America's Amari Makers Are Riding a Bittersweet Wave - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

America’s Amari Makers Are Riding a Bittersweet Wave

When the modern cocktail renaissance first took hold in the U.S., Americans weren’t quite used to the bitter flavors that marked Italian amari like Cynar, Fernet, and Campari, but with help from drinks like the Black Manhattan, the Negroni, and its many variations, it didn’t take long before stateside drinkers began warming up to this wild and wonderful category. Now, throw a stone and you’ll find glowing reviews of bittersweet drinks made by bartenders in San Francisco and Denver, Austin, Tulsa, Birmingham, and beyond.

As this bitters boom has steadily grown, so too has a sub-trend of American craft producers dabbling in amari-like liqueurs. The movement was spearheaded by folks like Todd Leopold, who in 2012 debuted Fernet Leopold Highland Amaro, a softly sweet blackstrap-driven fernet made with cocoa, spearmint, and honeysuckle. Italian expat Francesco Amodeo of Don Ciccio y Figli started producing a line of Italian-inspired products in Washington, D.C., in 2011, and Chicago’s Letherbee put out a saffron and myrhh iteration of fernet that captured the favor of bartenders everywhere when it landed in 2014. “One of the great things about amari is that there are so many variations on it. The base distillate, botanicals you choose, and how you infuse them will give you a wide range of flavors,” says Lindsay Matteson, a Seattle-based bartender and current bar manager at The Walrus and the Carpenter. “Italian amari producers have long been showing us their own interpretation of this. It’s really cool that we’re seeing more and more American producers show us their interpretation of the category as well.”

In recent years, the options have expanded significantly, with new bottlings emerging from coast to coast, and it’s a moment that has distillers, drinkers, and bartenders eager for exploration. “It is always exciting to see a lesser know spirits category grow,” says Billy Sunday beverage director Stephanie Andrews. “I love seeing people becoming more interested in bitters and diving deeper into the history of what makes amari so unique.”

Evoking a European Spirit With centuries of bitters history to draw upon in Europe, it’s no surprise that some American producers set out with the intention of paying homage to the long traditions of amari in Italy, France, and beyond. Such was the case for Francesco Amodeo, whose family business started with great-grandfather Vincenzo Amodeo’s Amalfi Coast limoncello production in 1883. Amodeo moved to America in 2006 and launched Don Ciccio y Figli to carry on the family legacy in 2012. “We re-modernized our ancient recipes in a way that modern consumers could also use them in cocktails,” he says. “There is a deep love for Italian Heritage here in America because so many Italians moved here in the past, and the cocktail culture was a bit more advanced. We decided that our products will fit perfectly in the market.”

Don Ciccio is a favorite among many bartenders, including Andrews, who says the Cinque Aperitivo is one of the more notable releases. “The spritz and Negroni are cocktails that will never go out of fashion, and this is a fun newcomer that leans a bit more bitter than its distant cousin Aperol. I love this because it takes fruit so well; adding in seasonal strawberry or rhubarb really balances out that back-end gentian bitter [quality] and allows for some playful applications.”

St. Agrestis in Brooklyn also focuses on Italian-like bitters with a line of amaro, ready-to-drink, and boxed cocktails, and fellow Brooklyn-based maker Faccia Brutto has a growing line that includes an Aperitivo, Fernet, Amaro Gorini, and alpine Amaro. Faccia is known for striking the right balance between dark sweetness and complex bitterness. “I fooled around with some tinctures and bitters and loved what I could make on my own and the fact that they stemmed from medicine,” says founder Patrick Miller, who first fell in love with Italian amari while working as a chef at Rucola. “From there it was baby steps to getting the company up and running, but always with that same ethos towards balance and flavor from a chef’s perspective.”

An interest in amari’s shared history with medicine also propelled Forthave Spirits (also in Brooklyn) into the category. “Amari were originally made in medieval ages by monks as medicinal cure-alls, then they made their way into apothecaries and then culinary culture in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” says Forthave co-founder Daniel de la Nuez. “And this happened throughout Europe; Italy yes, but Spain has its own traditions, as does Croatia—all over, really,”

The idea for Forthave was to go back in time to see how these beverages were originally made, so de la Nuez and his partner Aaron Sing Fox pored over history books and collected as many vintage bottles as they could find during their research phase, which finally led them to an amaro based on a recipe from the south of France. “There are several different legends about it, but one is how there were these four thieves in Marseille who were stealing from plague victims, and when they were brought before the magistrate he said ‘we’ll set you free if you tell us your secret concoction.’ Or perhaps we’ll kill you but less painfully so,” says co-founder Sing Fox. “So this became a medicine that lived on in Marseille long past the plague and was sold as vinegar-based Marseille wine or remedy. As the lore wound through history it came to light that maybe it wasn’t four thieves after all, but a botanist named Richard Forthave, so that’s where our namesake comes from and where the amaro we named after Marseille started.”

The amari R&D shelves at Fast Penny Spirits. | Photo by Amber Fouts.

Capturing a Sense of Place For some, the history and spirit of European tradition is only a starting point, one that leads down a path to narrow the focus towards creating botanical-driven liqueurs that express the flavor of a certain place and time outside of Europe. Bottles like High Wire Distilling’s Southern Amaro sings with ingredients that grow in and around the Charleston area, like black tea, yaupon holly, mint, and dancy tangerine. Cascadia D’Amore from Portland, Oregon’s New Deal Distillery sources botanicals from the Cascade Mountain Range, including wild lavender and rose petals. And in California, Amaro Angeleno aims to represent the flavor of the Southern coast, exploding with a bright and citrusy personality thanks to the inclusion of orange and lemon peel, lemon verbena, marjoram, jasmine, and gentian (perfect for fans of the European counterpart Gran Classico).

Matteson says one of her favorite American-made amari is the Amaro Amorino from Letterpress Distilling in Seattle. “It’s more of a delicate style, and even with that it’s wonderfully complex and balanced,” she says. “The sarsparilla and chamomile notes add beautiful nuance.” Another of Matteson’s favorites is the Amaro Amaricano from Fast Penny Spirits, which has also been recommended by Imbibe senior editor Penelope Bass. “This distillery founded and run by two amazing women, Jamie Hunt and Holly Robinson, opened last summer during the pandemic,” says Matteson. “Jamie and Holly know what they’re doing and have put out an amazing product. Amaricano is their darker, more classic amaro. They also make Amaricano Bianca (think of it as a delicately bitter yellow chartreuse), which is amazing as well!”

Having grown up in an Italian family, Jamie Hunt started Fast Penny with a baseline knowledge of what would make a good amari. “For generations, Italians would use botanicals they foraged and farmed locally and combine them with other interesting ingredients from around the world and macerate it with a neutral spirit to pull out the flavors,” she says. “You can go to different townships in Italy and get a sense of what grows there by tasting the amaro. This is what inspired us to also look at what grows locally.”

“From the West Coast grape spirits we start with to the locally foraged black truffles to Yakima hops, we fully embrace our incredibly bountiful region,” add Fast Penny co-founder, Holly Robinson. “We used what makes sense and tastes fantastic. We also know we need to lean on other areas of the world for some of the best flavors that are offered, which we have also done with pieces like the bitter orange peels … and we chose other botanicals that make sense from a sustainability reason, like our dog-foraged truffles and our use of cascara. Our goal was to have the right balance of flavors to lend to a complex, balanced, and approachable amaro.”

Holly Robinson (L) and Jamie Hunt (R) of Fast Penny Spirits. | Photo by Amber Fouts.

Sometimes the inspiration comes from more far-flung locales. Seeing a correlation between bitters, vermouth, and amari production and the teas and herbal remedies his family would make in Puerto Rico, Brandon Reyes of Heirloom Liqueurs looked to the islands for inspiration when developing the company’s Pineapple Amaro. “I was born in Milwaukee, but my parents are from Puerto Rico, so I wanted to make a connection to those roots,” he says.

Made with a white rum base that’s macerated with Queen Victoria pineapples, then re-distilled with cinnamon and allspice—two prominent spices from the island—plus ginseng, cherry bark, Jamaican Quassia bark and other botanicals and herbs, the liqueur is sweetened with muscovado sugar and caramelized sugar (as a nod to Italy’s storied tradition) then proofed down with fresh pineapple juice before bottling for a dazzling complexity in both flavor and aroma. “This amaro is my story, a connection to a few different regions,” says Reyes. “It’s a mashing up of Caribbean, Wisconsin, and traditional Italian influences.”

Making Their Mark While American producers look to their European counterparts for inspiration, they aim to stand out in their own unique and specific ways. “All of us are new kids on the block with amari. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Patrick Miller of Faccia Brutto. “That being said, my take is all about balance. My background as a cook led me to want spirits that were balanced in bitterness, sweetness, acid, and even salt. For me, that means taking inspiration from lots of these classic, traditional Italian amari but updating them in small batches to create my best attempt.”

At Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis, co-founder Dan Oskey says part of the inspiration for their house Fernet and amaro was to have options for making cocktails at the on-site bar (Minnesota law states you can only serve what you make at the distillery). “While we had some fun cocktails in mind (on our menu we currently have a Manhattan with Fernet and black walnut and a passionfruit daiquiri with Amaro), we wanted the ability to introduce this bitter category of liqueurs as neat pours for anyone interested,” he says. “I think anyone who’s curious about flavor and looking for a new experience is excited to discover the distiller’s interpretation of this category as a whole.”

J. Rieger & Co, founder Ryan Maybee developed a prototype of the Caffé Amaro at Manifesto when the bar was operating back in 2010 or so, aiming to create a coffee flavor for cocktails that would strike the right balance between bitterness and sweetness. “I was inspired by the classic Caffe Corretto, or a pairing of Amaro and Espresso, that was popular in Italy. I used to always enjoy drinking Amaro (usually Averna) alongside an espresso. That was how the idea of adding bitter botanicals to a ‘coffee liqueur’ of sorts was born,” he says. “Years later, when we started J. Rieger & Co., I suggested that we make this an actual product.”

Made with a neutral corn spirit base, plus cane syrup, Sumatra coffee, and an array of botanicals including juniper, cardamom, orange peel, gentian, and vanilla beans, the bottle debuted in 2016. “We had to retool the production process, so our head distiller Nathan Perry and I worked through macerating the botanicals in neutral spirit, before adding cold brew coffee to cut it back to bottling proof. It’s important to me that Caffe Amaro is thought of as an amaro first, but the coffee flavor is undeniable. There was nothing like it on the market, and people loved it. It’s truly unique,” Maybee says.

Faccia Brutto Fernet. | Photo by Martha Bernabe.

Looking to the Future With so many new amari on the market, there’s a lot to celebrate, but does the American-made category have staying power? Andrews says there’s some work to do before American-made bitter liqueurs will stand up to the storied history of those made in Italy and beyond. “I’m not trying to sound like an old dog stuck in their ways, but they don’t [compare]. I am not saying they can’t or won’t eventually get there, but we have some work to do,” she says. “American amaro has trouble with balance, it is an art form to combine these bitter botanicals so eloquently, and American amaro tends to be too in your face bitter and less nuanced. But we have to remember the Italians have been doing this for centuries; we are very new to the game, so there’s going to be some trial and error.”

Still, there are plenty of excellent options to be found. “Because there can be such a wide variety with amari, it’s really about seeing what each amaro brings to the table,” says Matteson, recalling the bottles she recommended earlier as a good starting point for people new to the category. “Check out the two I mentioned above. Neither is overly bitter, so both are good for beginners in the amaro category generally. Beyond that, talk to your local bartender and see what they like! If you tell them your palate or amari you currently enjoy they will be able to suggest some for you. Any craft cocktail bartender will have good recommendations, as well as knowing what is available in your city and the best places to purchase.”

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