Recently, I shared a taste of the amaro Ramazzotti with a friend. Her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh my God. What is this stuff and why didn’t I know about it?” There’ve been a lot of those reactions over the last few years as bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts fell in love with the sprawling world of amari, those rich, herbal liqueurs Italians have been enjoying since the early 1800s as health tonics and companions for food.
WHAT ARE AMARI?
For untold years before the rise of modern pharmaceuticals, people used plants as medicine through (sometimes fatal) trial-and-error experimentation. Simply put, amari (plural of amaro, Italian for “bitter”) are booze with sugar and a range of health-specific botanicals added, but always with a bitter component – usually Gentian. The root of the flowering Yellow Gentian was used as an anti-inflammatory stomach tonic to help stimulate appetite and ease digestion. Now, when you hear “bitter,” don’t think it’s going to be nasty and disgusting. If you like good chocolate or good coffee, your palate already understands how pleasant bitterness can be when combined with sweetness. It’s like life, you know – you take the good with the bad. The most common style of amaro production uses a neutral spirit base (typically vodka or grappa) loaded up with differing botanicals (roots, bark, herbs, flowers, spices), sugar, and (sometimes nowadays) caramel coloring. These are often family recipes passed down through the generations and they vary by region. Typical amari botanicals may include anise, chamomile, chinchona, ginger, lemon balm, licorice, mint, orange peel, rhubarb, saffron, sage, thyme – even artichoke at the weird end of things. Amari range in proof from 40 to 80 percent, so they can be a pleasant alternative beverage when you don’t want something too strong.
Vermouths (both the sweet Italian style and the dry French style) can be thought of similar to amari – they’re just made with a fortified wine base in place of the neutral spirit and wormwood as one of the bitter components (where allowed). Vermouth got its start in Asia around 1000 BC (wow) and later came to rise in Germany as a digestive tonic for the upper class, something they would take a sip of between each bite so they could keep gorging themselves, striving for the overweight appearance prized as a status symbol. But German vermouth had a reputation as ruthlessly efficient and equally unpleasant. It took tavern worker Antonio Carpano of Turin, Italy to bring his family’s recipe to his bosses, a finessing of the idea of vermouth for his German customers in 1786, that perfected it with a blend of sweetness and spice in a recipe that’s emulated with the Carpano Antica vermouth sold today.
Vermouths are typically enjoyed over ice with a lemon twist as “aperitifs,” a before-dinner kickstart, a reset button that marks the border between the workday and the evening. Amari are sipped after dinner as “digestifs,” neat (straight from the bottle at room temperature) to help settle the dinner down and prevent that two-hour dead zone of loginess.
Amari can be kept at room temperature – their sugar content helps keep them shelf-stable. Vermouths should always be refrigerated after opening and used within a couple weeks, if possible. It helps to buy vermouth in 375 mL bottles, or to share a larger 750 mL (or even 1 L in the case of Carpano Antica) with a friend and store it in smaller bottles or jars.
There are hundreds of amari produced across Europe, maybe a couple dozen that are available here in the U.S. It’s hard to segment them into rigid defining types as there’s much crossover, but the general agreement seems to be on these basic distinctions:
MEDIUM: The core of the class, these amari are rich and potent, but never overwhelming. Look for Amaro Montenegro as a great starting taste that represents amari at their best. Also worth tracking down are Ramazzotti and Averna.
FERNET: Always overwhelming (in a good way), these amari are prized for their curative properties – but their intense herbal menthol flavor is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Best known are Fernet-Branca and Luxardo Fernet.
CHINA: Pronouncedly bitter with sweetness diminished, these borderline amari are nearly always consumed mixed and served as aperitifs. Made with the medicinal chinchona calisaya bark, they’re just too intense on their own. Best known are Campari, Aperol, and Tempus Fugit’s nouveau-retro Gran Clasico. There’s a great new Calisaya liqueur made in Eugene, Oregon that revives this long-lost ingredient in many pre-prohibition cocktails.
OTHERS: From here, things get even deeper into niches. There’s Alpine types made with mountain herbs, Carciofo made with artichoke, Tartufo made with truffles, and more.
OTHERS: Stepping away from these two classic styles are a round of variations: white (also called bianco or blanc), amber, and rosé. Again, Dolin makes a heavenly blanc vermouth.
Now: even though these amari and vermouths are typically enjoyed on their own in Europe, that hasn’t stopped bartenders around the world from experimenting with their use in cocktails of all kinds. Vermouth’s popularity in New York City around 1870 gave birth to an all-new style of stirred cocktails including the Martinez, the Manhattan, and the Martini. One of my favorite new-school amari drinks is the “Vienna by Train,” a low-proof sipper by Chris Bostick while he was at The Varnish in Los Angeles.
By all means, enjoy these mixed (they are delicious in cocktails when done right)… but some traditions are worth exploring and maintaining. Try some vermouth before your next big meal and an amaro afterwards; You may agree there’s something special to this old-time medicine after all.
A giant vat of thanks to Mollie Casey of The Henry Wine Group for sharing her knowledge of and enthusiasm for amari.
Milan, Italy (1860s)
Situation: you’re gearing up for dinner, but it’s still a ways away. A Negroni sounds great, but in this heat? Not exactly refreshing. You just want a little something to sip on, something tall, something… satisfying. Satisfying without knocking you on your ass, if possible. Americano to the rescue.
Back in the 1860s, Gaspare Campari (yes, that Campari) ran a bar in Milan, the Caffè Campari. Locals enjoyed a late-afternoon cocktail of half-Campari / half-vermouth cut with seltzer they called the “Milano-Torino” (vermouth being from Turin and all). As more and more Americans visited Italy during Prohibition for a break from the squares ruining the party back home, the Milano-Torino became their favorite. So much so, the barkeep at Caffè Campari renamed it the “Americano.” Try it out next time you need a vacation from the heat.
Hardware: Jigger, Barspoon, Straw (optional)
Ice: Cracked ice
Glassware: Collins glass
Mixers & Liqueurs: Campari, Italian vermouth, Tonic water (recommended: Fever-Tree), sparkling mineral water (recommended: Pellegrino), or seltzer
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange wheel
In a Collins glass filled with cracked ice, add:
1 1/2 oz Campari
1 1/2 oz Italian vermouth
Stir well to blend and chill, then top with:
1 1/2 oz tonic water, sparkling mineral water, or seltzer
Stir lightly to blend and garnish with an orange wheel. Optionally, serve with a straw.
Uncertain origin (1870s)
For most of the 19th century, anything called a “cocktail” was of the same template: a spirit with sugar, a bit of water (or ice), and bitters. As vermouth became available in the US around 1870, there was a surge of revolutionary cocktails pairing this exotic new item with spirits: gin, genever, bourbon, rye, Scotch, rum, brandy… people couldn’t get enough of the stuff. The original pairing of spirit with vermouth and bitters may have been the Turf Club – unfortunately, history is frustratingly hazy on this subject. Damned drinkers! The classic Martini and Manhattan came from this period, as did the Martinez. It’s most likely named for the San Francisco-adjacent East Bay town that was a hub of activity during the Gold Rush. The oldest printed recipe for the Martinez specifies a ratio of one part spirit to two parts vermouth – the variation I prefer marks a subsequent point in its evolution, at a one-to-one ratio. All these spirit-and-vermouth cocktails went through a long dry spell in the 20th century, some getting down to just a quarter-ounce of vermouth, others just rinse the ice with vermouth before stirring and drain out any excess. Why the fear of vermouth? Who knows. I’m just glad that bartenders are re-embracing denser ratios these days.
Old Tom gin was most likely used in the original recipe since the London Dry style hadn’t taken hold yet. Another possibility would be genever, called “Holland gin” back in the day – try this with Bols genever sometime if you really want to get a taste of the past. The Martinez is one of my favorite examples of “time travel in a glass” – imagine yourself in a candlelit saloon, heavy with dark wood and red velvet, as you sip this. You may just get the urge to head across the Bay and go panning for gold.
Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Vegetable peeler
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Old Tom gin (recommended: Hayman’s, Ransom)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Carpano Antica, Dolin red), Maraschino liqueur (recommended: Luxardo)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange bitters (recommended: Regan’s), orange twist
Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
In a mixing glass, add:
1 1/2 oz Old Tom gin
1 1/2 oz Italian vermouth
1/3 oz maraschino liqueur
2 dashes orange bitters
Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then strain into the prepared, chilled glass. Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Garnish with the twist laid across the surface of the drink.