A while back I started going through a phase where I would buy any reasonably well-reviewed bottle of Italian amaro I could find at my local liquor store, in a halfhearted and somewhat misguided attempt to reconnect with my Italian roots (my mother is from Sicily). I can't honestly say that it worked (what would that even look like? I already talk with my hands, I don't need to do it more) but it did result, as you might expect, in a small collection of Italian amari being added to my home bar.
(The plural of "amaro", as I learned, is "amari", not "amaros" so, hey, maybe it did kind of work after all)
The word "amaro" means "bitter" in Italian and, accordingly, amari are a class of Italian herbal liqueurs characterized by a syrupy, bittersweet flavour, often described as "medicinal". They are usually consumed after a heavy meal as a digestif and they vary in strength from "strong wine" (15%) to "out-and-out hard liquor" (40%).
I can testify that they do work, in the sense of settling your stomach after a large meal. I'm not sure how, but one theory is that our brains associate bitter tastes with poison and so, when confronted with such, will stimulate the production of digestive juices.
You can think of them as Italy's answer to a product like Jaggermeister, a German digestif, though I realize as I write this that the comparison would probably be considered unfavourable, as Jaggermeister has a bad reputation (stemming, I suspect, more from teenage antics than because of any inherently bad qualities). They can also be compared to something like Chartreuse, a similar French herbal digestif about which I have written before, and I suspect the comparison there is a bit more flattering.
The flavour profile of a typical amaro is a balance between sweet and bitter, herbal and citrus, spicy and floral. Depending on the brand, some of these qualities are more prominent than others. So, in that spirit (ha!), I have decided to taste test all the amari I have in my bar, side by side, to see how they compare. Here they are, lined up for your viewing pleasure:
I'll give away some of the ending right now: they do differ quite significantly in flavour, and some are definitely more of an acquired taste than others (I'm looking at you, Fernet Branca).
I don't really have any consistent strategy for describing the flavours here and to be honest a lot of this is for my benefit as much as anyone's but, still, if you've never tried this kind of tipple, you may find this useful to some extent. Here we go!
Colour: Dark, maybe even black, like Cola.
Taste: sweet, medical, syrupy, caramel.
This one dates back to 1868 and hails from Caltanissetta, Sicily. It's apparently quite famous in that region. The bottle is annoyingly tall, which sounds petty, I know, but it's hard to fit on my bar cart and that's irritating!
Like almost all amari, the recipe here is a closely guarded secret but is supposed to include things like orange peel. I have to admit, I didn't really detect any citrus.
All in all, I found that this one tasted vaguely of cough medicine. It was sickly sweet, medical, syrupy, with some caramel notes. There was some bitterness, as always in an amaro, but it's not the most prominent flavour.
I got to say, not my favourite. A little too on the syrupy side.
Colour: Dark, like the Averna.
Taste: Bitter, vegetal.
Although Zucca is Italian for "squash" or "pumpkin", the name actually comes from Caffè Zucca in Milan, where it's a featured drink. The main gimmick here would be the inclusion of Chinese rhubarb as an ingredient, though I'm not sure I detected it specifically as anything more than a vague vegetal aftertaste.
In any case, this one was quite intensely bitter, more so than the other amari I tried, with a lingering, almost harsh aftertaste. It was borderline unpleasant. I would not call this drink approachable.
Colour: Dark, like Cola.
Taste: Bitter, syrupy, vegetal.
On the bitter side, though not as bitter as the Zucca; it was smoother and a bit sweeter and more syrupy.
The gimmick here is the inclusion of artichoke as an ingredient (Cynara scolymus), hence the name. That being said, I don't really detect any artichoke in the flavour, beyond perhaps a vague kind of vegetal aftertaste.
Better than the Zucca, and if I wanted a bitter tasting digestif, I'd probably go for this one. but I still would not call this vary approachable.
Colour: Amber, perhaps the colour of a sweet vermouth or an aged whisky.
Taste: Sweet, perfumed, floral, spicy.
This one hails from Bologna. Very sweet, perfumed and floral. Some bitterness, obviously, but it's in the background and isn't the main focus of the drink. Much more obviously spiced than the other amari.
All in all, quite delicious and approachable. Maybe my favourite of the bunch.
Colour: Amber, like the Montenegro.
Taste: Sweet, citrus.
This one is a stronger amaro, based on grappa, hailing from Friuli, Italy. The bitterness here is more pronounced than the Montenegro, but less so than, for example, the Zucca or Cynar. I find the citrus is more obvious here, almost like a Triple Sec.
I liked it, but maybe not as much as the Montenegro. Still quite approachable.
Colour: Dark amber
Taste: Sweet, herbal.
This one comes from Calabria. It's rather sweet, and not as intensely bitter as the Zucca or Cynar.
The flavour is hard to pin down. There's anise, some citrus, and some mint. Like all amari, there's bitterness there, but it doesn't hit you over the head.
I would say that the anise is a bit more noticeable than the other amari on this list, which would make this one comparable to something like Jaggermeister or Chartreuse, though a bit more complex.
I like this one a lot, to be honest.
Taste: Sweet, citrus with notes of anise
This one dates back to 1894 and was apparently created by a pastry chef.
There's anise and citrus here. Bitterness, as always, and it's more pronounced that the Montenegro. Less harsh than the Zucca, but still comparable: black, syrupy, bitter, medicinal.
I actually quite liked this one, maybe more than the Cynar, but perhaps not as much as the Vecchio.
Taste: Bitter, minty, lacking in sweetness
My goodness, how to describe Fernet-Branca? It's completely unlike anything else in this collection, to the point where I was debating whether I should write about it at all. Wikipedia calls it an amaro, though, so I decided, somewhat grudgingly, to include it.
There is very little sweetness here, and a big hit of mint, with a lingering bitter finish. More than anything else on this list, the taste can best be described as "medicinal". I mean that literally; Fernet-Branca really does taste like medicine, and not necessarily in a good way.
There are, apparently, some people who actually like the taste, but I haven't met any of them. Calling it an "acquired taste" might be considered diplomatic.
Drink it to calm your stomach, and hope for the best.
Where to Go From Here?
Amari are part of a wider class of herbal liqueurs that are often drunk as apertifs or digestifs. I've already mentioned Jaggermeister and Chartreuse, but Campari, Aperol, Suze and others also fall into this category. I'm not including them in this post more for technical reasons than anything else; several are not Italian and hence not "amari" and a few, though Italian, are not considered amari for reasons that remain mysterious to me (have you tasted Campari? It's nothing if not bitter).
At some point I'll likely do a taste test of these bottles, and maybe even try out some cocktails, but for the moment this post will have to do. Enjoy, everyone!