A Bitter World: A Guide to Amaro and Other Digestifs

Recover from a season of gluttony (and save the day at your next holiday party) with one of these bitter liqueurs from around the world.

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In this, the season of feasting, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself needing to settle your stomach. Take a page out of Italy’s book and digest in style with a bittersweet digestivo. The tradition of sipping herbal liqueurs at the start of the meal to open the appetite or at the end to help with digestion dates back centuries. In Italy, amaro is a regional specialty and just about every town has its own. Historically, they were made using local herbs and botanicals, reflecting the flavors of their environment.

“A lot of the appeal of amaro is this sense of place it expresses,” says Brad Thomas Parsons, author of the new book Amaro: The Spirited World of Bittersweet, Herbal Liqueurs (October 2016; Ten Speed Press). “Southern amaro is traditionally more citrus-forward; northern ones have more alpine flavors.”

While they’ve certainly perfected the practice, Italians aren’t the only ones to use bitter liqueurs to soothe a full belly. Parsons found amaro-like elixirs in France, Germany, Mexico, and a crop of new ones from across the United States. It’s no coincidence cultures around the world have discovered the curative properties of bitter-infused spirits.

“The use of these bittering agents, like gentian and wormwood, really goes back to native cultures,” Parsons says. “Or, in the case of amaro, monks and friars. It’s this connection between botany and alchemy that’s at work. Our bodies are hardwired to think of bitter as toxic. When we consume something bitter, the immediate reaction is for the body to want to expel it. That’s digestion kicking in. So, it’s not all snake oil.”

Medicinal properties aside, these spirits spread because they please the palate. Bartenders use them regularly in cocktails; at home, simply pour them over ice and garnish with a slice of orange or lemon. No matter how you drink them this season, just make sure you do. Here, 12 digestifs from around the world that’ll make you a hero at your next holiday party.

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