Amaro is the Italian word for “bitter”, and is the most common term for this drink, but digestivo (digestif) or ammazzacaffè (coffee-killer) can also be used.
Traditionally, amaro is served at the end of a meal.
It should be sipped before having coffee, added to coffee as a “corrector”, or enjoyed after coffee, when it serves to “kill” the flavour lingering in one’s mouth.
In more recent times, amaro has also been used in some aperitifs and desserts.
The history of amaro
In ancient times, alcohol and root-based preparations were used to aid the digestion of long Lucullian lunches; Hippocrates recommended an elixir of good health, consisting of wine infused with barley, honey and herbs.
Amaro as we know it today seems to have been “invented” by the monks of the Benedictine abbeys and sold as medicine until the early 20th century.
The basic ingredients of amaro are water, alcohol, sugar and aromatic herbs, such as juniper, wormwood, gentian, elderberry, mint and bay leaf.
Other botanicals such as artichoke, liquorice and citrus fruits are also used.
The ingredients are macerated in alcohol for several days.
After the liquid has been filtered, a syrup made with sugar and water is added.
Digestif or not?
According to some theories, bitter plants boost the secretion of gastric juices and facilitate digestion.
The digestive process starts in the mouth.
Our bodies need bitterness to stimulate metabolic processes.
Therefore, the bitter taste of amaro activates the receptors in the tastebuds and increases the secretion of gastrin, a hormone produced in the lining of the stomach, promoting digestion.
On the other hand, others claim that amaro isn’t a digestif due to its high alcohol content, which irritates the lining of the stomach and can even slow down the entire process, especially after a large meal.
In any case, amaro remains an undisputed star of Italian lunches and dinners.
Italy is the biggest producer of amaro in the world and each region has its own specialty.
Let’s discover a few.
A symbol of the Abruzzese culture, this typically green liqueur with very high alcohol content (70 per cent) is made by infusing 100 aromatic and medicinal herbs that grow in the mountainous countryside.
The original recipe was created by the Benedictine monks who founded the Abbey of San Clemente a Casauria, in the province of Pescara, in 1100.
The drink was perfected by Beniamino Toro, a pharmacist from Tocco da Casauria, who used the preparation to treat patients who had the plague in the late 18th century.
Today, it’s not only sipped after a meal, but is also used in sweets and pasta dishes, such as the famous penette alla centerba.
This bitter-sweet liqueur made from medicinal herbs was born in Matera, home to the famed cave dwellings of the Sassi districts, in the late 19th century.
In 1894, Cavalier Pasquale Vena locked himself in the back room of his biscuit factory in Pisticci and created a secret blend of 30 herbs with citrus and floral notes.
The recipe impressed the refined palates of the House of Savoy, whose coat of arms appears on the label, and went on to conquer the world, being handed down from father to son.
Mainly used as a digestif, it can be served neat, with ice or with orange peel, and is also an excellent base for cocktails.
Calabria: Vecchio Amaro del Capo
This Calabrian liqueur is made from the infusion of 29 herbs, spices, roots, fruits and flowers that grow in abundance across the “toe” of Italy’s boot, including oranges, mandarins, anise, liquorice, chamomile and juniper.
After years of experience in the industry, distiller Giuseppe Caffo decided to start his own business in 1915, buying a small distillery in the Sicilian town of Santa Venerina.
In the following years, Giuseppe’s children decided to open a distillery in Calabria, precisely in Limbadi, Vibo Valentia, known for its production of red wine and home to myriad raw materials and resources for local distilling.
Initially, Caffo produced a small range of spirits distilled from wine, such as grappa, however the Fratelli Caffo distillery gradually began producing and earning recognition for their fruit and herbal liqueurs and classic Italian spirits.
Vecchio Amaro del Capo is the flagship of the Fratelli Caffo distillery.
A strictly secret recipe, Vecchio Amaro del Capo takes its name from Capo Vaticano, a place depicted on the label, located near the coastal town of Tropea.
Famous for its sweet taste and highly aromatic aftertaste, it should be consumed chilled, strictly at -20°C.
This liqueur was created in 1885 under the name “Elisir Lungavita”, by Stanislao Cobianchi, a young Bolognese nobleman from San Lazzaro di Savena.
It was made specifically for the wedding of Victor Emmanuel III and Elena of Montenegro, who it’s named after.
It contains 40 botanicals such as herbs, spices, dried fruit, roots, seeds, barks, citrus peel, rhizomes, flowers and wood species from all over the world.
Once they reach the herbalist’s workshop, the botanicals undergo three different forms of extraction: boiling, maceration and distillation.
After this, 12 mother essences are taken and synthesised into six tasting notes: bitter and herbaceous, spicy and floral, chocolate and caramel, fresh and balsamic, vanilla and red fruits, and warm and tropical.
One final element is added to these six notes, called “Premio”; it’s the final and fundamental ingredient of the secret recipe.
These are finally added to alcohol, water and sugar to leave a bitter-orange flavoured spirit.
Montenegro can be drunk on its own after a meal or used as an ingredient in many cocktails.
For its 130th anniversary, a special cocktail was invented containing lime, brown sugar and – naturally – Amaro Montenegro.
This rich and spicy liqueur was invented in 1894 in Milan, by Bernardino Branca, who subsequently founded a distillery with his brother Stefano.
Needless to say, the recipe is secret, handed down from generation to generation.
What we know is that it’s made from 27 herbs and spices from four continents, including: aloe ferox (bitter aloe), gentian (a bittering agent), chamomile, angelica, quinine, Chinese rhubarb, myrrh, peppermint and saffron.
Originally, the news spread that the liqueur derived its name from a fictional Swedish doctor named Fernet, who lived to the age of 104 thanks to the virtues of this elixir.
In reality, it seems that the origins of the name are simpler: Fernet derives from the Milanese expression fer net, which means “clean iron”, alluding to the hot iron plate that was used to prepare the infusion.
Fernet is very popular in Argentina, and is drunk both straight and as an ingredient in a cocktail called Fernola or Fernandito, which is prepared with Fernet and Coca-Cola.
The moniker of this liqueur derives from Cynara scolymus, the scientific name for “artichoke”– its peculiar and distinctive ingredient.
In fact, this drink is made from the extract of artichoke leaves, as well as the infusion of 13 herbs that give it a bittersweet taste.
Created and patented by the Venetian entrepreneur and philanthropist, Angelo Dalle Molle, in 1952, the recipe remains a secret.
Since then, the brand has grown and is now appreciated and distributed internationally.
In fact, the country where it’s exported to the most is Brazil.
Thanks to its refreshing characteristics, its bittersweet taste with herbaceous notes and its moderate alcohol content (16.5 per cent), Cynar can be consumed both as an aperitif and after a meal, due to its digestive properties, or with ice and lemon in the summer months.
Puglia: San Marzano
Elisir Borsci San Marzano would have to be the oldest herbal liqueur in Southern Italy.
Not much is known about this liqueur’s recipe.
We only know that it’s obtained by infusing alcohol with herbs and spices, including cinnamon, cloves and saffron.
The liqueur has an incomparable taste, neither sweet nor bitter, and an intense and varied aroma.
The word elisir, or “elixir”, refers to distant times.
It means “philosopher’s stone” and originally alluded to a chemical compound which, when applied to metals, would magically transform them into pure gold.
The extraordinary abilities that the term “elixir” evokes have made it synonymous with products with exceptional healing properties in more recent times.
Long ago, the Borsci family migrated from Caucasia to Albania following political upheaval.
A branch of the family then fled to Puglia.
In 1840, in the small town of San Marzano di San Giuseppe, Giuseppe Borsci perfected an ancient recipe inherited from his ancestors, and began to produce his own liqueur.
In summer, it can be served with ice and soda to create a thirst-quenching drink.
It can also be used in aperitifs and cocktails.
When combined with coffee, it enhances the taste.
It’s also delicious in milk, on ice cream and in sweets, particularly tiramisù.
Containing the true essence of the Sardinian spirit, this is the southern island’s most popular liqueur, made from the maceration of myrtle berries, a shrub typical of the Mediterranean landscape.
Mirto is generally red in colour, but there’s also a white version made from depigmented myrtle berries.
The liqueur dates back to the 19th century, when many families observed the custom of macerating myrtle berries in a mixture of alcohol and water, in brandy or in wine to make so-called “myrtle wine”.
But the highly therapeutic properties of myrtle berries have been recognised since ancient times, and they were often used in medicinal drinks.
Appreciated both as a digestif and an aperitif, Mirto is often prepared at home, an aspect that’s a source of pride for many Sardinians.
Conceived in Sicily in the mid-1800s, Averna is one of the best-selling and most famous Italian amaro varieties abroad.
A classic Italian digestif, it’s produced in Caltanissetta using a recipe that has remained unchanged over time.
This famous amaro has its roots in the 19th century, when Sicilian friars used to produce a herbal infusion with a slightly bitter taste and therapeutic qualities.
The recipe was passed on to Salvatore Averna, the son of a wealthy merchant family, who founded the company of the same name, which is still known today.
Averna is dark in colour, has an alcohol content of 29 per cent and is characterised by its bitter-sweet taste and notes of orange and liquorice.
It can be drunk both as a digestif and as a summer drink with lots of ice.