Leave it to the Italians to popularize a beverage that’s intended to increase the appetite and/or aid with digestion. Bitter herbs stimulate digestive function by increasing saliva production and promoting stomach acid and digestive enzyme production. Amaro is the Italian word for “bitter,” and the taste can vary greatly — from intensely bitter to herbaceous to bitter-sweet and syrupy. Alcohol content by volume (ABV) also varies, from 11-40%.
Many of the recipes that feature amaro date back centuries and were created by monks or pharmacists. Today, I’m excited to introduce you to three of my favorite amari (plural for amaro), as well as a San Francisco staple.
Pictured from left to right
Varnelli Amaro Dell’Erborista ($61.99 for 1L)
So, you think that you like bitter flavors? Brace yourself for one of the most intense bitter flavors that you have ever tasted in liquid form. Gentian root is the primary focus of this one, with a slight hint of honey. This bottle is the frontrunner if I need to settle my stomach after eating too much heavy food. Tread lightly if trying to use this in a cocktail. Most often, I’ll drink this over ice, allowing the water to dilute some of the intensity.
Amaro Montenegro Di Bologna ($26.99)
This is the gentlest amaro on my list. When taking your first whiff, you’ll notice a strong smell of herbs (like pine) and a hint of orange. Something in it even reminds me of bubblegum. This is a great bottle if you’re looking for a soft introduction to amaro. The balance of bitter herbs and sweetness paired with the medium viscosity makes it pretty much the perfect cocktail in a bottle. Drink it neat (in a liqueur glass if you want to be fancy), add ice or an orange zest and soda water, or mix it in as a replacement for sweet vermouth to spice up your favorite cocktail. It’s that easy.
Fernet Branca ($21.99)
San Francisco represents 35% of the country’s Fernet consumption. It’s a favorite of the city’s service industry workers, where a shot ordered for a colleague replaces a hello. The secret recipe of 27 herbs picked from 4 continents is definitely an acquired taste, and is often described as licorice-flavored mouthwash. While the flavor can overwhelm most drinks, this recipe for a Toronto cocktail swaps Fernet Branca for bitters in the classic Old-Fashioned recipe.
Campari ($26.99 for 1L)
Accept no imitations. The flavor is bright, bitter, and has slight hints of floral and citrus notes. The vibrant red aperitif is so popular in Italy that they sell it prepackaged with soda water. It’s the star of the Negroni, delicious with soda water, and most recently, I’ve taken to drinking it stirred with ice and a few drops of saline solution (dissolve 1/8 teaspoon table salt in 1 tablespoon of water).
2 oz amaro (I recommend Amaro Montenegro Di Bologna)
Orange slice or zest garnish optional
Pour amaro over ice. Cut an orange into a thin slice or just use the zest if desired. Take pleasure in the simplicity of this one.
Photography and styling by Hannah Levy.