Amari

"Amaro" has a nice ring to it, and it’s probably good that in English we don’t translate the Italian when we refer to it (amaro means bitter). Amari are a whole subset of herbal liqueurs that have elixirlike qualities and are meant to be served as aperitivi and digestivi, where aperitivi are drier and stimulate the taste buds and appetite before a meal, and digestivi aid in digestion. They’re a very rewarding and mysterious group, as most amari have been around for years and years and their recipes are family secrets. The range of ingredients and flavors is great, but they’re a divisive sort, so it’s no surprise that they’re not for everyone. These are sipping liqueurs, and will come in handy this holiday season.

1. Campari

I first had Campari on the rocks in a Collins glass in Lisbon, Portugal. I had watched enough movies where people drank Campari straight, but I didn’t fare so well; I suffered through it and by the time I finished the glass I was parched and my morale was low. Despite that weird introduction, I’ve grown to love Campari in recent years and always have a bottle around. It’s incredibly versatile and is the vital ingredient in the best cocktail aperitivo you can have, the Negroni.

@ Proof 66 ($25)

2. Braulio Amaro

It’s easy to forget that a large amount of the European Alps fall within Italy’s borders. Southern Italian culture and cuisine is a lot of what has been exported to and mutated in the United States, and I realize now that I know very little about Italy’s alpine regions. If the label of Braulio Amaro is any indication, the Northern Italy is a magical place. Braulio, still relatively unknown, and is a botanical (cf. bitter) amaro that has been aged in oak vats for two years. In keeping with secretive amari family recipes, only a few of its ingredients are known – gentian, juniper, wormwood, and yarrow – but they’re ones that bode well for its flavor.

@ Vino Fine Wine & Spirits ($39)

3. Zwack Unicum

The first time I had Unicum I was pretty sure I had never tasted anything more awful in my life. It was brought back by a Hungarian friend and we all loved the silliness of the company’s name – Zwack. The novelty factor of a disgusting, viscous, herbal liquor is pretty high, but I had Zwack again recently and I really like it now. It’s not something you need regularly, and a little bit goes a long way, but its upsides are outweighing the downsides for me now, so maybe you’ll find they do for you, too.

@ BevMo! ($21.99)

4. Ramazzotti Amaro

In the transition from bitter to sweet in this post, a good middle-of-the-road Italian amaro is Ramazzotti. It’s got the same deep black color of Fernet but a sweet, but not too sweet, edge to it that makes it way more drinkable. It’s easy to use in cocktails because its notes of cardamom and orange peel can pair well with the likes of whisky.

@ Drink Up NY ($21.99)

5. Amaro Nonino

You’re in for a treat with Amaro Nonino. It’s the sweetest amaro on this list, and is a slightly different breed than the others. Amari aren’t always viscous or bitter, and ones like Nonino and Cardamaro are wine-based, meaning they’re smoother and slightly spicy. Nonino is made from grappa infused with herbs, caramelized sugar, and orange peel, so it’s lighter but also spicier than other amari. It’s the perfect way to end a meal.

@ Astor Wines ($42.99)