That’s Amaro

Paul Blow

Amaro is a drink of extremes. The loose category of Italian liquors includes everything from Fernet-Branca—that inky, medicinal-tasting liqueur—to Averna, a sweet tipple with notes of orange rind and ginger, and undertones of coffee, chocolate, and caramel. It’s either sipped after a meal or “shot” as an end-of-evening closer. It’s either loved or hated.

The love-hate dichotomy is usually attributed to Fernet-Branca, which has in the last few years become a fashionable drink in places like San Francisco and New York. Some of the most sophisticated drinkers I know cannot live without it, yet other connoisseurs call it garbage.

But for those—that is, most people—who can’t stand it, there is good news. Fernet-Branca is just one amaro of many, and they all taste different. There is no formal definition of amaro, but all drinks bearing that name are made from neutral spirits (vodka, basically) infused with some mix of herbs, spices, roots, and rinds, and they are traditionally consumed after a meal as a digestivo. Their alcohol content varies: Averna’s is 32 percent; Fernet-Branca’s is 40 percent. There are other amari that call themselves Fernet, though they are using the name as a knockoff; it originated with Fernet-Branca in 1845.

Many amaro recipes were developed centuries ago, but the beverages started becoming commercial in the late 19th century as regional medicinal tonics (amaro means bitter in Italian). Fernet’s stronghold is Milan, while Averna, Italy’s largest amaro producer, is most popular in Sicily. Similar German spirits like J√§germeister and Underberg or French ones such as Chartreuse can also be classified as bitters or amari.

Not long ago I visited the Averna distillery in Caltanissetta, Sicily. The recipe was developed by monks as medicine, and given to Salvatore Averna in 1854 for all that he had done to help the church. The recipe hasn’t changed over time except for the addition of caramelized sugar that gives Averna a black, Fernet-like color and that probably helped the beverage transition over time from health aid to digestivo. Francesco Averna, Salvatore’s grandson and now head of the company, emphasized his product’s difference from Fernet-Branca (and the way Americans tend to drink it): “For us to drink amaro is a pleasure and to drink slowly, not to shoot or get drunk, but to take time and enjoy,” he said.

Averna and Fernet, though they look similar, represent opposite ends of the taste spectrum, and most of the other brands on the U.S. market fall somewhere in between. Ramazzotti is sort of an Averna lite: It’s a bit on the sweet side but lighter bodied and less viscous. New York bartender Toby Cecchini showed me the nice combination of drinking Ramazzotti and espresso side by side and then using the amaro to rinse out the last drops in the espresso cup—a delicious final sip. The spirits company Luxardo makes its own Fernet, which is much more on the Fernet-Branca side: bitter and astringent. Amaro Nardini lies in the middle—it is not as harsh as Fernet-Branca or Fernet Luxardo, but is less rich and sweet than Ramazzotti. And in true Italian tradition, there’s even some regional production in the United States. At the New York restaurant Del Posto in February, I tried its house-made amaro, based on radicchio. It smelled funkily like the leafy vegetable but tasted very good.

All of them are good for settling the stomach after a meal, as well as good to drink. The great pleasure of having so much variety means you can find a brand that you like and then get into rousing arguments with Italians and your local bartender about which is the best.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco‚Äďbased wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.