of 24%.
Piedmontese scholar and herbalist Rachele Torlasco Bosca was inspired by the health benefits of the cardoon (a relative of the artichoke with an edible celery-like stalk) to create this light-bodied amaro with a base of moscato in the 1950s. The aromatic and gentle recipe has evolved to include 23 other herbs, including calumba, cloves, licorice root, and cardamom.
Because it is a wine-based vino amaro with a relatively low ABV of 17%, cardamaro makes a great herbaceous substitute for vermouth in cocktails, according to both Teague and Zed. Teague also notes that the wine gives this amaro a juicy, lip-smacking quality.
Created by Vincenzo Paolucci in 1873 and bottled by Paolucci Liquori, this amaro is named after an old moniker for central Italy and has an ABV of 30%. Its secret recipe likely includes gentian, cinnamon, and bitter oranges, and the dark-hued and syrupy amaro also has a distinctly cola-like taste, says Teague. Swap it for rum in a CioCaro and Coke, or sip it long with seltzer. Teague would also slide it into a dark Negroni variation, while Zed notes a strong presence of orange that would make it a good match for an Old Fashioned.
Despite the prominent artichoke on the label, this dark-brown and medium-bodied amaro does not taste like artichokes. But artichoke leaves are the only known component of the secret 12-ingredient recipe. Venetian businessman Angelo Dalle Molle (who also designed a series of electric cars) patented the amaro in 1952, touting the health benefits of the plant.
Today, Cynar is beloved by bartenders for its aromatic and slightly vegetal flavor profile. It has a relatively low ABV of 16.5%, although it’s also available in a 70-proof bottling with an ABV of 35%. Teague says he might introduce someone to the amaro via the Bitter Giuseppe, a low-ABV cocktail that uses Cynar as the base spirit alongside sweet vermouth, lemon juice, and orange bitters.
Vecchio Amaro Del Capo
Del Capo, which translates to “the boss,” dates to 1915, when it was created by Giuseppe Caffo in Calabria with a proprietary recipe of 29 ingredients and a 35% ABV. Zed says Del Capo is typical of southern Italian amari, thanks to plenty of bright citrus notes. “Because it’s a coastal amaro, it’s got a little salinity in there,” adds Teague.
Both Zed and Teague recommend using Del Capo in lieu of orange liqueur in a Margarita, and Zed also likes it in an Old Fashioned or served with soda water for an aperitivo cocktail. It’s traditionally enjoyed chilled, although Teague recommends drinking all amari at room temperature.
This viscous Sicilian amaro is still made with the original 1901 recipe, which comprises 26 ingredients that grow at the base of the namesake Mount Etna volcano, including bitter orange and spicy rhubarb. It wasn’t imported to the United States until 2017, but has since piqued drinkers’ interest with its unique flavor.
Teague compares Dell’Etna to the white powder on a stick of bubble gum, and likes it served with seltzer for a “bubble gum cola vibe,” or in Negroni variations. Zed likes its spice notes paired with ginger flavors. Dell’Etna has an ABV of 29%.
“I describe [Fernet-Branca] as grown-up Jägermeister,” says Teague. Part of the broader category of fernet amari, the minty and licorice-forward amaro was founded by Bernandino Branca in Milan in 1845; the known components of its secret recipe include myrrh, saffron, and gentian.
Today, a shot of Fernet-Branca is well-known as a “bartender’s handshake,” a liquid greeting to a fellow industry worker that is thought to have originated in San Francisco. If you don’t want to throw it back as a shot (and with an ABV of 39%, it’s just as strong as most spirits), you can sip the amaro on ice or with cola as in Argentina’s most popular cocktail, the Fernet con Coca. Both Teague and Zed say you should use it judiciously in cocktails due to its intensity. Classics that employ Fernet-Branca as a supporting ingredient include the Toronto and the Hanky Panky.
“I’ve always said if Coca-Cola were flat, alcoholic, and not quite as sweet, it would be the number-one selling amaro in the world,” says Teague. This amaro, founded by Silvo Meletti in 1870, in the Le Marche region of Italy’s central coast, might just prove his point. Teague likens the flavors to Coca-Cola, thanks to baking-spice notes of cinnamon, anise, and cloves. As such, Meletti tastes great simply topped with seltzer. Its chocolate-y notes would also make this amaro fantastic in an Espresso Martini, says Zed. Meletti has an ABV of 32%.
Montenegro is often thought of as a gateway amaro, but it’s widely beloved by even the most seasoned amari drinkers. “In my nearly 12 years at Amor y Amargo, I’ve never had someone say, ‘Ew, get this away,’” Teague says. Invented in 1885 by distiller and herbalist Stanislao Cobianchi in honor of Princess Elena Petrovíc-Njegoš of Montenegro, its 40 botanicals include baking spices, sweet and bitter oranges, artemisia, marjoram, oregano, and coriander seeds.
Zed says the warm baking-spice notes make Montenegro a great option for Old Fashioneds, and he is also fond of using it in Tiki drinks. Teague likes reaching for it to mimic juiciness in a drink, and he also notes “wet properties” like cucumber and celery on the back-end that make it delicious with gin, cucumber, and lime. Montenegro has an ABV of 23%.
Lucano was created by pastry chef Pasquale Vena in 1894 in the southern Italian region of Basilicata. It is made with more than 30 botanicals, including wormwood, gentian, and citrus peels, and has an ABV of 28%. Teague characterizes Lucano as rich, caramelly, and Coca Cola-esque, though a bit more savory than Averna or Meletti. Use it as you would Averna in a Manhattan variation, he says, or add it to an affogato for a slightly savory take on the dessert.
Amaro Nonino Quintessia
The Nonino family has distilled grappa, or grape brandy, since 1897, and in 1933 third-generation distiller Antonio Nonino began infusing aged grappa with herbs from the mountains of Friuli, producing a light-bodied, herbaceous, and citrusy amaro with an ABV of 35%.
Zed recommends Nonino as the best starting point for amari novices thanks to its lighter body and sweetness, while Teague finds it slightly more challenging for American palates due to the grappa base. Nonino Quintessia is famously a component of Sam Ross’s modern classic the Paper Plane, which also employs bourbon, Aperol, and lemon juice.
Developed by Ausano Ramazzotti in 1815, this Milanese liqueur is thought to be the oldest commercially produced amaro in Italy. The 33 botanicals within include Calabrian oranges, cinchona, rhubarb, gentian, and star anise. “It is the symbol of aperitivo, especially in Milan,” says Zed, noting that Averna fans might appreciate its baking-spice notes. “If Meletti-and-seltzer is Coca-Cola, Ramazotti-and-seltzer is Dr Pepper,” adds Teague. Although it’s dark in color, it’s not particularly viscous, and would make a good starter amaro, he says. Ramazzotto has an ABV of 30%.
Cappelletti Amaro Sfumato Rabarbaro
Sfumato comes from the Italian word “sfumare,” which translates to “evaporate like smoke.” This rabarbaro (rhubarb) amaro from the storied Cappelletti family is indeed smoky. When dried, the Chinese rhubarb in the recipe takes on a smoky aroma, which makes this amaro a natural match for someone who enjoys mezcal or a peated scotch.
Although you can pair with tequila or whiskey to mimic mezcal and scotch, respectively, Teague notes that you’ll want to use Sfumato sparingly in cocktails. Zed also says it would work well in a smoky Negroni variation. Sfumato has an ABV of 20%.