Posted on | February 25, 2015
Written by | W. Blake Gray
China’s Mao Zedong used to say that everyone should “eat bitterness.” Mao would probably look favorably upon a burgeoning trend in the spirits industry: the growth of amaros*.
Amaro means “bitter” in Italian. It’s also the name for a type of spirit usually taken at the end of a meal in Italy. Amaros are meant to help the digestion, and perhaps that’s the reason that some taste downright medicinal.
Amaros are old: many have formulas that haven’t changed since the 1800s. They have always been available in the U.S., but aside from the affection that San Francisco bartenders have for Fernet Branca, until the last decade they reached only a very niche market.
Not anymore. While overall sales figures are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests a growing wave. Restaurants that used to have one amaro now offer a list; Locanda in San Francisco offers an amaro flight. Some restaurants, like The Partisan in Washington, DC, carry multiple amaros on tap.
Tony Terlato, who knows something about booms in the business (he created the behemoth that is Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio), says that Terlato Wines International’s Amaro, Nonino was up 33% in depletions in 2014.
Banfi Vintners, which has never imported an amaro, plans to bring in one from Florio starting in 2015. Reversing the usual model of imports from Europe, Banfi has asked the producer to make an amaro that is less sweet, specifically for the modern American market. “It may well be amaro’s moment,” says Joe Janish, Banfi’s director of public relations.
The trend started in restaurants, but it is spreading to retailers. Terlato says 38% of Amaro Nonino is now sold off-premise. “We started working with the Nonino family in 1996. For the first six or seven years, it was almost all on-premise,” Terlato notes. “But now off-premise is really taking off. People learn to drink it in restaurants, and then they want to have it at home.”
Bolting the bar
Amaros got into restaurants through the bar. With the explosion of craft cocktails, bartenders discovered that the complex formulas of amaros make them a powerful ingredient to play with. Bartenders brought amaros into fine restaurants, and now sommeliers and servers are bringing them to the dinner table.
“It’s becoming more a part of the mainstream,” says Matthew Wohlab, sommelier at Phoenix’s Nook restaurant, which carries amaros on tap. “I have two types who order a lot. If I get traditional, actual Italians, they order amaro and soda. And I get a lot of bar managers and restaurant people. It’s big with them.”
Wohlab says it’s surprisingly easy to sell a glass of amaro after dinner to people who have never tried it. “A lot of it has to do with price point,” he says. “If a brand doesn’t cost a lot of money, you can sell shots of it for $5 or $6. It becomes like a Fireball thing. If somebody sits at my bar and they ask, ‘What do you like?’ I can say, ‘I like amaro.’ It costs $5, it’s easy for them to try. It’s more daunting for somebody to order a $22 grappa.”
As a category, amaro can be challenging because they’re all so different from each other. For the previous generation of drinkers, this might have been a turnoff. However, millenials like variety, so what was once a negative is now a marketing plus.
Retailers can consider what Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco has done. The store picks an “amaro of the month” for an end cap display, with a card describing its tasting notes. “You have to give people some kind of entry point,” says Rachel Gepner, Bi Rite’s spirits buyer. “And people need to touch them, to read the bottles.” She says she loves working with amaro because “they’re very much products of where they’re from. It’s a different kind of terroir. It’s not just the climate; it’s the ecosystem. The plants. The history.”
Here are some fine amaros in the U.S. today, with tasting notes.
Amaro Nonino is unusual in that it doesn’t actually taste particularly bitter, and that’s by design. “Some mixed drinks work with Nonino that don’t work with the herbal amaros,” Tony Terlato says. Unlike many amaros that start with grain neutral spirits, it’s made from grape brandy. It has a pretty, fruit-and-mint-driven character, with notes of orange peel, clove and Friulian mountain herbs. Imported by Terlato Wines International.
Santa Maria al Monte was created in 1892 and at 40% alcohol is one of the stronger amaros. It’s also potent in flavor: woody, spicy and complex, with a long finish. It really benefits from an ice cube. Imported by Vias Imports.
Suze is from France, was invented in 1889 and was featured in a Pablo Picasso painting, “Verre et bouteille de Suze.” It’s one of the most basic amaros, but that doesn’t mean it’s not intense: it’s a blast of severely bitter yet floral yellow gentian leavened with a necessary, but still large, dose of sugar; 20% ABV. Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates.
Braulio is the spirit that got this writer into amaro in the first place when it was recommended by a waiter in northern Italy. With plenty of alpine herbs, it’s one of the most complex and elegant (21% ABV). Unfortunately Braulio lost its importer last year and as of this writing doesn’t have a replacement.
Averna was created by Benedictine monks who gave the recipe to a monastery patron in 1859. It’s one of the most widely found amaros for good reason: with its rich, full-bodied character of cola, cinnamon and citrus, it’s a great introduction for beginners (32% ABV). Imported by Campari America.
Ramazotti celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. It’s a dense, slightly sweet amaro with coffee and citrus notes. At 30% ABV, it is popular in Milan as a “correction” for espresso. Imported by Evaton Inc.
Varnelli Dell’Erborista is an amaro for your purest wine-geek clients. The roots and herbs that flavor it come from Sibillini mountains, as does the honey used to sweeten it (most amaros use sugar). It’s produced over a wood fire and bottled unfiltered, giving it a cloudiness and some sediment (21% ABV). Most unique of all, it lists all of the ingredients on the back label. Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates.
Fernet Branca is an odd standard-bearer for amaros as it’s the most extreme. It’s too potent for most cocktails, and hard to love on first taste. But the spirits world is unpredictable: if Jagermeister could be a hit, why not Fernet Branca? In Argentina they mix it with Coke; wait ’til Americans discover that. Imported by Infinium Spirits (Wilson Daniels).
Lucano was created in 1894 by a pastry chef. Just six years later, it became the official amaro of the last royal family of Italy. Smooth and initially a little sweet, its complex herbs unfold on the finish; 28% ABV. It’s easy to imagine sipping this and thinking “Damn that Mussolini!” Imported by Domaine Select Wine Estates.