Ellen Clifford: Autumn Comes Amaro

It is still summer but I dream of autumnal spirits. And my mind turns to amaro. Every time I turn around there is a new amaro on the market. Case in point, I was imbibing at José Andrés’ Bazaar recently when my friend, a fellow wine savant, tried to order Montenegro. The bartender said that they didn’t have it, but he’d pour something similar. Upon approving it we inquired what he’s just given us. “It’s called Amaro,” he said. I was about to get on my high horse (preferably Clydesdale). I assumed that the bartender thought we were two young women who had no clue about spirits and was dumbing down the information for us. Sadly, women get this a lot in bars. People doubt we know about booze because we are young and female. It makes me want to wear my somm pin everywhere so I can get an ounce of respect off the bat--but that is another column. This time, I didn’t jump on my horse. Instead I lassoed the bottle. Which is to say, I politely expressed interest in getting a closer look. Glad I didn’t give the bartender a hard time. Our drink was in fact an amaro named…Amaro. Another day, another amaro. So many they are running out of names. The more I’ve delved into the topic the more amaro madness I find. And amaro-induced intoxication. But that is yet another story. I devoured (with my eyeballs) Brad Thomas Parsons’s “ Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs ”, trying to get a grip on the topic. Yet, I still can’t find a consensus on what precisely an amaro is. Unlike the wine world there are no laws dictating what gives one the right to declare amaro. But I can give general notes. It is a darkish bittersweet spirit, with a lower abv than hard alcohol. It has an element of bitterness to it, and is often taken towards the end of a meal as a digestif. Bitters are good for digestion because the body registers bitterness as something that you shouldn’t have in your body (aka poison) and accelerates your digestion to get it out of you. There are sub-genres of it that some people consider amaro and some do not, like Campari. Does Campari simply belong to the “Aperitivo bitters” category of amaro, or is it another thing entirely? Then there are fernets, which are another rather undefined sub-category of amaros themselves. The uniting factor, usually, is that fernets have slightly higher alcohol levels, are the bitterest of the bitters, and have certain common herbs, roots and botanicals like black aloe ferox, rhubarb root, and myrrh as ingredients. For time (and my liver’s) sake I decided to profile twelve amaros that fit most squarely into the “dark bittersweet digestif” category. I strove to include the things you are most likely to see out and about, along with a couple of more unusual but fun finds. And one fernet. Because Fernet Forever. Also I aspire to get a fernet coin someday. Fernet coins are a topic for yet another column. OH! One more Very Important Note. I have reported before on what cans you should bring to the lavatory if you simply must indulge (torture yourself) with Shower Wine. And because I believe in due diligence, I put an amaro or so up to the task and I am here to tell you if it is cold out, amaro is THE best option for bathing booze. But if it is hot AF, it is an exercise in confusion. The heat and sweetness of these boozy concoctions mirror the steam of the shower and prove too much. So for wine in the shower amaros are either THE BEST OPTION or the worst. Watch the weather and pick your poison. If it is Shower Amaro Weather I particularly recommend the first of these delights I introduce you to. Pop your shower cherry with blood orange. Amara Amaro D’Arancia Rossa Made of Sicilian blood oranges! It tastes quite…orange. It is very light and rather sweet. I would drink it straight up as an aperitif or digestif. Parsons says it could almost be used in place of a triple sec. I employed it instead of Cointreau in a Sidecar with lovely results. Meletti If Montenegro (see below) is a lot of dark syrup and wickedness, this is a lighter syrup and a bit of citrus. Chamomile tea but with a citrus burn. Undercurrents of gingerbread happiness. I’ve been told it makes a great Negroni. I have gin and Campari so I might just use this in place of sweet vermouth. Sounds like a treat. Amaro Montenegro Only three people know the ingredients of Montenegro! But two of the known items are orange peel and vanilla. It is super similar to Meletti but…darker in spirit. More bitter rhubarb and bitter citrus plus a hint of allspice and cinnamon and a splash of dark sugar syrup. J’adore. Averna Benedictine monks in Sicily created the original formula for Averna, and eventually passed it on to a businessman (Salvatore Averna) who named it for himself. Seeing as Benedictine liqueur already exists I’d deem that a prudent move. As with many amaros, the ingredients are for the most part kept secret. There is citrus to be sure, and herbs. Quite a bit of sweet spice. It is barely bitter but still would settle your tumtum, or at least make a lovely dessert beverage. Cynar Possibly one of my favorite amaros. It is made with artichokes (among about twelve other things) and tastes nothing like them. It is, like the tips of their leaves, sharp! As in not overly syrupy. It calls to mind both green vegetables and caramel. And cola. I like this both near and in cocktails. Try subbing it for some sweet vermouth in a Manhattan! Amaro dell’Erborista A boodles worth of people said I HAD to have this. I shelled out a rather large sum for the bottle (granted it comes in a rather large bottle) and…it was ever so worth it. I now fear for when I run out of this. Holy heck. It is ever so bitter. And the sweetness cuts in with a hit of…toasted marshmallow? This has become one of my holy grail amaros for its ability to cut like a knife and light up like zippo that senses a lonely Camel. Fernet Branca Also known as the Bartender’s Handshake, fernet is fierce! It contains aloe, bitter orange, myrrh, cinchona, cardamom, chamomile, saffron and more. Rippingly bitter and minty. It smells clean and feels cleansing and probably is both. Sip it, shoot it, or put it in cola. It will make you wonder why there is no such thing as mint coke yet Ramazzotti Another bitter I love to add to a Manhattan! It occurs to me it contains many of the same ingredients as Fernet Branca—bitter orange, myrrh, cardamom and galangal. But to me the anise and star anise in it really stand out. It tastes of that, cola, and root beer. The bitter is elegantly balanced with sweet. Zucca Rabarbaro Amaro Made of cardamom, orange peel, rhubarb root and what happens when you smoke it all. The resounding interest in this is the smoke. Here is where I put on my objective writer hat (it’s wide-brimmed) because I don’t care for smoky alcohols. But given that many love the likes of mezcal and Islay Scotch I am betting Zucca has myriad followers. It calls to mind a cherry pie that has been smoked. I made an (accidentally) smoked cherry pie once when the juices running off the pie burned on the oven floor. I considered it a disaster but half the population at the KCRW pie contest loved it. All of which to say is if you are into smoke you’ll adore this. Beyond the smoke it is exquisitely balanced between bitter and sweet. R. Jelínek Amaro Liqueur Oh wow, an amaro from the Czech Republic? Not to be confused with the fernet R. Jelinek makes. Supes similar to Meletti and Montenegro but…lighter and sharper somehow. Flowers and the citrus rainbow from kumquat (the bitter!) to limes, to Ugli fruit all play a part. Light and bright like hey! Hello sunshine. Amaro Lucano WOW! Founded in 1894. A blend of…more than they feel fit to tell of us but I am beginning to think that the official “amaro” criteria are actually to not tell what it contains. The mystery tastes in this? Licorice and honey took a trip into a pine forest. It is complex and will whip both your acid and sweet receptors into shape. Underberg Digestif delight! I first had this at a bar because a friend noticed a line up of the adorbs (hate the term but it fits miniatures) bottles. It Christmas cookie spice in a glass sipped. You are supposed to shoot it. I shoot nothing. With guns, needles or into my mouth I avoid shooting. Sip or shoot, my digestion after drinking this has always seemed on the up and up the next day. TMI? Or just good info? You be the judge. Thanks to Ellen Clifford Delectable columnist Ellen Clifford is a WSET 3 and CMS 2 wine professional and comedic actress living in Los Angeles. Her musings on all things wine can be found on her blog Scrumptious Gruel and weekly podcast The Whine Situation . You can follow Ellen on Delectable and Instagram at @ellenclifford.

R. Jelínek

Original Recipe Amaro Liqueur 1894

One more to review (says she giving her spittoon side eye). Unless another amaro shows up before the end of the week. I’ll taste it! Not that this assignment was displeasurable! Into this. If mint, kumquats, and undisclosed herbs had a love child that is this. One of the lightest and brightest. Sunshine out of the Czech Republic. Another fave. — 6 years ago

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Very cool notes. A unique product.
Ellen Clifford

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@Trixie get your hands on some! Totally tasty

Fratelli Branca Distillerie

Fernet-Branca Liqueur

Another “is it amaro?” But I care not because I really like it. Stupid bitter. Ever so much mint and maybe licorice but mostly just bitterness that makes you wanna keel over but in the best way. This bitter is a happy field trip. — 6 years ago

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Amaro Siciliano

Not so gloomy as my expression. Baking spice and lemonade. Need I say more? I might in my article (coming in August!) but for now I’m down. Mostly a mixer but damn. Yum. — 6 years ago

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Amaro Montenegro

Amaro Italiano

My fave mellow Amaro so far. This would be a super mixer. But for those turned off by the realllllly bitter amaros (not I but I get it) this would be a thing. Orange peel, cinnamon, something, oh, bark-y? Truly lovely. The masochist in me prefers ramozotti if I had to sip Amaro straight but I’m friggin’ adoring this. — 6 years ago

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Pasqual Vena & Figli

Amaro Lucano

‘Tis fortunate concerned friends are sending amaro my way. Supes into this. The friend who sent it my way despises licorice. Which I adore. So tasting note number one: licorice/anise. But like light citrus and herbes de Provence. I adore it. — 6 years ago

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Paul T HB

Paul T HB

I draw the line at Red Vines,
Ellen Clifford

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@Paul Treadway Huntington Beacher Bum so I take it you are missing out on the joys of absinthe? Well...I guess to each their own—I can’t—or haven’t, I should say—developed appreciation for smoky booze so I get it. But gosh I do love the licorice flavor


Cynar Ricetta Originale Artichoke

Oh hell my fave. If pushed this is my fave. Amaro. Ridiculously bitter.odd sweetness almost too much but not. Hell I LOVE CYNAR. — 6 years ago

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Ellen Clifford

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@Michael Meyer just tried and reviewing! Holy heck my fave so far. Wouldn’t say it is the bitterest if my tries—more like perfect
Michael Meyer

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It is a beauty @Ellen Clifford. The honey notes make a nice contrast to the bitterness. Agree...it is perfetto! 👌


Siciliano Amaro Liqueur

Supes similar to Montenegro but...more baking spice, more ginger that is. A whiff of orange blossom. So yummy. Dammit I can’t really choose a fave Amaro yet. I’m in for what bitters can do. — 6 years ago

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Jason Brater

Jason Brater

Love this stuff. Makes a great negroni or w tonic or club and lime!
Ellen Clifford

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@Jason Brater oooh a negroni? Replacing the sweet vermouth? Sounds good!

Ettore Zucca


Time for objective reporting. I hate smoky but I recognize balance and complexity as much as I recognize a lot of people (hello mezcal and scotch lovers!) are into smoky. This is smoked cherry pie. Not for me but if I dug smoke I’d drink the heckums out of it gosh darn it. Ergo I give it a huge thumbs up and will never drink it again myself. But I bet YOU will. — 6 years ago

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Paul T HB

Paul T HB

Is that a wine or liqueur??

Distilleria Varnelli

Amaro dell'Erborista

Better than I dreamed! No such thing as too bitter. So imagine you took a s’more, doused it in, say Montenegro tossed it in a fire. This beauty is The Best Amaro I’ve tasted yet. Smoke, bitter, sugar, wood and spice. WTF this is the genius thing we all need. — 6 years ago

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Sharon B

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After reading your article and seeing your posts I will have to try this! Thanks for opening another door for me!
Ellen Clifford

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@Sharon B my pleasure! Let me know what you think!

Underberg AG

Underberg Digestif Bitter

Meant to be shot in that case wow awesome. In general it is Christmas spice on speed. Ready to puncture your taste buds and intestines? I mean it is tasty and ridiculously potent to sip but...def a mixed or (if you will) a shot. Eh... — 6 years ago

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