In the bar world, bitterness has become a virtue. And now the handful of Italian amari that have become household names in the cocktail community are opening the door for a long list of brands that long ago earned cult followings in their respective pockets of Europe but have yet to make their mark in the U.S.
Fernet Branca, Averna, Aperol, and of course, Campari were among the first bartender favorites to enjoy mainstream recognition among bitters-drinking enthusiasts and the amaro-curious. In the U.S., Fernet Branca’s volume grew 20 percent last year, according to International Wine & Spirits Research (IWSR), while Averna jumped 22 percent and Aperol rose 36.7 percent. Meanwhile, IWSR shows flat volume for Campari in the U.S. for 2016 (though it rose more than 7 percent worldwide).
The success of those brands could help elevate the prospects for other, less prominent Italian amari, as well as other European bitters, like the Czech Republic’s Becherovka, Hungary’s Unicum, and Latvia’s Riga Black Balsam.
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A decade or so ago, it would likely have been ill-advised to try to expand the potable bitters market in any meaningful way, because American palates hadn’t quite caught up with those on the other side of the Atlantic. But stateside tastes continue to evolve, and consumers are starting to appreciate what European drinkers have known all along—that bitterness is not a particular flavor but a spectrum.
And the spectrum isn’t limited to amari, either. Consumers are embracing a range of bitterness in craft beer too. Just look at how individual craft brewers these days are producing countless iterations of the most popular beer style, IPA—which represents more than 25 percent of all U.S. craft beer sales, with an annual volume jump of nearly 23 percent, according to the Brewers Association.
In fact, the term “bitter” itself can be a bit misleading when it comes to amari, as some tilt in a variety of directions, from tart to sweet to peppery to vegetal, and any combination of those characteristics.
“So far, amaro has mostly been just a secret in the mixologist community,” says Marco Montefiori, the USA brand ambassador for Amaro Montenegro, the 132-year-old amaro liqueur made in Bologna, Italy, that’s blended with more than 40 herbs. “Whenever you drink vodka or tequila, you already know what to expect. But when you drink an amaro, you don’t know what to expect because the category is really diverse in taste profile.”
There’s still a steep consumer learning curve to overcome before amari and other herbal and bitter liqueurs develop as a full-fledged category here in the U.S., so bars have their work cut out for them on the education front. Everything from sample pours to flights to the integration of these unfamiliar spirits into established cocktail recipes can function as teaching tools. The Negroni, for example, often serves as a vehicle for creativity. Some drinkers are put off by the intensity of Campari, but they might be drawn to a Negroni mixed with Amaro Montenegro or Ramazotti, which dials back the bitterness a bit (but not quite so much as, say, Aperol).
Meanwhile, the popularity of the Aperol Spritz—Aperol, Prosecco, and a slice of orange, sometimes topped off with seltzer—has also provided a creative canvas for bartenders looking to introduce consumers to bittersweet Aperol alternatives. One possible substitute is an amaro with a flavor profile similar to that of Montenegro, which has a bit more bite than Aperol but isn’t nearly as bitter as Campari.
Montefiori, however, says, “Cocktails are the gateway to the amaro world, but I believe the real deal is to discover amaro by itself.”
Some bars are more conducive to that discovery than others. Take New York’s Amor y Amargo, for example, which stocks around 150 (and counting) amari.
“You’ve got to expose people to things that [might] catch their interest,” says Amor y Amargo beverage director Sother Teague. “I offer a one-ounce pour of almost everything on the bar for $7 to $9. [It’s a] low-risk investment of product provided to you by an engaging and highly knowledgeable staff.”
The “highly knowledgeable staff” part is one of the most critical prerequisites for on-premises sales success, and it’s standard operating procedure at Chicago’s similarly amaro-centric drinking establishment Billy Sunday. The bar hosts training twice a month to keep staff up to date on the spirits it carries.
“We talk history, ingredients, and production method and really dig into each style,” says Stephanie Andrews, the bar manager at Billy Sunday.
Themed flights are among the tools Billy’s bartenders use to go deep with curious imbibers. Since amari typically incorporate some elements of local terroir, a popular combination involves liqueurs of a similar style from different regions. And then there’s a flight that guides guests through the broad range of flavors within the category. Andrews is partial to an old-versus-new flight that pits a 1960s bottling of an amaro with a modern iteration of the same brand.
“My favorite part about [my work at] Billy is being able to educate the guest on these spirits,” she says. “Most people are drinking some sort of bitter in their cocktails but have never explored them on their own. Taking them through the ingredients—or story—really opens them up to a whole world of drinking they never knew they liked.”
Brands to Watch
The universe of bitter and herbal liqueurs is vast and can take years to fully explore. Here are a few places to begin sipping on your journey.
Becherovka: Cinnamon and anise are the dominant notes in this 210-year-old pale amber Czech liqueur, though its recipe includes 30-plus botanicals, most of which the makers refuse to disclose.
Riga Black Balsam: The Latvian tipple, first concocted by a pharmacist in 1752, is a proprietary blend of 17 herbs, roots, and grasses that are infused in neutral spirit and then blended with honey, juices, and other secret ingredients. The opaque black liqueur’s flavor lies somewhere at the nexus of bitter, sweet, and sour.
Unicum: Supposedly created in 1790 by József Zwack, the royal physician to the imperial court of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hungarian brownish-amber is bittersweet and floral. The company remains in the Zwack family.
Gammel Dansk Bitter Dram: Denmark’s version of an amaro, Gammel Dansk enjoys a cult following in its home country, as well as other parts of Scandinavia. (It even inspired an ice cream flavor at the world-famous Danish restaurant Noma.) Originally developed by aquavit producer Danish Distillers in 1964, Gammel Dansk features 29 ingredients, including gentian root, coriander, wormwood, and China bark, that create a moderately bitter tipple.
Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto: Italicus falls in the little known, amaro-adjacent category rosolio—liqueurs that incorporate rose water into their recipes. Gentian, lavender, and chamomile are among its herbal components, and lemons add a citrusy element to the mildly spicy, sweet, slightly bitter, and of course floral beverage.
Jeff Cioletti is a former editor in chief of Beverage World magazine and the author of the books The Drinkable Globe, The Year of Drinking Adventurously, Beer FAQ, and the upcoming Sakepedia. He’s a Certified International Kikisake-shi (sake sommelier).