Currently, nothing signifies membership to the innermost circle of cocktail culture like an appreciation for Amari. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, come closing time, many a bartender (who could grab anything on the back bar) will reach for the Fernet. And any cocktail list worth the intentionally old-timey paper it’s printed on offers an obligatory Amaro-based libation (or two). Amari—the plural of Amaro, or “bitter” in Italian—refers to a broad range of Italian herbal liqueurs, traditionally drunk neat, as digestifs. But, as Tristan Willey—Bar Manager for Momofuku Ssam Bar, and fan of Amari—points out, the toothsome spirits are not so easy to classify. Some function more as aperitifs; they’re made all over the world, and the style can be traced back to the Pharaohs. With Tristan’s guidance, we’ve created a shortlist of favorites, with a few cocktailing suggestions.
Fernet-Branca (right): The Fratelli Branca Distillerie maintains that their recipe of 27-herbs and spices (from four continents) has been unchanged since its creation, in 1845, by amateur apothecary Bernardino Branca. Once touted for its (wholly imagined) health benefits, this thick, bitter, high-proofed Amaro is a cult favorite among chefs and bartenders—and an acquired taste for many. The biting character comes primarily from the gentian root. But the camphor element, Mr. Willey explains, makes Fernet soothing to sip. Used sparingly, Fernet can add heft and complexity to a cocktail. (We like it in espresso too).
Amaro Montenegro: One of Mr. Willey’s favorite Amari for mixing, Montenegro is certainly less divisive than Fernet—lighter and less viscous, with an assertive and pleasant bitter orange character. Montenegro is made in Bologna, using over 40-herbs; it’s been around since the late 1800s, and was apparently named for Princess Elena of Montenegro. And the bottle, some amalgamation of maple syrup kitch and genie prison, will blow up the hip quotient for any home bar. Try it with equal parts Laird’s gin, Carpano Antica, and a couple dashes of Angostura Bitters (recipe courtesy of Mr. Willey).
Amaro CioCiaro: CioCiaro certainly has the full body typical of Amari, but tilts more sweet than bitter, and is dominated by a spun sugar quality that is appealing and unchallenging for sweet-conditioned American palate. Call it the gateway Amaro. CioCiaro was first produced by the Palucci family in 1873 and the scuttlebutt maintains that it provided the original recipe for Amer Picon (the famous French aperitif). Mr. Willey suggests trying it in a traditional negroni recipe, with CioCiaro replacing Campari, for a sweeter, more rounded drink.
Cynar: This is a product that makes us proud to be human—a member of a species so inventive, so obsessed with getting high, that it would consider an artichoke, and say, “yeah, but what if we made it into booze?” To be fair, Cynar is not made from the artichoke, but certainly takes its rooty, savory personality from it (along with 13-other herbs and plants). This Italian is a big hit in Brazil—which, if we had to hazard a guess, might be due to its vegetal overlap with cachaça (Brazil’s contribution to sugar cane spirits). Mr. Willey advises experimenting with Cynar in classic Italian aperitif cocktails for drier, more earthy creations.