Having been to Italy a few times, Amaro remains as the aperitif of choice. It’s quite surprising really because an intensely bitter, and let’s face it does mean ‘bitter’ in Italian, drink is incredibly popular as an after dinner digestif. It includes Campari and vermouth in the family and in terms of its flavour which is essentially bitter with sweet and a little bit on the syrupy side. Amaro seems to have few boundaries and there appear to be an infinite array of cocktails which can be prepared from this quintessential herbal liqueur.
The key feature is in the flavourings. Gentian and other flowers, herbs, pieces of bark, orange peel along with iron and quinine make for a heady spirited liqueuer. All these ingredients are macerated with alcohol or a form of neutral spirit. Sugar syrup or straight sugarcane is added to raise the sweetness profile. The alcohol content appears to vary considerably – between 16% rising to 45% in some versions although at the higher limits we are moving out of amaro territory. All of this is stored in bottles or very old-fashioned wooden casks to allow the maturing process to really create those fine bitter flavours.
Amaro is claimed by many hardened Italians to have excellent digestive and tonic properties, to cure all sorts of hangovers and even to have aphrodisiac properties. My earlier pun was intended because that latter reason may be why it is so popular throughout Italy. Most of the recipes originate in the 1800s and appear to have come out of the chemists and pharmacies. There are a few which were thought up in a monastery but these may well have marketing connotations rather than consider the religious aspect of the drink.
The idea of using herbs in spirits goes back to Roman and Ancient Greek times when they infused wine with plants. The medicinal benefits stuck.
Amaro is the singular of amari by the way – just in case you see articles which comment on the many types. Although Campari is a rival it is a member of the amaro family. Then there is Aperol and Amaro Nonino. If you examine the branded products then Amaro Nonino might be one to look for. The web-site details explicitly how it came about.
Other famous types include Fernet which is one of the sharpest and pungent to come across. Look out for Luxardo Fernet, Fernet Branca or Fernet Stock. If you like Vermouths because they are wine-based rather than grain-based then try Amero and Amaro Diesus del Frate.
Negroni is a wonderful cocktail which has become a favourite of the US. It relies on Campari and is named after a Florentine count. Apparently, Camillo negroni in 1919 requestedthe bartender called Fosco Sarselli at the Hotel Baglioni which he was visiting, to replace the soda in his Americano for a gin.