Amalfi Sour. Photo by Vernon Wong
No one talks about amaro the way they do gin and whisky. Although people have been consuming it as a digestif for centuries, there are many who are discovering it for the first time. Outside Italy and most of Europe, it remains a highly underrated liqueur tucked away in the comfort of spritzes, Americanos and Negronis.
The thing about amaro (plural: amari) is that you never like it at first. It’s like Ross from Friends — off-putting at first, but once you get to know him better, he’s kind of goofy and endearing. Amaro, living up to its namesake, is as bitter as hell. But once you’ve broken the ice, you’ll notice how the sweet, smoky and citrusy tones begin to shine.
What is it, really?
Amaro, meaning “bitter” in Italian, is made by steeping bitter botanicals like gentian root with a choice blend of herbs, spices, bark and seeds in a neutral spirit or wine base. Once filtered, sugar syrup and water are added before it’s left to age in a barrel. The technique was first invented by monks centuries ago for its medical efficacy, and though it no longer serves its intended purpose, it lives on commercially in the form of a digestif.
“The flavour profile of amari changes as you move through Italy,” says Palmira Bertuca, the head bartender of Marcello. It’s the blending of ingredients that defines the regional distinctions in the liqueur. Averna, which comes from Sicily, relies on orange and lemon peels to impart that warm, citrus character. Braulio, from the Alpine region of Valtellina, is distilled with Alpine herbs and flowers for that distinct pine forest flavour.
How to drink it
“Give a bottle of amaro to any bartender and you will make him the happiest man on earth,” Bertuca continues. “It’s something you can really play around with when it comes to cocktails.” Yes, it’s as versatile as whisky and perhaps, more complex, but if you want to follow tradition, she recommends you drink it neat. After all, every amaro is an entire cocktail on its own. The Montenegro, for example, is made from 40 herbs and spices. That’s literally a 40-ingredient cocktail.
Where to go
You won’t have Lake Como in your purview, but a night at Marcello (1 Nanson Road) is as close to Italy as you can get. Inspired by 20th century Italy, it carries 50 types of amari at the moment, making it the largest collection in Southeast Asia. If you’re not sure where to begin, ask Bertuca for help. She’ll be happy to take you through the entire menu and give you the 101.
1 Nanson Road, Level 1, InterContinental Singapore, Robertson Quay, Singapore 238909. Book a table via the Keyyes Membership App
Opening image: Palmira Bertuca, head bartender of Marcello. Photography: Vernon Wong