"Amaro is the perfect foil for almost any drink," says Tad Carducci, the award-winning mixologist and co-founder of New York City-based beverage consultancy Tippling Bros of the ingredient popping up in bars across the country. "When we think how in love we are with bitters, with amaro, you can do the same thing, but in bigger volume."
That's because amaro is lower in alcohol than other spirits, a fact that has bartenders increasingly relying on its flavors to spruce up cocktails or even make a strong base. And the response from cocktail fans has been positive. "As we become more gastronomically aware, amaro has become more amenable," says Carducci.
The concept of mixing an amaro with cocktails at all is something Italians may never understand: Tradition says it is to be enjoyed straight. The often bittersweet spirit gained popularity in the country during the 19th century, when it transitioned from an elixir to a favored digestif. Through the years, individual families and towns have created their own closely-guarded formulas of herbs, roots, flowers, spices, and citrus peels – all common ingredients – that have been passed down through time. "Everyone is fiercely proud of their own," says Carducci, who travels to Italy frequently to meet with top amari brands. "It's funny. When you go over there to do cocktails, they think we're nuts."
With such a diverse set of flavors from one amaro to the next, it pays to know more about each. Some are better suited to cocktail construction while others are better straight up. Here are the amari brands you need to know about.
At the far end of the spectrum is the alpha male, Fernet Branca, a bracingly bitter amaro from Milan fit for palates that can stand up to assertive spirits. As a melting pot of more than 40 ingredients – including myrrh, chamomile, cinnamon, gentian, and saffron – its astringently dry taste can be too much potion for some. "It's more pointed when it comes to cocktails," Carducci says. "You have to finesse it." That reputation has made it the cocktail bartenders' "handshake," or shot of choice.