Bittersweet Symphony: Why You Should Be Drinking Amaro

Bitter—a flavour that's often maligned and mislabelled as undesirable. But used the right way, bitterness can lend food and drinks a complex edge that breaks monotony. The Italians have been on to this for centuries with amaro (literally Italian for "bitter"), a family of bitter to bittersweet liqueurs that are traditionally drunk as digestifs.

Amaro is said to have originated from the herbal wines that Roman nobles who would drink to restore their appetites after a particularly decadent feast. It was not until the middle ages that monks began to replace the wine with spirits, thanks to Arab chemists who introduced more advanced methods of distillation to Europe. Monks would commonly infuse these spirits with all manners of aromatics, spices, and herbs that they grew or collected themselves.

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Marcello's amaro collection

These concoctions were then marketed as curative elixirs or even as a liquid ward against evils—not dissimilar to the various potions that alchemists of the time dabbled in. While plants soaked in booze might not cure a gaping wound or turn lead into gold, amaro caught on as a popular digestion aid that also came with a bonus—an alcoholic kick.

Mixed Reactions

The popularity of these amari (the plural form of amaro) exploded in the 1800s, and amaro began to be mass produced. Popular brands like Campari and Fernet Branca were created around this time, with recipes that are, till today, closely guarded secrets. We know there's stuff like bitter aloe and chamomile in Fernet Branca; and Campari principally gets its flavour from chinotto—but the exact proportions and ingredients remain a mystery to most.

Soon after the invention of commercial amari came the cocktails. The Americano—a mix of vermouth, Campari and club soda—is said to have been first served in the 1860s at Gaspare Campari's (the creator of his namesake amaro) bar, Caffè Campari. From the Americano came the quintessential cocktail with which to let people know you're an adult with good taste: the negroni. Records show that the negroni came about when a certain Count Camillo Negroni—in the true spirit of an alcoholic (no citation, sorry)—asked for the club soda in his Americano to be replaced with gin.

These days, amaro cocktails are ubiquitous. Every self-respecting bar will offer a negroni, or some variation of it; you'll find Aperol spritzes on almost every cafe table during European summers; while Fernet and Coke is the unofficial national drink of Argentina.

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Some of the amaro at Caffe Fernet

In The Bars

Closer to home, amaro has come into focus in the Singaporean cocktail scene. Places like modern Australian restaurant Blackwattle; and Italian-style bars Caffe Fernet, and Marcello are bringing the bitter Italian liqueur to the forefront.

So why all the fuss about something that tastes closer to medicine than anything else? In a very succinct answer from Aki Eguchi, bar programme director of the Jigger and Pony Group: "balance". Despite being associated with all sorts of unpleasantness, bitterness adds complexity and nuance to a drink, and is key to (good) cocktail-making. In fact, the very first definition of a "cocktail", which appeared in 1806 in a New York-based weekly, described the drink as a "stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters".

At Caffe Fernet, Eguchi is amassing a collection of amari from all over the world—which go into drinks like a rosemary sbagliatoi; and various spins on negroni, including a bracingly-dry negroni bianco that combines the earthy, rounded bitterness of Suze (a Swiss/French aperitif) with the sharper, clean bitterness of wormwood.

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Caffe Fernet's negroni bianco

Bitter Botanicals

Besides wormwood, various other plants are used to add bitterness to amaro, each to different effect. Gentian root, one of the most common bittering agents, adds a long-finishing bitterness, while quassia has a woody, liquorice-like bittersweet quality. Other common botanicals include quassia bark, citrus peels, and cinchona, which can also be found in other cocktail ingredients like Angostura or Peychaud's bitters, and tonic water.

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Caffe Fernet's house made wormwood-infused limoncello

Other than its bitterness, amaro is also prized for its complexity, thanks to blends of botanicals that can range from everything to violet flowers and cardamom, to more exotic ingredients like saffron, which is one of the ingredients in Fernet Branca. Although there are exceptions, these combinations tend to vary from region to region within Italy.

"In the North, where it's colder, the amari tend to be heavier; they warm you up when you drink them, like Fernet Branca. In the South, where it's hot, you get lighter, fresher amari that tend to be more fruity and citrusy," shares Claudio Russo, bar manager at Publico Ristorante—the restaurant attached to Italian bar Marcello. Together with Marcello's head bartender Palmira Bertuca, the two Italian natives have curated the largest collection of amari—over 30 bottles—in Singapore by far.

Bittersweet Symphony: Why You Should Be Drinking Amaro
Marcello offers a chance to taste a range of amari of different regions and styles

Besides regional styles, amari can also be built around specific ingredients. Possible ingredients include artichokes, which are the primary ingredient in the popular brand Cynar (pronounced "chi-nar"),or even black truffles.  

At Marcello, bitter, herbal flavours feature heavily in their Italian-style cocktails; this may be in the form of vermouth or amari, which go into drinks like their brilliant Milano Fizz, a combination of lemon sherbert, Prosecco, and Campari. "Amari and bitters add texture to the flavour of a drink. If a cocktail tastes flat, you add some amaro to give it dimension and complexity," says Bertuca.

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Marcello's smoked olive negroni

Besides being used in cocktails, amari can and are commonly drunk neat, chilled, or on the rocks as a digestif or otherwise. It's also something that Russo advocates, as it's the best way to enjoy the complexities of amari in their purest form—something that's ill-advised with the much more concentrated cocktail bitters, even though they share similar functions in a mixed drink.

At Marcello, the amari collection spans various styles and producers, and categorised according to "classic" and "modern" styles. Classic amari sees labels like Averna and Luxardo, and tend to be more herbal, and syrupy. On the other hand, modern labels are considered a little more versatile, and can feature flavours like cardamom and rhubarb.

Changing Tastes

If all the different classifications for amari sound confusing, it's because there's little to no standardisation of the spirit. Unlike most spirits, almost anything goes for amari: its ABV can swing from as low as 17 percent to as high as 70 percent; while the base spirit can be anything from grappa to neutral grain spirits. Even the country of origin doesn't have to be Italy. Amaro is made everywhere, from Canada to the U.K. In fact, by some stretch, labels like Jagermeister (a surprisingly versatile spirit given a bad rep by frat boys everywhere) and even Yomeishu—both herbal liqueurs—can be considered amari.

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Amari can be naturally coloured with the flavouring botanicals, or with additives like caramel or carmine

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges here is getting amari to have mainstream appeal, especially when drunk neat. Its taste has been compared to cough syrup, or Chinese medicine—especially those with earthy, bitter, or liquorice-like flavours.

Eguchi opines, "Singaporeans are very open to trying new flavours. The view that it tastes like cough syrup or medicine is a matter of what people are used to. Maybe when people are more used to amaro, they'll be saying 'hey, this medicine tastes like amaro'."

Our advice? Start with the cocktails, and soon you'll be knocking back shots of Fernet Branca after dinner.