Here’s a beginner’s guide to Italian amari for the next time you’re in il bel paese and want to try one of these bittersweet after-dinner liqueurs.
Just like the pre-dinner aperitivo ritual, an amaro after dinner is practically compulsory, and being offered one in a restaurant in Italy is almost a certainty, but Amari are much more than a digestif, they’re a way of life.
Italy has various Amari, and most Italians have a firm favorite. Often, you can overhear discussions around the dinner table about which amaro is nicer, sweeter, more pungent, with each champion defending their favorite’s corner with pride and passion, like most things Italian.
But was is an amaro? Officially it’s an herbal liqueur made by infusing base alcohol with a blend of herb, spices and even flowers. The name, amaro, means bitter in Italian. It’s usually served in a shot or tumbler glass on the rocks, often finished with a citrus peel.
This digestif originated in ancient Rome, where patricians would macerate officinal herbs in their wine, consuming the herbs for their healing properties. Sold in pharmacies in the 20th century, amari have been distilled by families or monasteries for centuries—industrialization of the 21st century brought about the commercial versions we know and love today. Here’s a look at five of Italy’s most beloved amari.
1. Amaro Averna
Originating in Sicily, Amaro Averna’s dates back to the 19th century when the Benedictine monks of Abbazia Di Santo Spirito created the secret recipe. In 1868, Frà Girolamo gifted the recipe to textile merchant Salvatore Averna, who began producing it in his family’s farmhouse and proceeded to commercialize it. Like many Amari, Averna has a sweetness on the palate and its texture is almost sticky.
Dating back to the 1950s, Cynar is a unique amaro from Venice made from distilled artichoke leaves. The artichoke flavor is distinctive to Cynar’s taste, which is less sweet than many of its counterparts. Today, thanks to its unique blend of flavors, Cynar has become a popular ingredient in unusual cocktails created by adventurous mixologists.
3. Fernet Branca
One of the most well known (and exported) Italian amari is Fernet Branca, which hails from Milan. It was created in 1845 in the Fratelli Branca distillery. Unlike many others, it tastes mainly of eucalyptus and menthol, making it very fresh, almost like mouthwash, and quite possibly an acquired taste. While still very popular in Italy, Fernet Branca was exported to Argentina during one of the first waves of New World immigration at the turn of the 20th century and has since become a household favorite in the South American country. Argentinians have even created a cocktail; the Fernando made with Fernet Branca and cola – definitely worth a taste.
One of the most well-known Italian amari, Montenegro was created in 1885 by Stanislao Cobianchi in Bologna. One of the sweetest amari, Montenegro is famous for its unusually shaped bottle and its decade-old TV commercials. Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was a fan, having labeled it the “liqueur of virtues.” Due to its sweetness, and relatively low alcoholic percentage, Montenegro is often considered a starter amaro – for the beginner’s palate – but do drink it responsibly.
5. Vecchio Amaro del Capo
Vecchio Amaro del Capo is a Calabrese amaro produced by the Distilleria Caffo di Limbadi near Vibo Valentia. While the year of its invention by the Fratelli Caffo remains a mystery, the name of the liqueur is taken from Capo Vaticano, the area depicted on its (attractive) label, which is located near Tropea. Made with 29 local herbs, Amaro del Capo is very sweet, but a cult favorite amongst Italian amari lovers.