Learning more about spirits–like sloe gin or mezcal–brings me a lot of joy. I’ve been exploring the fundamentals and ingredients in cocktails. The more I discover, the more I know I have so much to learn. I knew amaro was often served as an after-dinner drink, but that was about it. I hadn’t even heard of the plural form, amari, until I started reading up on it. If you want to be a bit more in the know, here’s my primer on amaro. And, of course I’ve included a couple of my favorite amaro cocktails to help you fully explore this delicious liqueur.
What is amaro?
Chances are, you already own a bottle (or eight, like me) of an amaro liqueur. If you’re not sure, this list will help you see what qualifies. So what is an amaro? The word “amaro” means bitter in Italian. It’s an herbal, bitter liqueur between 16-40% ABV. Amaro was first invented in the 12th century for medicinal purposes and a collision of trade roots. Wine from the Middle East and spices from Europe. The alcohol helped preserve the medicinal properties of the herbs and roots.
The modern category is credited to Gaspare Campari who sold a bitters-style aperitif throughout Italy in the 1840s. (If you’re not familiar with bitters, read this post.) He spent 20 years developing the first version of Campari, which included a red dye made from cochineal insects. While Campari’s modern recipe has evolved, it stays true to the key markers of an amaro. These include a base of neutral spirits or wine and a mixture of many herbs, roots, flowers, barks, and citrus peels. A sugar syrup is added and the mixture is aged in bottles or casks. The final result is a balanced herbal liqueur. There are eleven main categories of amari including light, medium, vermouth (wine based), and fernet (dark and minty). Amari are typically made in Europe, however there are some made in North America.
Ways to enjoy amaro
There are two main ways to enjoy an amaro. The first is to sip an amaro neat (without ice) as a digestif after a meal. This is also a great way to determine what types of amari you prefer. And the second is to enjoy it in an amaro cocktail. With a wide range of flavor profiles, there are many ways to alter a recipe you might already love. The complexity and texture of a velvet smooth amaro can take even the humblest of drinks to something that is really impressive.
Classic Amaro Cocktails
Classic cocktails are typically known by most bartenders. While many modern cocktail bars invent their own drinks, they will usually be able to make you one of these. Most of them have been around for a long time and highlight the flavors of amari quite prominently. They tend to be made from ingredients you are likely to have in your standard home bar. Here are two very different amaro cocktails for you to try. The Ford cocktail recipe was published in George J. Kapeler’s “Modern American Drinks,” circa 1895. And the Aperol Spritz became a popular alternative to white wine and soda in Italy in the 1950s.
- 1 oz London dry gin
- 1 oz dry vermouth
- 0.5 oz Benedictine
- 3 dashes orange bitters
- 1 lemon peel (for garnish)
- Add all ingredients (except garnish) to a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir for approximately 30 seconds until properly diluted and cold.
- Strain into a chilled Nick and Nora glass and serve with a lemon peel.
- 1.5 oz Aperol
- 2 oz prosecco
- 1 splash soda water
- 1 slice orange
- Fill a wine glass with ice.
- Add Aperol to the glass, followed by the prosecco.
- Top with a splash of soda water and an orange slice.
Special Amaro Cocktails
I am designating this section of amaro cocktails as “special” because of their unique flavor profiles. You are not likely to find these drinks in every bar which makes them fun to create at home. The first one pictured is one that I recently discovered and shared, called the Ruby Diamond and features mezcal, gin, and Campari. In the center, is the White Negroni created by Wayne Collins in 2000 at Death & Co. (A classic Negroni uses sweet vermouth in place of the dry vermouth and swaps out Campari for Suze.) And the final amaro cocktail I want to share with you is the Paper Plane. It’s named after the song by M.I.A. (both were released in 2007) and was invented by Sam Ross, co-owner of Attaboy and Diamond Reef in New York City. Admittedly, I bought a bottle of the Amaro Nonino just for this recipe.
- 1.5 oz gin
- 1 oz Suze
- 0.75 oz dry vermouth
- 1 twist orange peel
- Add all ingredients (except peel) to a mixing glass with ice.
- Stir until cold (approximately 30 seconds).
- Strain over one large ice cube in a rocks glass.
- Express orange oil from peel over the drink and set on top of the ice cube.
- 0.75 oz bourbon
- 0.75 oz Aperol
- 0.75 oz Amaro Nonino
- 0.75 oz lemon juice
- Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice.
- Shake until frost forms on the outside of the shaker tins.
- Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish with a tiny paper airplane.