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Amaro 103: Advanced Amari

Amaro 103: Advanced Amari

Amari/bitter liqueur bottles and glasses

Amaro 103: Advanced Amari

As bartenders and spirits enthusiasts continue their exploration of the cocktail pantheon, one category of drinks has exhibited real staying power: bitter. Maybe it’s our world view?

Whatever the reason, bitter drinks are a lot of fun to concoct and imbibe, and in this article I’ll introduce you to some of the lesser-known bitter liqueurs, which the Italians call “amari”. For some background, please go back and read Amaro 101 and Amaro 102, in which I covered fifteen other amari.

In contrast to Amaro 101 and 102, Amaro 103 looks at bitter liqueurs made both inside and outside Italy. Let’s get started!

Bigallet Viriana China-China Amer

Bigallet China Amer

Bigallet’s Viriana China-China Amer began popping up on California shelves in the Fall of 2013, but the brand has been around since 1872. “China” in this case has nothing to do with the country; rather it is a reference to the bittering agent “cinchona”—a source of quinine native to Peru and neighboring countries.

Situated in the Rhone Alps region of France, the company makes a variety of liqueurs and non-alcoholic syrups, but their bitter liqueur was among the first products they produced. It’s macerated in a neutral beet distillate, then redistilled, re-flavored, and sweetened.

Bigallet China is very smooth despite its relatively high alcohol percentage of 40, and leads with bitter orange and cherry notes. Bigallet has a medium bitterness, and works well in cocktails—many use it as a substitute for Amer Picon in traditional cocktail recipes such as the Brooklyn.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Virieu-sur-Bourbe, France 40 Sweet orange peel, bitter orange peel Whole oranges, cherries, gentian, anise, hint of clove and cinnamon $38

Buy Bigallet Viriana China China Amer online

Bigallet Cocktails

Fort Erie
Paul Manzelli via Frederick Yarm

2 oz Old Overholt Rye
1 oz Dolin Dry Vermouth
1/2 oz Bigallet Viriana China China Liqueur
1/4 oz Maraschino Liqueur

Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a Marasca cherry.

Frequent Flyer
Jim Romdall (Vessel) via Mutineer Magazine

1 oz Nikka 12yr Pure Malt
3/4  oz Luxardo apricot
3/4  oz Christian Drouin Calvados
1/4  oz Bigallet China-China Amer

Stir all ingredients with ice and strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.

Buy Bigallet China China Amer Online

 

Branca Menta

Branca Menta

Created in the 1960s as a response to Italians’ penchant for mixing their Fernet Branca with mint syrup, Branca Menta bears many similarities with its more popular older brother. Bottled at 35% alcohol, it is noticeably sweeter and less bitter than the 40% Fernet. Mint oil provides the prominent flavor, backed by menthol and a bit of cocoa and eucalyptus. The chocolate and mint together remind me of a Thin Mint Girl Scout cookie. Branca Menta is traditionally consumed over ice or as a chilled shot but can be worked into highballs and cocktails.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Milan, Italy 35 Mint oil Very minty, followed by cocoa and a bit of menthol, then a minor floral note $20

Buy Branca Menta online

Branca Menta Cocktails

Mintonic
Fratelli Branca

1 oz Brancamenta
Tonic Water
Mint leaves
Lime juice to taste
1 teaspoon demerara sugar
Crushed ice

Put a few mint leaves, sugar and the juice from ¼ lime into a rocks glass. Muddle, then fill the glass with ice, pour 1 oz Brancamenta and add tonic water to fill. Stir gently and garnish with a mint sprig.

Menta Julep
Ian Carrico via The Boys Club

2 oz Bourbon
3/4 oz Benedictine
3/4 oz Branca Menta
Crushed ice
Mint sprig, for garnish

Pour Bourbon, Benedictine, and Branca Menta over crushed ice in a tumbler or julep cup. Garnish with mint sprig.

Buy Branca Menta Online

 

Fernet-Vallet

Fernet-Vallet

Here in San Francisco, Fernet Branca has attained cult status as the go-to drink for bartenders, industry insiders and other in-the-know imbibers. But as we learned in Amaro 101, despite persistent references to Fernet Branca simply as “Fernet”, that is a category, not a brand.

Based on the popularity of Fernet Branca, we are now seeing more fernet-sytle amari appear on our store shelves and back bars. One of the more recent entries to the US Fernet market is Fernet-Vallet. Fernet-Vallet’s appearance stateside represents the work of Jake Lustig of local import house Haas Brothers. He so enjoyed the Mexican Fernet while in Mexico, that he convinced his bosses to import it.

Other tasting notes I’ve read on Fernet-Vallet are very different from my own. I find it to be very thin, tannic, and not sweet at all. It has a fairly high bitterness and presents with fennel, cinnamon, clove and anise.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Hidalgo, Mexico 35 Orange peel, rhubarb, wormwood, gentian, cinnamon, clove, cassia bark, cardamom Fennel, cinnamon, clove, gentian, anise $25

Buy Fernet-Vallet online

Fernet-Vallet Cocktails
Nick Ramsdell (Double Dragon) via Esquire

Border Patrol
1 oz Vida Mezcal
1 oz Fernet Vallet
1 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
1/2 oz rich Demerara syrup
1 large pinch of salt

Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker and pour over ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with a lime.

Eva Peron
Darren Crawford & Scott Brody via Haas Brothers

1 ounce Fernet -Vallet
1 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1 ounce King’s Ginger liqueur
1 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce ginger beer

Combine the Fernet, vermouth, ginger liqueur and lime juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice; shake 15-20 seconds. Strain into a Collins glass with fresh ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with the lime wheel.

Buy Fernet-Vallet Online

 

Gran Classico Bitter

Gran Classico Bitter

Sticking with bitters having a Northern California connection, we move to Gran Classico Bitter, which is made in Switzerland, but imported by Tempus Fugit Spirits in Petaluma, California. Gran Classico was introduced in 2010. It is allegedly based on an 1864 amaro recipe called “Biter of Turin” but I have yet to find any evidence of this beyond Tempus Fugit’s own marketing materials. To be fair, they probably aren’t eager to share the recipe. They also claim the recipe is the basis for Campari’s eponymous bitter, which is perhaps the reason some use Gran Classico in drinks that call for Campari.

For me Gran Classico is more complex, but less bitter than Campari. I also perceive it to be sweeter, although that may be a perception based on the decreased bitterness. There is a notable roasted rhubarb note along with fennel/anise flavors, so for me it doesn’t work as a Campari replacement at all—certainly not in a Negroni. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its own merits as a bitter liqueur; I just bristle at the Campari replacement notion because I find them to be so different from one another.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Switzerland 28 Wormwood, gentian, bitter orange peel, rhubarb, and hyssop Roasted rhubarb, orange peel, gentian, anise, clove, fennel $35

Buy Gran Classico online

Gran Classico Cocktails

Eighteenth Cocktail
Erik Ellestad

2 oz Rye
3/4 oz Dolin Blanc
1/2 oz Gran Classico Bitter
1 barspoon Luxardo Maraschino

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Squeeze lemon peel over glass and drop in.

Bad Word
Dan Chadwick via Kindred Cocktails

3⁄4 oz    Gin
3⁄4 oz    Green Chartreuse
3⁄4 oz    Gran Classico
3⁄4 oz    Lime juice

Shake, strain, rocks, lowball, or up/cocktail glass.

Buy Gran Classico Bitter Online

 

Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano

Amaro Lucano is a favorite among Southern Italians. It was created in 1894 by Cavalier Pasquale Vena in Pisticci, a small town located in the Lucania region of Matera. A baker by trade, Pasquale’s first batches of amari were created in the back room of his cookie bakery. Production ramped up in the early 20th century, but like most Italian distilleries, things ground to a halt during World War II. In the late fifties, Pasquale’s sons Leonardo and Giuseppe built out the distillery and ramped up production considerably. The company moved to its current location in 1965. Still a family-owned company, Lucano is today helmed by Pasquale’s grandson who is also named (wait for it) Pasquale. Their web site is available in English, and contains a wealth of information about the ingredients and the process—a welcome break from the secrecy that abounds in the industry.

Lucano is fairly bitter, yet easy drinking. Its primary flavors are bitter orange and grapefruit, flowed by anise and chocolate. It works really well in cocktails.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Matera, Italy 30 Wormwood, sage, musk yarrow, holy thistle, sweet orange, gentian, angelica, sambucus elderberry, ruta, aloe Bitter orange, grapefruit, hint of fennel, cinnamon, cocoa $29

Buy Amaro Lucano online

Amaro Lucano Cocktails

The Disguise
via Mutineer Magazine

1 oz Amaro Lucano
3/4 oz Raspberry Liqueur
3 oz Pinot Noir
1/4 oz Lemon Juice

Roll ingredients with ice. Strain over fresh ice into a wine glass. Garnish with fresh pineapple pieces and a kaffir lime leaf.

Solomon Grundy
Dan Long via Kindred Cocktails

1 1⁄2 oz Gin
1⁄2 oz Carpano Antica
3⁄4 oz Amaro Lucano
1⁄4 oz Fernet Branca

Stir, strain, Serve up. Garnish with a cocktail cherry.

Buy Amaro Lucano Online

 

Luxardo Amaro Abano

Amaro Abano

Luxardo’s US distributor is fond of using the line “Luxardo: more than maraschino” in their marketing materials, and it’s with good reason. Luxardo is synonymous with Maraschino liqueur here, but the company actually has a large line of bitter liqueurs and other products that are essentially invisible to the general population. One such product is Luxardo’s Amaro Abano.

There is very little information about Amaro Abano online, but the town of Abano Terme is undoubtedly its namesake. Situated in Veneto within the northeast province of Padua, Abano is known for its hot springs and mud baths. This spa destination is also home to a variety of herbs and wildflowers, some of which are incorporated into the liqueur.

Amaro Abano is mildly bitter, and has a pleasant mix of spice and herbal notes including licorice and cinnamon.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Veneto, Italy 30 Cardamom, bitter orange, cinnamon, cinchona

Anise, clove, cinchona, orange peel, fennel , cinnamon $23

Buy Luxardo Amaro Abano online

Amaro Abano Cocktails

Mott & Mullberry
Leo Robitschek via Serious Eats

1 ounce rye whiskey
1 ounce Amaro Abano
3/4 ounce unfiltered apple cider
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce Demarara simple syrup

Add rye, Amaro, apple cider, lemon juice, and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Fill with ice and shake until well chilled, about 15 seconds. Fill a rocks glass with ice. Strain cocktail into serving glass and serve immediately.

Breakfast in Bed
Owen Schmidt via Rock & Rye

3 oz Oatmeal stout
1 1/2 oz Amaro Abano
1 whole egg
Dash orange bitters

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and dry shake. Fill with ice and shake again. Strain into a cocktail glass. No garnish.

Buy Amaro Abano Online

 

Amaro Sibilla

Amaro Sibilla

Amaro Sibilla was created in 1868 by Girolamo Varnelli, an herbalist from Pievebovigliana in the Macerata province of Italy. The recipe, which is comprised of roots and herbs originally gathered from nearby Mount Sibillini is a closely guarded family secret (the firm is still run by his heirs—all of whom are women). We do know that the botanicals are roasted prior to maceration, which yields a host of rich and smoky vegetal flavors.

Things I’ve heard people say about Amaro Sibilla include the following:

1) What a beautiful bottle!

2) Yikes, look at the price!

3) Oh dear, it smells like cat pee!

The first two are undeniable. It really is a beautiful design, and it is in fact nearly twice as expensive as other amari. The cat pee thing is debatable. In any event, this is not an amaro for those just getting started in the bitter arts, but worth exploring nonetheless.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Macerata, Italy 34 Honey, cinchona, gentian Honey, gentian, hint of smoky oak, dried chamomile flowers, cinnamon, pepper, juniper $59

Buy Amaro Sibilla online

Amaro Sibilla Cocktails

Honey & Thistle
Matthew Schrage via Frederick Yarm

1 1/2 oz Cardamaro
3/4 oz Cocchi Americano
1/4 oz Amaro Sibilla
2 oz Tonic Water

Build in a Highball glass filled with ice. Top with the tonic water, garnish with an orange twist, and add a straw.

The End is Nigh
Cure via Details

11/2 oz Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz Bonal
1/4 oz Varnelli Amaro Sibilla
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Stir 40 revolutions and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

Buy Amaro Sibilla Online

 

Suze

Suze Saveur d'autrefois

Suze was created in 1885 by Fernand Moureaux, a French distillery owner. The distillery was purchased by Pernod in 1965. Today Suze is the fifth most popular aperitif in France, and recently entered the US market. According to Pernod’s marleting materials, the name “Suze” either came from Moureaux’s sister-in-law Suzanne (she loved the stuff) or from a Swiss river of the same name.

Suze is famous for its “necktie” bottle, which was featured abstractly in a painting by Pablo Picasso (that’s one way to get your name out there).

Suze’s flavors are of gentian (it’s 50% gentian after all) wildflowers,bitter orange and fennel. Given its pale yellow color, Suze is often used by bartenders who want a bitter component, but not the brown or red color that accompanies it. The White Negroni is a prime example (recipe below).

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Thuir, France 20 Yellow gentian, Dried wildflowers, gentian, bitter orange peel, fennel $32

Buy Suze online

Suze Cocktails

White Negroni
Wayne Collins via PDT

2 oz Plymouth Gin
3/4 oz Lillet Blanc
1/2 oz Suze

Brown Bomber
Jim Meehan, PDT

2 oz Dickel 12
¾ oz Lillet Blanc
½ oz Suze

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Buy Suze Online

 

Amaro Tosolini

Amaro Tosolini

Hailing from Udine region in Italy’s northeast corner, Amaro Tosolini is the creation of Bepi Tosolini, who invented it in 1918. The fifteen herbs and botanicals are combined with liquor in ash barrels where they macerate for four months prior to filtration and proofing.

Tosolini is a mildly bitter amaro that is on the herbal/vegetal side. Wild fennel and roasted rhubarb lead the flavors, followed by bitter orange and cinnamon. I find it to be pretty delightful, and easy to work into cocktails.

Origin ABV% Known Ingredients Flavors Cost
Povoletto, Udine, Italy 28 Curcuma, Angelica, Bitter Orange, Calamus, Eugenia Caryophyllata, Gentian, Artemisia, Rosemary, Star anise, levisticum Fresh fennel, roasted rhubarb, bitter orange, cinchona, cinnamon $35

Buy Amaro Tosolini online

Amaro Tosolini Cocktails

Giorgio, Yo Mommy
Josh Miller, Inu A Kena

2 oz St. George Single Malt
¾ oz Amaro Tosolini
¾ oz Carpano Antica

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry.

Isabella Tosolini
Josh Miller, Inu A Kena

2 oz Pierre Ferrand Cognac Ambre
3/4 oz Amaro Tosolini
1/2 oz Maurin Quina

Stir, strain, garnish with orange twist

Buy Amaro Tosolini Online

 

Conclusion

Now that I have a couple dozen different amari in the bar, you’d think I might be done exploring the world of bitter liqueurs, but you’d be wrong. Although there are many similarities among the amari I’ve tasted, each one represents something unique. The herbs, spices and botanicals give me a sense of place—I often imagine someone picking flowers from a hillside in the Italian Alps when I drink certain amari like Braulio, for example.

The good news is that we are now seeing more and more amari being imported from Europe, so I imagine there will continue to be new ones to try for years to come. In the meantime, I think I’ll try my hand at making my own amaro—it’s not unlike making cocktail bitters after all. Well, off to the herb shop!

Cheers,
Josh

But wait, there’s more! Check out the next installment in the series: Amaro 104: Continuing Education. And in case you came here first, be sure and check out Amaro 101, and Amaro 102!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2014 8:06 pm

    Josh, this has to be one of the most interesting series ever. Comparisons are the heart of tasting, sadly overlooked by many websites. Not yours.

    We should all be aware of two more things: first, that most spirits can and are divided by styles and second, that division and comparison by styles can be even more elucidating.

    Naming the styles and giving representative examples of them has great value, as does comparisons of spirits of like style. To compare spirits without regard for styles is interesting to be sure, but it would be of even greater value if the styles were known.

    For example, I found myself overwhelmed by the great number of completely different amari you’ve covered. To my relief I then discovered that amari – like whisky, rum, beer and wine – likewise has styles.

    For example these styles included the styles of Fernet, Medium, Light, Alpine, Vermouth, Carciofo, Tartufo, China, Robarbaro and Miscellaneous styles. These differ by primary flavor, color, and alcohol content among other factors.

    Perhaps Amari 104 could elucidate these and give a primary example of each. By doing so we would have much more appreciation and a way to better identify and appreciate each style.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      February 7, 2014 9:17 pm

      Thanks for your kind words. I fully intend to keep this series going! If you really want to dig into amari, take yourself to http://www.google.it and search from there in Italian.If you use the Chrome browser it will automatically translate the text for you. Here’s a good example: http://www.saperebere.com/amari.html

    • Eric Lumsden permalink
      September 24, 2014 11:41 am

      Hello Josh. Great info. I am looking for an Amaro that is closest in flavor profile to Lorenzo Inga Selection MY Amaro. It is hard for me to find. Might you know of a close replacement? Also, is there a site that lists most Amari from most bitter to sweet? Thanks. Eric

      • Josh Miller permalink*
        September 24, 2014 7:42 pm

        Hi Eric! No site has a comprehensive list of amari to my knowledge. In terms of finding a more widely available replacement for Amaro Mio, you could try Luxardo Amaro Abano. It’s a touch less sweet but has a similar flavor profile and a pronounced fennel note like Amaro Mio.

  2. Michael permalink
    March 26, 2014 8:40 am

    Hey Josh,

    Thanks for this awesome series of posts! They are safely bookmarked so I can look at them anytime. I just started getting into amaro about a year ago and I’m completely enthralled. I have 9 bottles so far and am always looking for the next one I have need to try. Next on the list is Bigallet, Salers, Braulio, Cappelletti and Bonal.

    I also am working on my own amaro. It’s in the mellowing/resting stage right now. I think I went overboard on the number of ingredients and the flavors are a bit muddled and confusing. Fortunately, I have backup bottles of Everclear so I can make another batch.

    I’m really looking forward to future posts. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Michael

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      March 26, 2014 8:50 am

      Thanks, Michael! Glad you enjoyed the series. I will write more as additional amari become available. Your reference to Bonal (a favorite of mine–makes a ridiculously good cobbler) reminds me that I have been meaning to write an article about wine-based amari. They’re great, but you have to store them in the refrigerator after you open them, so drink up. I currently have a Bonal and a Cardamaro in the fridge among all the vermouth 🙂

      Let us know how your amaro comes out so we can compare notes–I’m working on one as well.

      Cheers,
      Josh

      • Michael permalink
        March 26, 2014 8:59 am

        My rule is that anything under 20% ABV stays in the fridge. Suze, Lillet, and the vermouths. I ran out of room, so the Cynar (one of my favorites) is on my bookshelf. Do you think that’s bad?

      • Michael permalink
        March 30, 2014 11:12 pm

        Amaro is done! It reminds me of Suze in color and orangey-ness. It seemed hot, intensely bitter and angry at first, but about 50 days later with time to mellow, absorb raisiny sweetness, and pseudo oak age it has really improved. This was my first attempt and I’m really proud of the final result. Eager to try again and achieve a different flavor profile. Maybe something darker next time – chocolate, coffee, cacao, chili. Mole-inspired amaro?

        Here is my process for batch #1:

        Day 1: Monday Feb. 10, 2:00 p.m. – Infuse 1 tsp each: Gentian, Angelica, Wormwood, Burdock, Licorice, Quassia, Orris, Wild cherry Bark, Rhubarb Root, Heather Flower. 2 cups Everclear (151 proof) in 1/2 gallon mason jar.
        Day 8: Monday 12:00 a.m. – Strain out bittering agents and add 4 tsp Bitter Orange, 1 Cinnamon stick, 4 clove, 4 Cardamom pod, 14 Juniper berries, 1 tsp Anise seed, 1/4 tsp Fennel Pollen, 1 tsp Hyssop, 1 tsp Lemon Balm, 3 leaves Dried Sage, 20 leaves Dried Rosemary, 2 Bay leaves, 1 Tongan Vanilla Bean, 3/4 tsp Dried Peppermint tea.
        Day 11: Wednesday 10:00 p.m. – Add 1 Star Anise
        Day 12: Friday 12:00 a.m. – Strain out flavoring ingredients and add 1 cup water, 1.5 cups simple syrup, 1 cup Carpano Bianco Vermouth, Strain through cheesecloth, Strain through Chemex filter. Add 1 Oak Stave. 1 cup raisins.
        Day 50: Strain out oak stave and raisins, bottle.

        Base recipe came from here: http://tickledpalate.wordpress.com/tag/amaro-recipe/

        I would really LOVE to hear about your amaro as well. The ingredients you used, the length of each infusion, your base spirit, etc. Really excited to learn how yours is coming along!

      • Josh Miller permalink*
        April 1, 2014 1:17 pm

        Wow–what a fun experiment, Michael! Thanks so much for sharing all of your hard work with us.

        Right now, I’m macerating individual spices in jars so I can combine them later. It’s still in its infancy, but I’ll be sure and wrote about it when I’m done.

        Cheers

  3. Josh Miller permalink*
    March 26, 2014 9:04 am

    That’s a fair rule, and one that I generally follow myself. I honestly hadn’t considered putting Cynar in the fridge until this moment, but having had the same bottle for a few months, I haven’t noticed any changes. Sounds like a good experiment to document!

  4. amy permalink
    February 7, 2015 12:24 am

    Some people associate the scent of elder flower with cat pee. I don’t make that connection myself, but I also don’t understand why anyone would eat cilantro on purpose… We all have our preferences.

  5. February 6, 2016 3:47 pm

    Just stumbled on this while looking for drink ideas for the China-China Amer I recently bought. I have numerous cocktail books, including a “Field Guide to Bitters and Amari,” but none has China-China – perhaps because it is a relatively recent import. I love what you are doing here and will be having a Fort Erie for my cocktail this evening.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      February 6, 2016 3:53 pm

      Good stuff! Glad you found the blog. Cheers

  6. John Buchbinder permalink
    November 11, 2016 5:49 am

    Excellent blog! I came to your blog from a google search for a particular amaro that I had in Sicily recently. In fact, Sicily seemingly has many “local” amari that are not widely available on the mainland, and are sometimes not available in nearby cities. My wife had urged me to pick up several to bring home, but I didn’t listen! When we return, which I hope is soon, I will certainly bring several of my favorites.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      November 11, 2016 10:15 am

      Thanks very much, John. Cin cin!

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