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The allure of amaro

Amaro expert and enthusiast Brad Thomas Parsons has been sneaking striking bottles of the Italian digestivo back to the States for decades. Here, he explains why the much-misunderstood drink is like catnip for collectors

Words by Brad Thomas Parsons

vintage amaro on trolley at one fifth restaurant
The Collection
Age-old amaro labels are celebrated in bars such as Greenwich Village’s One Fifth (Photo: Evan Sung)

My love for amaro started innocently enough, almost two decades ago, when I sipped my first Negroni. At that time, Campari and Fernet-Branca were the only bittersweet suspects you’d likely encounter behind a bar in the States, and it would be years until the handful of other Italian imports like Zucca, Cynar, and Ramazzotti would be joined by the legions of legacy and new-look, Italian-born amari that now stand alongside domestic releases on the back bars of restaurants and bars across America.

Since then, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole exploring and celebrating Italy’s bittersweet herbal liqueurs. You’ll find more than 150 unique bottles of amaro on austere metro shelves in my Brooklyn apartment. The ever-growing collection is made up of well-known brands from Italy, early bottlings from American producers, limited-edition releases, and vintage amaro dating back to the 1960s. Many are ‘suitcase bottles’ that I’ve brought home with me from trips to Italy because I can’t find them in the US. (My record stands at 13 full-size bottles, and I still haven’t had a broken one.) Some of these spirited souvenirs wind up in my checked luggage because of a beautiful or distinctive label or particular typeface. While others, like Amaro San Simone, aren’t necessarily collectable but remain a favourite for me due to the fact that you’ll rarely encounter it within Italy beyond Turin, where it’s produced and is symbolic of the pride of the city.

fernet branca bar
Retro advertisements for historic brands like Fernet-Branca fetch a handsome price

One of the early reasons I became fascinated with amaro was the history behind these brands, with family surnames proudly displayed on the bottles and often-proprietary recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. And unlike many other spirit categories, the world of amaro is built on centuries of tradition, though often without official rules on production and classification. There are some distinctive styles to note, usually driven by key ingredients or provenance such as carciofo (made with artichoke leaves), alpine (high-altitude herbs and botanicals), fernet (lower sugar, higher proof ), or rabarbaro (includes dried rhubarb root), but without a DOP as you have with other notable Italian products every bottle of amaro – even within the same style or category – can be a singular experience.

Every bottle of amaro – even within the same style or category – can be a singular experience

Just as the Aperol Spritz and Negroni have become iconic symbols of Italian aperitivo culture and la dolce vita, the continued allure of Italian food and drinking culture – and the country’s obsession with digestion – makes amaro not just an after-dinner digestivo but a social ritual to linger at the table for, with friends and family. And while amaro is typically bittersweet, the word ‘bitter’ can still raise a caution flag for those who didn’t grow up appreciating bitterness as a flavour to both spark the appetite and settle a full stomach. Because of that, and amaro’s reputation as a dust-covered digestivo your grandfather drank, there’s still a learning curve for many when it comes to amaro appreciation.

amaro cocktail
The continued allure of Italian food and drinking culture has helped to put amaro on people's lips - and driven a rise in start-up amaro brands such as Eda Rhyne (pictured) based in Asheville, North Carolina

‘Because the category lacks a classification and styles can be very broad, it can be difficult for consumers to navigate on their own,’ says Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria, a managing partner at the One Fifth in New York, which carries an extensive collection of amaro covering each of Italy’s 20 regions, including a deep vintage library. ‘I think restaurants, bars and cocktails play a very important role in helping to advance the cause, since they can serve as a safe space for expanding the consumer’s comfort zone.’

American bartenders led the charge during the modern cocktail renaissance, incorporating amaro and its world of complex flavours as both supporting player and key ingredient in cocktails, many of which have gone on to become modern classics, like the Black Manhattan (bourbon, Averna, Angostura and orange bitters), Little Italy (rye, Cynar, sweet vermouth), and the Paper Plane (bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino, lemon). An attractive, sophisticated cocktail can be a lot more approachable than a small glass of neat, room-temperature amaro but also serve as a Trojan horse to encourage people to seek out, try, and appreciate amaro on its own.

New York trattoria One Fifth pours vintage amari from across Italy on its 'Dusty Bottles' menu (Photo: Evan Sung)

This, too, has inspired more American producers to create and launch their own amaro expressions. These often spotlight more local ingredients and regional terroir than their commercialised Italian counterparts, which were born from regionality but now typically use ingredients from around the world. ‘The most exciting thing I am seeing in the category is newer producers in the US making regional versions of amaro,’ says Sagaria. ‘These smaller producers – like High Wire Distilling in Charleston and Eda Rhyne in Asheville, in South Carolina and North Carolina respectively – combining traditional techniques and local ingredients are fascinating. In Brooklyn alone, we have Faccia Brutto Spirits, St Agrestis and Forthave Spirits, which are great examples that give guests a chance to drink locally.’

When it comes to vintage amaro, you can’t deny the time-machine factor of drinking history

One of my favourite aspects of collecting amari is tasting and sharing vintage bottles. As clichéd as it may sound, you can’t deny the time-machine factor of drinking history. Just considering the journey of the physical bottle alone is compelling, and how the ingredients and production techniques of the era affect how it tastes side by side with its contemporary offering.

‘With vintage amaro, you are able to unlock a world that might not still exist,’ says Aaron Goldfarb, author of the forthcoming Dusty Booze: In Search of Vintage Spirits. ‘Most vintage spirits don’t change once bottled – they are literally drinkable time capsules – but it’s quite evident that amari do, and quite a bit. Most of the alcohol heat burns off, and certain flavours of herbs and botanicals intensify while others drop out completely. Depending on storage, two bottles of the same brand from the same era may have matured into something radically different.’

Fernet branca amaro
'With vintage amaro, you are able to unlock a world that might not still exist,' says author and spirits expert Aaron Goldfarb

For Patrick Miller, owner and distiller of Faccia Brutto Spirits, the fact that amaro was originally used for medicinal purposes adds an element of ‘mystique and intrigue’, but he also cautions that buying vintage amaro can be a bit of a ‘crap shoot’, which also adds a degree of excitement. ‘You can be assured that it was sealed and stored well, but you don’t know what you’re getting until you open it. It’s always surprising – sometimes in a great way, sometimes less so.’

Kris Peterson, spirits archivist at Billy Sunday and Mordecai in Chicago, loves to experience older bottles of amaro where the sweet spot is stable enough to preserve a sense of its original profile but volatile enough to evolve. ‘On the palate, they take their time, and the structure is often less viscous and less active, making for this long, slowly unfolding experience that eases you into the bitterness,’ he says. ‘All this adds up to an experience that’s ripe for organically evoking memory. When people are inspired to share something unexpected and personal, then the bottles have reached their full potential.’

faccia brutto amaro
Faccia Brutto is among a wave of modern Brooklyn brands combining traditional techniques and local ingredients to make amaro for a new generation

For years, many sommeliers and bartenders sought out Chartreuse as the only age-worthy botanical spirit of any collectable value, but as the access to vintage amari has increased in the past decade, so too have the number of collectors seeking older bottles on European online auction sites, amaro-centric subreddits, eBay, Facebook Marketplace, estate sales and at larger wine and spirits shops such as Astor Wines & Spirits and Chambers Street Wines in New York. ‘Compared to vintage wine, whiskey, and Chartreuse, amaro is extremely affordable – at least for the time being,’ says Daniel de la Nuez, co-owner of Forthave Spirits. ‘Sourcing it can be a challenge, but your perseverance is probably more likely to find affordable treasures with amaro than with the other categories.’

Remember, though, that a bottle of amaro doesn’t have to be several decades old to have sentimental value. (I always save at least one bottle of a favourite amaro brand when it gets repackaged in a new bottle.) My best advice is to avoid hoarding these and treating them as trophies. Make the experience part of your own history by opening, tasting and sharing them with friends – and then look upon that empty bottle with nothing but gratitude.

Amari to add to your collection

  • Braulio Riserva: this is my top ‘must bring back’ bottle when in Italy. Vintage bottlings of this iconic alpine-style amaro are always worth seeking out, but Braulio Riserva is an annual limited release aged in smaller Slavonian oak barrels and bottled at a slightly elevated 24.7% abv.
  • Menta variations: in America, Brancamenta is the only widely available mint-flavoured expression, but look for contemporary variations to try, like Santa Maria al Monte Menta and Amaro Lucano Menta, especially on-site at distillery gift shops. A bar owner in Verona gifted me a 1-litre bottle of Ramazzotti Menta from 1979 that was truly incredible.
  • Large-format bottles: these 3-litre bottlings are pretty rare because they’re typically not sold to consumers but instead provided to bars and restaurants for promotional use. But keep an eye open for these being sold at airports in Italy, where you’ll tend to see an oversized Campari bottle. I’ve acquired more than 10 of these for my collection, and there’s no denying their bold impact.
  • Minis: aeroplane-style mini-bottles of amaro are easy to source and ship or carry back home safely, and in Italy you’re more likely to find more brands available in that size beyond just Campari and Fernet-Branca. It’s also not uncommon to find vintage minis from the 1960s and 1970s for a steal at a bottle shop or online.
  • Fernet: Fernet-Branca is the best-known and most widely available fernet, which makes sourcing vintage bottles relatively easy. Try tasing a vertical of a bottle from several different decades, and see how they compare alongside contemporary Fernet-Branca. But beyond Branca, there’s a world of older bottles. Keep an eye out for vintage Fernet Vittone, in particular.