Amari (plural of amaro) are traditional Italian bitter liqueurs. The most famous being Campari. But they’re not just made in Italy, Britain, Denmark, Germany, America and others all make delicious bitter concoctions. So we thought it would be a good idea to round up the ten best bitter liqueurs from Italy and beyond!
Italians love bitterness. You can taste it in the coffee, in the wine (there’s a Puglian grape called negroamaro – black and bitter) and, most notably, in a class of liqueurs called Amari, meaning ‘bitter’. They are made all over the peninsula by steeping herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables in alcohol, then sweetening and diluting the concoction. The best known is Campari but each part of Italy has its own amaro, like Fernet Branca from Milan, or Amaro Montenegro from Bologna. These brands have their roots in the 19th century, though Italian families and monasteries have been making versions for much longer.
Until recently, they were seen as a bit old-fashioned, the sort of things drunk by old men in cafes alongside an espresso. But in recent years they have become fashionable with bartenders all over the world. This has inspired people outside Italy to make their own. There are now a number of boutique producers in America, Britain and other countries. Plus countries in central and northern Europe also have their own bitter liquor traditions.
Amari balance their high levels of bitterness with sugar and alcohol, which varies between 16.5% ABV for Cynar and 39% ABV for Fernet Branca. The mighty Fernet is also the bitterest of the big names. So what should I do with these fearsome concoctions? We’ve got some cocktail suggestions below.
So, here are the ten best bitter liqueurs:
The king of Amari! No home should be without a bottle. Campari was invented in 1860 by Gaspare Campari (you can read the full story here). It used to get its famous red colour from cochineal beetles but no longer, so it’s suitable for vegetarians. I like to drink it simply with ice, soda and a slice of orange but for many, a Negroni simply isn’t a Negroni without Campari.
From Stambecco comes this classic Italian amaro liqueur! Maraschino cherries are the star here, along with sweet and bitter oranges, spices, herbs and wormwood among the 30 botanicals used. But despite being made from cherries, the flavour is closer to almond so this would make a great less sweet alternative to Amaretto especially shaken with lemon juice and an egg white to make a Fizz.
Central and northern Europe also have a long tradition of making bitter highly-flavoured liqueurs. This one means ‘Old Danish’ and it blends star anise, nutmeg, ginger, laurel, gentian, Seville orange, cinnamon and others to create something like a less sweet Jägermeister. The Danes drink it to keep out the chill north wind, but in warmer months it makes a great digestif alongside an espresso.
The Asterley Bros. have been hard at work in South London creating Britannica Fernet, a bitter spirit made with 14 botanicals including roasted hazelnuts, cacao nibs, rosemary, chocolate malt myrrh and even London Porter. Although bitter, this liqueur is full of approachable notes and is ideal for sipping neat as a digestif, or as a complex addition to cocktails such as the Hanky Panky.
This is made with a whisky base consisting of two single malts, Ardmore from first-fill bourbon casks, and Invergordon matured in refill sherry casks, blended with single grain from the North British distillery aged in virgin oak casks. The Sweetdram team then infuses the base with allspice, hibiscus, coriander, lovage, kola, quassia, rhubarb, lemon and lingonberry, and sweetens it with honey from Sussex and Edinburgh. Pretty cool, eh?
This is delicate and orangey, though with plenty of bitterness. The flavour profile is somewhere between Aperol and Campari. Ingredients include saffron, angostura, columba, Italian artemisia and more (including cochineal to give it the traditional ruby hue). It makes a cracking Americano: equal measures of Riserva Bitter and Martini Riserva Ambrato vermouth, ice, orange and splash of soda. Class.
And amaro from Germany? You better believe it. Mondino Amaro is made in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps to a classic recipe that includes bitter orange, rhubarb and yellow gentian, among other locally sourced ingredients. It makes a mighty fine Spritz, but it wouldn’t look out of place in a Negroni or served with tonic water and a slice of orange.
Made by Sacred in Highgate in London, Sacred Rosehip Cup was designed as a punchy alternative to Pimm’s but it works equally well as a thoroughly English Campari substitute. The bitterness comes from rosehips, rhubarb and ginger. Sacred suggests mixing one part Rosehip Cup to three parts sparkling wine or Champagne, although soda can also be used. Alternatively, mix it with gin and vermouth for a British-accented Negroni.
The mighty Fernet Branca! A cult drink among bartenders, this is probably the bitterest thing known to humanity. It’s so bitter that it’s unlikely to topple Campari as most people’s Amari of choice. Then again, some people love it: Fernet and Coca-Cola is the national drink of Argentina. But the world capital of Fernet consumption is San Francisco, California.
Aperol and Campari might be better known, but you can’t beat a drop of Select Aperitivo when you want some Italian magic. Select is the choice of Venetians, it’s been made in the city since the 1920s. The flavour profile is bitter and grown-up but a bit more delicate than Campari. We love drinking it in a Bicicletta – a mixture of ice, white wine and fizzy water. It’s the perfect lazing in the sun kind of drink.