Typically consumed before a meal as an aperitif or after one as a digestif, amaro also serves as a useful ingredient in sophisticated whisky cocktails.
Italian for “bitter,” amaro (plural: amari) is any bittersweet liquor and is typically flavored with herbs, making for a complex and layered cocktail ingredient. “Amaro can literally be made of anything,” explains Sother Teague, author of I’m Just Here for the Drinks and beverage director at New York City’s Amor Y Amargo. “It’s the Wild West, as there are very few rules or guidelines to its production. As long as it’s a bittersweet liquor, it qualifies as amaro.”
And because rules are lax, amaro runs the gamut. Light amaro, such as Montenegro and Amaro Nonino, has citrus flavors and is lighter in color, explains Crystal Pavlas, bar manager at Bywater American Bistro in New Orleans. Medium amaro, like Averna, Meletti, and Montenegro, is more bitter, but still balances sweetness and citrus. Then you have amaro made from unusual ingredients like artichoke (carciofo), black truffles (tartufo), and rhubarb (rabarbaro).
Although amaro has been around for hundreds of years, it’s popping up on more cocktail lists today as a go-to ingredient in innovative drinks, including many whisky-based recipes. Part of its utility is found in its complexity: “All amari contain the base requirements of the definition of a cocktail: sugar, water, spirit, and bitters,” Teague notes.
“The bitter, earthy flavors of amaro are a natural complement to whisky, which often tends toward sweetness,” adds Bryson Downham, beverage director at Toups South in New Orleans.
How to Pair Whisky and Amaro
Because there are so many varieties of amaro to choose from, you can experiment when creating an amaro-whisky cocktail. “The rules are so loose in the amaro world—I find that they all pair well with a variety of whisky styles,” Sother says. “Pick your favorite whisky and put it in a glass over ice, split half and half with your favorite amaro—instant cocktail!”
Some combinations work particularly well:
Rye with light to medium amari, like Nonino, Grand Poppy, Averna, and Meletti. The sweetness of the amaro balances the spice of the whisky, as in a Black Manhattan, which is rye with Averna and dashes of Angostura and orange bitters, Pavlas says.
Bourbon with amari with dark cocoa qualities, such as Ramazzotti or Averna. “Bourbons that are well-aged and incorporate aromatic spices, vanilla bean, and cassia match [these amari] quite well,” says David Mor, beverage manager at Cindy’s in Chicago.
Irish whiskey with fernet-style amari, like Fernet Branca and Contratto Fernet, for a bitter cocktail. Add espresso, and you have an Irish coffee with Italian flair, Pavlas suggests.
Tennessee whiskey with sweeter amari with more lively flavors, such as Montenegro and Nonino. These sweeter, corn-forward whiskeys work better with amari that have citrus and nutty qualities, according to Mor.
Scotch with artichoke amaro, like Cynar. “The peat and smokiness from the scotch complements the vegetal component in this particular style of amaro,” Pavlas says.
Get started with these cocktails:
Get the Recipe: Youthful Expression
Sophisticated in flavor, this cocktail uses a simple one-part ratio of bourbon, amaro, and gin.
Get the Recipe: Big Chief
A descendant of the Manhattan, with history rooted in New Orleans, this drink has a dramatic flamed orange peel garnish.
Get the Recipe: Ballard Bridge
Spicy rye, bitter amaro, dry vermouth, and sweet amaretto combine for a memorably balanced cocktail.
Get the Recipe: Wake Up
Espresso liqueur anchors this tasty eye-opener, which also uses Irish whiskey and two types of amaro.
Get the Recipe: Edinburgh Agreement
A touch of smoke balances out zesty grapefruit in this cocktail made with Campbeltown scotch.
Get the Recipe: Midnight Treats
Made with two types of scotch, rye, amaro, and vermouth, this drink boasts complexity and balance.