Discovering Amari

The Bittersweet Appeal of Amari:  Italy’s other beverage tradition

by Mary Bailey

Daniel Costa tasting amari in progress at Bar Bricco.
Daniel Costa tasting amari in progress at Bar Bricco.
Curtis Comeau Photograhy

Italy has another ancient beverage tradition, other than wine. It is amari—bitter concoctions made with found ingredients steeped in alcohol and used as medicine. Monks made amari in monasteries, people made them at home and in the pharmacy, using several ( as many as 40) ingredients found in the nearby forest and gardens.

Each amari (the plural of amaro) would be different, as the taste depended on the landscape. The maker would gather bark, flowers, seeds, roots, leaves and steep them in high-proof spirit, allowing the various ingredients to combine into unique flavour profiles. They would then season with water, sugar, vermouth and age for several months, even years.

This ethos of regionality, frugality and inventiveness, of homemade-ness, using bits of things found nearby, still infuses modern amari. Perhaps they are made in a factory, rather than in the shed down the garden, but they continue to reflect the flavours of the area in which they are made. Varnelli’s Amaro Sibilla is made with honey from the Sibillini mountains; Braulio Amaro Alpino with its pine and balsam notes could only be from the Alps; Ischia Sapori Rucolino is made with two types of arugula (rucola) found only on the island of Ischia; Averna was created by Benedictine monks using the myrtle, sage and juniper found near their monastery in central Sicily. It still is.

Amari belong to a large category of beverages called digestivos and are called amari (amaro means bitter in Italian) due to their bitterness, a defining characteristic of the spirit. That said, amari will always have bitterness, but the flavour profile will vary depending on where it’s from. They can be citrusy, floral, piney, rooty, licorishy and range in sweetness from dry (Fernet-Branca) to quite sweet. Generally they are drunk chilled and straight, though Nonino Amaro is lovely on the rocks. Amari pop up in many cocktails, both classic and modern, or in the kitchen. Uccellino made an amazing gelati using Fernet-Branca Menta and Corso serves a Nonino affogato.

We can credit Daniel Costa, chef owner of Corso 32, Uccellino and Bar Bricco for being the father of amari in Edmonton. Daniel was the first to carry an extensive selection of the bitter digestivos, and truly encourage people to try them after dinner. Thanks to Daniel, along with  creative bartenders and other restaurants such as Cibo Bistro, we are now seeing a selection of amari that is second to none.

“When I was 20 on my first culinary adventure in Rome with my dad, we went to a restaurant that one of his friends had sent us too,” says Daniel. “They set out a bunch of traditional dishes, a typical Roman meal.

“At the end of the meal two bottles of amari were set on the table, to show appreciation to the guest. They would leave the whole bottle and you would help yourself. You would have one drink of each. No one gets too excessive in Italy.

“It all started off as medicinal, because of how Italians eat and being so attentive to digestion. Amari assists with digestion. I became obsessed with all these different types—I read a lot about them. On trips to Italy I was into tasting artisan amari that I couldn’t get here. I kept asking reps to bring in more amari. Some digestivos have been in Canada for a long time—Averno, Jägermeister, grappa—my dad had them in the cabinet. But there is more artisan amari available now,” he says.

“When we first opened Corso nobody ordered amaro, nobody would order Lambrusco either. My philosophy was to start giving it away. I would walk about the restaurant with a bottle and glasses explaining what it was,” says Daniel.

“Most amari have secret recipes. Braulio is one of my favourites, it’s barrel-aged and they still forage all of their own ingredients.

“We are making our own amari, now that it’s legal to make infusions. It’s exciting, I thought about different flavour profiles and made my own recipes—I have a notebook full of notes and flavours. I went into the forest and picked pine needles and ferns. I brought back bay leaves from a tree in my family’s garden in San Pietro al Tanagro. It’s a very old tree.

“We are making five altogether—one is herbaceous with mint and gentian; another is Christmassy with pine and juniper berries, one is with honey and burnt pine. They just finished steeping with the roots, barks and aromatics in 96 per cent proof alcohol. Then we will season with sugar and water, then age for several months” he says.

“Amari is not mass produced, they are an experience,” says Daniel. “People are coming around to that. They are more interested in this sort of thing.”

A selection of amari

“I love amari and all kinds of European herbal liqueurs,” says James Grant, bar manager at Wilfred’s. “My first exposure was Fernet-Branca, which is a beautiful example of one style.

“What I love about amari is that there is so much complexity in the flavours and they do multiple duties in a cocktail, such as adding bitterness or herbaceousness. Fernet is wonderful in a cocktail because it’s dry. A tincture does the same thing in an Old Fashioned, or Averna replaces vermouth in a black Manhattan. The style is so broad, it fulfills many roles.

“I really love Cynar now. It has so much going for it, lower alcohol, it’s priced affordably, it’s so easy going and so versatile. I pour shots of Cynar now, not Fernet. It pairs well and supports more prominent flavours. I thank Sam Thornton who was the bartender at North 53 for introducing me to Cynar.

“I also really love Amaro Lucano, very approachable. I skew towards the darker, spice and herb forward, not the citrusy amari for cocktails, though a Paper Plane cocktail could not be made with anything but a citrusy, orangey amaro. Campari is one of my all-time favourite things in all the world, I have it tattooed on my arm. Complex and delicious.

“Amari are a broad set of tools for bartenders to use, as are a lot of the classic herbal liqueurs like Chartreuse,” says James. “I found though, in Italy, bartenders there still regard amari as something you have after dinner for your digestion. The action with cocktails is more a North American thing.”


“My two favourite amari at the moment are Ischia Sapori Rucolino and Vecchio Amaro del Capo,” says Lisa Caputo, owner and sommelier, Cibo Bistro. “Both are from warmer climates, the island of Ischia and Calabria. Unlike the more northern, cool climate amari that have cool notes of pine, spearmint and a robust zing of bitter, I find the southern Italian amari have warmer, spicy notes and sweet molasses flavours with a bitter finish that is subtle and mouth-watering, making you go in for another sip. The Rucolino has fun spicy notes similar to a home-made rootbeer where the Del Capo in my opinion is best served chilled on a hot summer day with a bowl of gelato or a ricotta-filled cannoli. I’m actually dreaming of the ocean as I think about it.

“We started with Averna (from Sicily) then Montenegro, as we began enjoying more amari. Now we have about 14-16 different amari on the back bar. Every time Rosario comes back from Color de Vino he has something new in tow.

“The most popular are Montenegro and Nonino, on the rocks, and we make cocktails with Amaro Lucano which is from Basilatica. About 20 per cent of our diners order amari at the end of the meal,” says Lisa.


Try something different every time you are in a restaurant that stocks a wide selection of amari. When you are travelling in Italy and someone offers you their homemade amaro? Dive in. Or, when you are in one of those little coffee bars found on the square in every Italian town? With a bevy of bottles with colourful labels and incomprehensible script on the back shelf? Ask them to suggest the local amaro. It will be a taste of place like no other.

Mary Bailey likes to try a new amaro every chance she gets.

Cocktails with Amari

Wilfred’s Reanimator
Wilfred’s Reanimator

The Reanimator
Cynar is a relatively new amaro, brought to the market in 1952, made with 13 botanicals and artichokes. A versatile spirit, it’s a little less bitter and is marvelous in cocktails.

“This tastes a bit like an espresso martini, or a weird pint of Guinness.” –James Grant, Wilfred’s.

½ oz Cynar
½ oz Green Chartruese
1 egg white
¼ oz demerara syrup
3½ oz espresso stout

Shake briefly with ice, strain into a Collins glass and serve with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Serves 1.

Montenegro 75
This amaro from Bologna was created by Stanislao Cobianchi in 1885 from 40 botanicals and named after Princess Elena of Montenegro (it was her wedding year after all). Not too sweet, with well-balanced bitterness and floral, citrus, earthy spice and subtle black tea notes.

1 oz gin
¾ oz Montenegro Amaro
½ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz simple syrup
1 oz sparkling wine

In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine all ingredients and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a tall glass, or large wine glass, with fresh ice, and top with an ounce of sparkling wine. Garnish with a few lemon wheels.

The Toronto
“Robert Vermeire, in his 1922 book Cocktails: How to Mix Them, called this the ‘Fernet cocktail enjoyed by the Canadians in Toronto.’” –James Grant, Wilfred’s

2 oz rye
¼ oz Fernet-Branca
¼ oz simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for around 20 seconds and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Express an orange peel over the drink and then drop in for garnish.