I’ll often find customers standing in front of Surdyk’s ever-expanding amaro selection with puzzled looks on their faces. They might tell me that they want to try an amaro, but don’t really even know what they are. I don’t blame them for being a little perplexed. Not only are many amari (the plural of amaro) relatively new to the American market, they also encompass a vast array of wildly different colors, aromas, flavors, and strength.
So let’s start with the basics. An amaro—which just means “bitter” in Italian—is a bittersweet herbal liqueur, most often produced in Italy (though lately several local distillers are getting in on the act). Amari are typically made by soaking a host of botanicals in some kind of distillate, usually a neutral spirit or grape brandy. Each amaro has its own unique mix of botanicals, many of which are grown in the region where the amaro is made. Among the most common botanicals used as bittering agents are gentian root, wormwood, and cinchona bark. Before bottling, a sweetener such as sugar syrup or honey is also added to balance out the bitterness. The resulting level of bitterness can range from the merest hint on the finish to a mouth-puckering wallop, while the alcohol content might fall anywhere from 16% to 40%.
Some amari are enjoyed as pre-dinner aperitifs, usually mixed with other ingredients in cocktails. If you’ve ever had an Aperol Spritz or a Negroni made with Campari, then you’ve had an amaro. But most are traditionally consumed neat as after-dinner digestifs. In recent years, however, bartenders have enthusiastically embraced these, too, in creating new cocktails.
If you’re looking to explore the exciting world of amaro, Sicily is an excellent place to start. Long-popular Averna, made in Sicily since 1868, was one of the first amaro digestifs to make its way to American liquor store shelves. Bitter oranges and lemons are added to the herbs and spices in the infusion, lending Averna a bright citrus note. Amaro dell’Etna, created in 1901, is a relative newcomer to our shores, having first been introduced here in 2017. With its complex herbal flavors and a perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness, it may be my current favorite amaro. To try it in a cocktail, stop by Sidebar at Surdyk’s and order a Highland Star, which combines Amaro dell’Etna with single malt Scotch, allspice dram, and Benedictine to fashion a delightfully comforting winter warmer.
By David Mahoney, Surdyk’s wine and spirits consultant