Amaro is a large category of Italian herbal liquor that is traditionally sipped neat as an apertif or a digestif. Here in the states amaro is more typically used as an ingredient for cocktails or with a splash of soda. The most common example is Campari — the key ingredient of the beloved Negroni. Cynar shows up in the spectacular Little Italy, a Manhattan variant. And finally, a friend at work (a newly minted Manhattan lover) shared his Manhattan recipe that tempers Carpano Antica with a little Cardamaro.
So clearly there is something worth looking into here. Having already reviewed some of the more common vermouths, it was time to turn my attention to amari.
After a little research on the web I chose my lineup and headed off to Beltramo’s Wines and Spirits in Menlo Park, CA. Here is what I came home with (as pictured left to right above):
- Fernet Branca, 375ml, 78 proof, $14.99
- Luxardo Amaro Abano, 750ml, 60 proof, $22.99
- Averna Amaro, 750ml, 58 proof, $26.99
- Cynar, 1L, 33 proof, $23.99
- Ramazzotti Amaro, 750ml, 60 proof, $21.99
- Cardamaro Vino Amaro, 750ml, 34 proof, $21.99
Where is the Campari? I chose to leave it out. It’s pretty familiar to many, and it would be the odd man out in this lineup — being strongly citrus.
All of these amari are italian. Beltramo’s had many more, including a number from other countries. But six seemed a good number for both my palette and my wallet.
I started off tasting these head-to-head neat. Then incorporated them into my evening libations over the course of weeks. I also invited others (in particular my brother) to join in the fun.
One of the common applications of amaro is to use it in a Manhattan replacing the bitters and a bit of the vermouth. Depending on the ratios this can be called a Black Manhattan or a Little Italy. I call it one of the best damn cocktails on the planet.
For reference here is the Little Italy recipe I (generally) used:
- 2 parts Bulleit Bourbon
- 3/4 part Martini and Rossi sweet vermouth (or Cocchi if it’s a special occasion!)
- 1/2 part Amaro
Stir with ice for 60 seconds and serve up or on the rocks, garnished with a cherry and/or orange twist.
In alphabetical order.
Made in Sicily using a recipe dating back to 1868, Averna is a gentle introduction to amaro. Quite tasty on the rocks, Averna is sweet with a slight herbal orange start and finishes with hints of chocolate and caramel. With little to no bitterness Averna is comfortable and inviting.
In the Little Italy the Averna was good, but easily over-powered by the whiskey. It added some sweetness but not much more. When paired with a lighter whiskey, like Canadian, it might prove to be a good match. I’ll have to give that a try!
Overall a friendly, tasty amaro, but if you want something with a bit more character then there are better choices.
Cardamaro Vino Amaro
I first heard of Cardamaro from a co-worker who uses it in his Manhattan recipe along with Carpano Antica vermouth. Cardamaro differs from other amari in that it is wine based. Sweet, with subtle vegetal flavors Cardamaro is lighter than the other amari here with very little bitterness. On the rocks Cardamaro is easy sipping and refreshing.
Cardamaro was fine in the Little Italy, but the resulting drink tasted more like a stock Manhattan than something special. My co-worker might have had it right — using the Cardamaro to complement a bold vermouth like Carpano rather than using it to enhance a milder vermouth like M & R or Cocchi.
Cynar is based on 13 herbs and plants including artichoke and was the winner of Best Herbal/Botanical Liqueur at the 2015 San Francisco Wolrd Spirits Competition. While some reviews I’ve read claim it is less sweet than many amari, I find the opposite to be true. Quite sweet and pleasantly vegetal with a sturdy bitter finish. An no — it doesn’t taste like artichokes. Cynar finally brings the bitterness I was looking for, but on the rocks is not where it shines.
In the Little Italy? Brilliant! The sweet/bitter/earthy flavor rounds out this Manhattan variation perfectly. As I said, this might very well be the best cocktail ever.
Update: Cynar 70: My wife came upon this and bought me a bottle — gotta love her! This is a 70 proof version of Cynar and tastes a lot like normal Cynar but with the warm bite of additional alcohol. As you’d expect it was very good in the Little Italy, but were it shined was on the rocks. Less cloying and more substantial than it’s lower proofed sibling Cynar 70 makes for an excellent digestif. The downside is the cost, running about $10 more than regular Cynar. Might be worth trying a 50/50 mix of regular Cynar and brandy to see how close it comes to Cynar 70.
I don’t get it. Apparently San Francisco is the #1 Fernet Branca market in the US. Go into any Safeway or liquor store around here and you’ll find this strongly bitter elixir. Averna? Nope. Cynar? Nope. Fernet? Yes. Why? Who drinks this stuff?
Fernet is actually a sub-category of amaro, but when used informally it usually refers to Fernet Branca. Fernet Branca is not bittersweet. It’s just bitter. Bracingly bitter. With a touch of menthol. Bitter menthol. That’s it. On the rocks it is awful. The only reason I’d drink this is to settle my stomach. It tastes like medicine. It is medicine. Or poison. I’m not sure.
I knew I had to approach the cocktail portion of my tasting with caution. Use Fernet with a heavy hand and it will run roughshod over the other ingredients — ruining perfectly good whiskey and vermouth. With this in mind I chose to forgo the Little Italy and instead simply replace the bitters in my standard Manhattan recipe with 1/4 part Fernet (2 parts whiskey, 1 part vermouth, 1/4 part Fernet Branca).
And it was terrible. Even at these ratios the Fernet made the Manhattan taste like Fernet. So I’ve learned something. With all the great spirits out there I don’t need to waste any more time on Fernet Branca.
Luxardo Amaro Abano
Luxardo is known for their Maraschino Cherries. Their cherries cost $20 a jar. And no, they are nothing like the ones you just got at Safeway. Luxardo also makes liqueurs and amari. On the rocks the Amaro Abano hits you with flavors of blackstrap licorice and a long bitter finish. On its own I found it a bit unpleasant.
But in the Little Italy the Luxardo was tamed and actually worked pretty well. I still prefer the Cynar with its extra sweetness, but it you want to try something a bit different then the Luxardo is worth a try.
From Milan since 1815, Ramazzotti is one of the oldest amari — and heck, I like saying the name. On my first tasting of these amari the Averna was my favorite. It was tasty and accessible. But the Ramazzotti stood out as interesting. As I continued to taste these over the course of a couple of weeks the Averna started feeling “ordinary” and my affection for the Ramazzotti grew.
Ramazzotti Amaro starts out with bitter orange and finishes with a touch of licorice and a hint (just a hint) of mint. It’s moderately sweet with a nice bitter finish. This fits my stereotype of what an amaro should taste like, and the Ramazzotti has become my clear favorite on the rocks. It is really good.
But in the Little Italy those flavors that make the Ramazzotti a delight on its own fall to the background, and the resulting drink is good but not quite as good as with the Cynar.
Other than the Fernet I found all these amari enjoyable to one degree or another. And I will continue to enjoy them until the bottles are empty. Then I plan to keep Cynar and Ramazzotti stocked in my liquor cabinet. In summary:
For drinking on the rocks:
- Averna if you want tasty and easy drinking
- Ramazzotti if you want a little more flavor and bitterness
- Cardamaro if you want light and refreshing
In a cocktail:
- Cynar for the best Little Italy ever
- Luxardo if you prefer it a bit drier
- Cardamaro if you’re pairing with a power-house vermouth (like Carpano Antica)
If you have a stomach ache:
- Fernet Branca