How Amaro Has Shifted From Traditional Italian Liqueur to Popular Cocktail Ingredient

Courtesy Geraldina Ballipario

Americans are getting to know this bitter Italian liqueur better.

At the Amaro Montenegro facility just outside of the Bologna city center, only one worker knows the exact proportions of the ingredients that make up the final blend. But even he does not know all of the 40 botanicals used to make the amaro. That’s how seriously the brand takes keeping this nearly 135-year-old recipe a secret. According to master herbalist Matteo Bonoli, only six people at a separate facility know how to extract 35 of the botanicals, while the final five are handled at the blending center. “This process aims to keep the recipe as reserved as possible,” he said. “Keeping this production activity separate is crucial to ensure our recipe remains secret even more than a hundred years later.”

Courtesy Geraldina Ballipario

Bonoli recently taught a masterclass on some of the botanicals used to a group of visiting journalists, including cinnamon, marjoram, sweet and bitter orange, nutmeg, and four different kinds of artemisia that provide the characteristic bitter flavor. But if you press him for more information than that, all you will get is a mischievous smile and a shrug.

So what is amaro exactly? “Amaro is the most traditional Italian spirit,” said Bonoli. “It literally means ‘bitter.” It’s basically a liqueur flavored with roots, herbs, botanicals, and flowers, and can be found in countries all over Europe with different names. Jägermeister, for example, is basically a German amaro. Picon is essentially a French version. And in America, there is a growing category of amaro produced in different states using local botanicals.

"Amaro is a very strong part of Italian culture,” said Montenegro global brand ambassador Rudi Carraro. “Not just because it’s a delicious drink to enjoy after a meal, but also because it represents that moment of being together, the conviviality that starts at dinner and then carries on… after it." Here in America, amaro has become more popular as bartenders have embraced it and drinkers have become more familiar with it. Sother Teague, beverage director at New York City’s Amor y Amargo, recently opened a second location in Brooklyn. The two bars are shrines to to amari from around the world. “I think it’s really important to demystify the category,” said Teague. “The word amaro translates literally to mean bitter. This can be off-putting and even intimidating to the average person. Amaro translates as a bittersweet liqueur, balanced and delightful with a wide range of flavor combinations often tied to the botanicals of a region and frequently made of botanicals… from all corners of the earth.”

The key to every batch of Amaro Montenegro is something called “Premio,” a micro-reflux distillation of just five botanicals that is very high in proof and concentrated in flavor. Just a drop is present in every bottle of Montenegro (or one liter for every 15,000 bottles). Bonoli becomes animated when describing the seven flavor notes of Amaro Montenegro—bitter and herbaceous, spicy and floral, sweet and roasted, fresh and balsamic, fruity and sweet, warm and tropical, and finally the mysterious Premio.

The process of making the amaro involves several steps, each of which treats the botanicals in different ways. Some are boiled in water, some are macerated in an alcohol-water solution, and others are distilled in a neutral spirit made from sugar beet molasses. This results in 12 extracts which are blended together into the six notes mentioned above, to which water, alcohol, sugar, and finally a small amount of Premio is added.

Procuring the botanicals is not a problem because Gruppo Montenegro also happens to be one of Italy’s largest spice producers. It also owns and makes the popular Italian brandy Vecchia Romagna. This was used in a special blend of Montenegro available for select visitors to taste at the blending facility, which incorporated 35-year-old brandy into the mix resulting in a rich and caramel-forward version of the classic. Other spirits produced by Gruppo Montenegro include Select Aperitivo and Rosso Antico vermouth.

Courtesy Geraldina Ballipario

While amaro has not yet become as popular as other spirits in the U.S., Carraro believes its profile is growing due to its versatility as a cocktail component and its complex flavor profile. “I believe [amaro] has the perfect bittersweet balance and herbaceous notes that really match the American palate,” he said. He recommends subbing Montenegro for Campari in a Montenegroni, or using it instead of sweet vermouth in a Monte Manhattan.

Obviously, Teague is also a believer, as he has based two bars entirely around the category. “Over the past 15 to 20 years as the American consumer has increased their interest in drinking culture, they’ve been curious about unique bottlings for sipping and making cocktails,” he said. “Amari fit the bill perfectly. Plus, each expression has a history and a story to tell.” And that story is on display at distilleries like Amaro Montenegro, and many others around Italy. But it’s most evident as you sip your way through different amari from around the world, each with its own bold and defining personality.