What is amaro?

Medicinal tonic, aperitivo, or both? Michael Madrusan of The Everleigh talks us through the wonderful world of the herbal liqueur, amaro.

By Michael Madrusan
It's rare in the booze world for a category to be defined by purpose rather than production, as amaro is, but it's this fact that really speaks to the magic of it. Devilishly difficult to pin down, an amaro is, broadly speaking, a bittersweet herbal liqueur. The word amaro is Italian for "bitter" and the best known examples of the category hail from mainland Italy and Sicily.
Italy is a nation steeped in history and tradition, much of which is based around the twin pillars of eating and drinking. The rules are simple: an aperitivo before dinner, wine during, and a glass of amaro afterwards to seal the deal.
The oldest styles of amari are digestivi: herbs and roots macerated in neutral brandy to extract both flavour and medicinal properties. Taken after dinner, they are said to settle the stomach and kickstart digestion. Anyone who's ever downed a swift tumbler of the intensely bitter Fernet-Branca after a long meal can attest to the truth in this. Originally created by medieval monks as medicinal tonics, these amari were hyper-local, with each village crafting its own proprietary blend of locally foraged ingredients. This regionality is still echoed in today's commercial counterparts: northern amari, such as Braulio, will taste strongly of alpine herbs like gentian; southern or Sicilian amari will tend towards a strong citrus profile. My personal favourite is Rucolino amaro from Campania, which is made using two types of rucola, or rocket. That's right, booze made from salad. You won't see this one on many shelves, but it is available online.
Other widely known liqueurs like Campari and Aperol are often referred to in Italy as "bitters", but not as amari, just in case things weren't confusing enough. Despite being very similar in make-up – bittersweet, herbal, low in alcohol – they serve quite a different purpose. Often brightly coloured, these bitters are amaro's happy-go-lucky sibling, intended to be consumed before dinner as an aperitivo to stimulate the appetite and signal that the day is done and the night is ahead. Practices we ourselves live by – just ask The Everleigh team. Here are a few go-to amari to best acquaint yourself with the drink.
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  • undefined: Michael Madrusan