Amaro cocktails are easy, crowd-pleasing, and sophisticated

Bittersweet booze is perfect for the holidays.
Bittersweet booze is perfect for the holidays.
Image: REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
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You’ve probably seen amari, from big brands like Campari and Averna to artisanal bottles made in Brooklyn, prettily lining the back bar at your favorite Italian restaurant or assertively flavoring drinks on high-end cocktail menus. It seems like every bartender and lifestyle magazine, is obsessed with blending the bitter, sweet and herbal flavors that make amaro so delicious into ever more byzantine concoctions.

Here’s the secret though—amari are easy to incorporate into your liquor cabinet at home, food friendly, and perfect for a wintery drink. Plus, they make you look like a real cocktail pro.

Amaro is made all over Italy, and although Italians would prefer to keep the name to themselves (there is no official labeling process, unlike other Italian culinary treasures such as Chianti or parmigiano reggiano), amaros and amaro-like liqueurs are produced all over Europe and the US.

Though they vary greatly in flavor profile and alcohol content, amari are all made from carefully guarded blends of citrus or other fruit such as rhubarb, as well as aromatics and herbs, in either a wine base or a neutral spirit base. They all have an underlying bitterness, though some are also quite sweet.

“When one gets ready to jump down the bittersweet rabbithole and explore the world of amaro, the first thing you realize is that, unlike whiskey, rum, beer, wine and other spirits, there isn’t a rule book when it comes to amaro production, classification, regulation and even appreciation,” writes writes Brad Thomas Parsons in his book Amaro: The Spirited World Herbal Liqueurs. ”The primary issue is the secrecy around the recipes.”

Italians tend to drink the sweeter, lighter ones, such as Aperol and Campari, which have big notes of citrus and a bitter undercurrent, as a spritz or in a negroni during aperitivo, which is like happy hour, (without the chicken wings or drunkenness that many Americans associate with the tradition). Aperitivo usually consists of a light drink and snack in the early evening, shared with friends, a practice that signals the end of the work day and is said to “open the stomach” for dinner.

But the end of outdoor drinking season doesn’t mean no more spritzes until spring. “A lot of people tend to think of them as something for warm weather only,” says Talia Baiocchi, editor in chief of Punch and co-author of Spritz, Italy’s Most Iconic Aperitivo Cocktail. “They transition really nicely into the winter when you’re using things like a Braulio or an alpine amaro, instead of something like Campari or Aperol.”

Those very herbaceous amari from Italy’s alpine north can combine with soda water and prosecco to make a winter spritz, as Baiocchi suggests. Traditionally, they, along with the most bitter versions of amaro, like Fernet-Branca, are often consumed neat, as a digestif after a big meal. Both of these customs are a perfect match for holiday dinners. (If you really catch the amaro bug, you can start Thanksgiving with a spritz and some appetizers, and then end with a bottle of Fernet.)

Shopping for amari offers the delight of discovery. It’s perfectly fine not to know what you’re getting into when you buy a new amaro. There are hundreds, they’re all different; tasting them is the only way to figure out how bitter or sweet, bright or rich they are, and what sort of botanical flavor profile they have. Never hesitate to ask for a description when you’re buying—some stores will even have a bottle open somewhere so that you can sample.

You don’t have to be an expert here. The key is to have a few go-to recipes so you’ll always be able to turn what you buy into something delicious by adding sweetness, tartness and bubbles as you see fit. If you want to up your amaro game without venturing too far outside the familiar, just upgrade your negroni using either Gran Classico or Forthave Red. Both are similar to Campari, but a bit more complex—Forthave is definitely earthier, and Gran Classico is just more complex and interesting.

“I always like to have a bittersweet component, a sour component and then a bubbly component when I’m thinking about the spritz format,” says Baiocchi.

She also outlined how to work amari into a classic sour format:

  • 2 ounces spirit (gin or vodka are both very neutral, whiskey and rum have more going on)
  • 3/4 ounce citrus (lemon, lime or grapefruit juice)
  • 3/4 ounce sweetener (usually simple syrup)

“What you can do is keep the spirit intact, replace the sweetener, which is typically the simple syrup, with something like Averna, which is on the sweeter side in terms of amari and then keep your citrus the same,” she says. Don’t get hung up on the whiskey sour here—a margarita, a sidecar and a daiquiri all count as sours, too, and you can use them as templates.

Amari are also an excellent way to practice your cocktail building skills, by thinking about those questions of flavor and balance. “The key is understanding a classic cocktail and what each of the components represent, and it’s quite easy to go from there and swap different products in and out that fulfill that flavor component,” Baiocchi says.

Here are three basic ways to enjoy amaro, to get you started.

Neat or on the rocks

Averna on the rocks, with a twist.
Averna on the rocks, with a twist.
Image: Averna

Found an amaro you love? This could not be simpler: Drink it neat or pour a couple ounces over ice and add a lemon or orange twist.

Good choices for beginners include Averna, Nonino, and Forthave Marseille.


aperol spritz with snacks
This Aperol spritz, snack combination for two pretty much sums up the Italian custom of aperitivo.
Image: Aperol

The classic Aperol spritz uses a 3-2-1 recipe: three parts prosecco, two parts Aperol, then one part soda water. Baiocchi notes that most amari are more bitter than Aperol, so you may want to build the cocktail in a 3-1-1 ratio, then add more if desire. “I do think that ‘two’ measurement is going to probably be, for most amari, a bit too aggressive,” she says.

Baiocchi recommends reducing the ratio for many amaros, or using a sweeter one like Cynar. You can also swap the prosecco for cider or ginger beer, especially when using a more bitter amaro that needs a punch of sweetness.

I often flip the prosecco and seltzer measurements, or even just do three parts seltzer and one part amaro and add a squeeze of lemon and a twist, so that I can drink something low in alcohol, yet satisfying like a cocktail. These are pretty much impossible to screw up, and you can tinker a bit as you go to find the right balance of sweet, bitter and citrus.

Try Cynar, St. George Spirits Bruto Americano, or Zucca Rabarbaro for this, or any of the red amaros, such as Gran Classico or Forthave Rosso.


The negroni

The classic Campari negroni.
The classic Campari negroni.
Image: Campari

You can also make a boozier cocktail with an amaro. Start with a basic negroni recipe, which is equal parts gin, Campari, and red vermouth. Swap any amaro for the Campari. Or, swap the spirit and use tequila, whiskey, or applejack in place of gin. Or replace the vermouth with a liqueur like St. Germain.

The key here is boozy heft, plus bittersweet aromatics from the amaro, balanced with sweetness and body from the vermouth, tweak and recombine as you, and your liquor cabinet, see fit. Don’t be afraid to add a splash of prosecco or soda if it feels too heavy. 

Or, to lighten things up quite a bit, replace the gin with prosecco for a negroni sbagliato, a classic Milanese cocktail that has a bit more punch than a spritz.