Revival: small guide to bitters

Amari are historical liqueurs, returned to the fore thanks to the passion of mixologists and more: read our guide to find out more.

Relegated for decades to the role of supporting actors, a simple end of a meal in bars and town trattorias, Italian amari have taken their revenge in recent years. They have stolen the show from other spirits in the world of mixology and made their entrance on the menus of starred restaurants.they stole the show from the other liqueurs and entered the starred menuToday it is a whole race to rediscover ancient formulas and to create new products based on herbal essences. Amari were originally elixirs used to treat disease and aid digestion. Appreciated at the Court of Caterina de Medici in the Renaissance and popular in the noble salons at the end of the nineteenth century, between various events they fell into oblivion in the seventies of the last century. Until the redemption of recent years: a fashion that started from the States and soon infected the boot. To the point that the first bar entirely dedicated to amaro was opened in Rome with over 500 labels and Giunti Editore even published the Great Book of the Italian Amarosigned by one of the world’s leading experts, Matteo Zed. A fascinating story, that of amaro, which deserves to be retraced in its main stages.


The first alcoholic herbal infusions were used to cure and date back to 700 : their origin is Arab. To have a production for full-blown phytotherapeutic use it is necessary to arrive at 1300 :these elixirs were initially used against some diseasesthe elixirs were used against malaria, smallpox and were believed to extend life. Only after the discovery of America and the arrival of spices in Europe do bitters become more pleasant: this explains the success first at the court of Caterina de Medici and then, from the mid-19th century, in the aristocratic salons. The word Amaro , to indicate a specific drink, appears in manuals and books around 1897 . These are the years in which the elixirs give way to the synthetic pharmaceutical preparations. The period in which, with the addition of sugar, digestives, bitters in cocktails or drinks in general to end the meal become appreciated.

With the First World War they began to run out and only in the Thirties did they return to spread as a low-cost alternative to the more expensive synthetic medicines. The cinchona-based products used by soldiers engaged in the war against malaria in North Africa are particularly appreciated. Fernet, on the other hand, is used against cholera and infections of the digestive system in general. At the end of the Second World War, with the economic boom , bitters spread to the homes of Italians as an ally for digestion. The success of these products entered a crisis in the seventies with the era of long drinks. Amari, like vermouth and grappa, are branded as products of old age. They continue to be found in provincial bars and restaurants while in trendy clubs they give way to vodka, whiskey, gin. Many companies that close, only the largest are saved. With the return to the origins of mixing, bitters are back in vogue.


Despite the popularity of amari today in the world, Italy maintains firmly the primacy of this type of spirits . It is the country that has the highest number of bitters , often of different types depending on the region. Not only that: there is a widespread tendency to use officinal herbs to flavor all types of drinks, as assured by Michele Di Carlo, a highly experienced barman and president of the CCC (Classic Cocktail Club). It is therefore not surprising that historical brands of Italian liquor are back on the crest of the wave. This is accompanied by small local productions that recover the secrets of apothecaries to offer products for the international market.


Matteo Zed is one of the best known and most appreciated Italian bartenders at an international level, winner and finalist of some of the most important competitions in the world. He worked in Tokyo with Hidetsugu Ueno at High Five; in New York, as a bar supervisor at Joe Bastianich in Del Posto, and then as head mixologist at Zuma and as a beverage specialist in the Giorgio Armani Restaurant on 5th Avenue. For him, amaro is a great passion as demonstrated by the Amaro Obsession website, the Amaro Bar in Rome and the recent book published by Giunti editore. For Matteo Zed it is a way to appreciate the qualities of the bitter in order to ” understand and get to know better a friend who has always had at home, but never really met, which is much better than a digestive at the end of a meal” .

Zed’s obsession with amaro soon landed on the web as well. The blog site he founded is called Amaro Obsession . Here, enthusiasts can find the latest news: from historic labels to new bottles that appear in the production of companies known for other spirits . The site aims to raise awareness and deepen the bitter at all levels , also launching new trends.


Davide Solari and Lorenzo Renzi , old friends, opened a bar entirely dedicated to amaro a year and a half ago in via di Ripetta 162 in Rome. Behind the marble bar counter, 500 different labels of bitters . This project bears the signature of Matteo Zed who selected the labels, coming from all over Italy. There is no shortage of vintage bottles and niche products. The cocktail list includes themed drinks.


The volume, published by Giunti publisher (224 pages, 29 euros), bears the signature of (yes) Matteo Zed, who makes use of the experience gained abroad. The history and origins of amaro are told with a focus on 300 of the most interesting labels of the Peninsula . There is also space for tasting techniques, curiosities and a careful description of the reference botanicals. Two sections are on the new international trends in food & beverage: mixology and cuisine. If the use in blending is well known and the number of foreign labels is growing, the use of bitter by great chefs such as Gianfranco Vissani, Lele Usai and Arcangelo Dandini, creatives of pizza such as Pier Daniele , is still little known. Seu, pastry chefslike Daniele Desanti and ice cream makers like Simone Bonini di Carapina.


Amari – it should be said – are at home in the living rooms and kitchens of Italians. We all always have at least one bottle on hand. Some labels are now iconic and a word is enough to immediately understand who we are talking about. Let’s see the historical products of the Italian tradition.


  1. Cynar . The black and white spot by Ernesto Calindri and the slogan: “ Against the wear and tear of modern life ” are now legend. It was created in 1948 by the Venetian entrepreneur Angelo Dalle Molle and was initially produced by the company GB Pezziol of Padua. It is therefore not surprising that it is widely used also in spritz.
  2. Amaro del Capo . Raise your hand if you, at least once in your life, have not put a bottle of Amaro del Capo in the freezer, ready for use. Produced by the Caffo Distillery in Limbadi (Vibo Valentia), it expresses the scents of the South and Calabria in particular with its infusion of 29 medicinal herbs: licorice, juniper, chamomile, sweet orange and many others. Perfect with ice, it winks at mixology.
  3. Amaro Lucano . “ What more do you want from life? A Lucano “. Another bitter who became a star thanks to advertising. Produced since 1894 in Matera, on a secret recipe of Cavalier Pasquale Vena, handed down from generation to generation, Amaro Lucano enjoys enormous popularity. The blend based on over 30 herbs is still jealously guarded today. A mix of elderberry, sage, aloe, gentian to be tasted pure or in refreshing cocktails.
  4. Fernet Branca . Two bitters under one roof. Fernet-Branca was born in 1845 and is produced by the Fratelli Branca Distillerie in Milan. It is the most cosmopolitan of products: it is made with 27 herbs and spices from four continents. Iconic the bottle, which has remained unchanged over time. In 1965 a mint flavored version was produced, the Branca Menta.
  5. Amaro Braulio . A piece of Valtellina history. Created in 1875 by the Bormio pharmacist Francesco Peloni, Braulio takes its name from one of the mountains in the area. With almost a century and a half of history behind this high altitude amaro retains its strong taste and its balsamic notes thanks to the berries, roots, herbs and flowers with which it is prepared. It is drunk neat, with ice or mixed.
  6. Amaro Averna . ” The full taste of life “, another lucky advertising claim to enhance the qualities of a historic Sicilian bitter dating back to 1868. The secret recipe of the Benedictine monks of the Santo Spirito Abbey has become one of the most famous bitters in the world. It was a monk who gave it to Don Salvatore Averna as a gesture of gratitude and still today it is handed down from generation to generation. To appreciate the Mediterranean nuances of the Averna, it is recommended to mix it with two parts of Sicilian blood orange juice, ice and a few fresh leaves of mint and thyme.
  7. Amaro Montenegro . In spite of the name it is a very Italian product. Designed by the Bolognese Stanislao Cobianchi in 1885, it is still produced today in the San Lazzaro di Savena plant. At the beginning it was called Elisir Lungavita but it changed its name on the occasion of the wedding of Elena Petrovich Njegos with King Vittorio Emanuele III as a sign of homage to the princess of Montenegro. 40 selected aromatic herbs, coming from all over the world, for an elixir that Gabriele D’Annunzio defined in 1921 as “ liqueur of the Virtues ”.
  8. Amaro Ramazzotti . Over 200 years of history behind this bitter with a strong taste thanks to the mix of 33 herbs, flowers, fruits and spices. Born in a laboratory in Milan in 1815 for the passion of a young entrepreneur and aspiring herbalist, Ausano Ramazzotti. Notes of anise, cardamom, cloves, myrrh, sweet orange, gentian and turmeric are recognized. In Milan it is an authentic institution, still today, with coffee but for some time the world of mixology has known, appreciates and exalts the virtues of this liqueur with its cocktail lists.
  9. Amaro Luxardo . The company, founded in 1821 by Girolamo Luxardo, has its origins in the beautiful Zara. Known and appreciated at the beginning above all for the famous maraschino, over time it has been able to establish itself on international markets with other products such as Amaro Luxardo Abano in which we find spices and herbs such as cinnamon, bitter orange, cinchona, cardamom. Amaro Luxardo is particularly appreciated when mixed with aged rum, for example.
  10. Centerba Distilleria Casauria Enrico Toro . Very ancient origins for this bitter with its characteristic green color. A tribute to the land of origin, Abruzzo and to the herbalist tradition of the Benedictine monks who in 1100 founded the Abbey of San Clemente a Casauria. Extremely fragrant and versatile it is good in coffee, on sorbet and in mixing it has found a new youth. Also try the Amaro Toro based on rhubarb, gentian and high altitude herbs.


Amaro K1 and Amarola . Amaro K1 and Amarola come from Sicily and focus on high quality products such as herbs and oranges. Amaro K1 was born at the foot of Mount Kronio, hence the name: a digestive liqueur based on aloe vera, mint, rhubarb, gentian and other spices, to which sweet and bitter orange peels are added. Amarola is a digestive elixir produced from an infusion of organic Cerasuola olive leaves that spreads its Mediterranean aromas.

Rhubarb, Fernet and Fernet Menta Paesani . The Paesani family company has been producing liqueurs for over half a century. Today it focuses on a new line: the Amaro liqueur based on natural rhubarb roots and two types of Fernet stand out.

Amaro Làbaro Viola . An amaro that was born in Barberino Val d’Elsa in the province of Siena and pays homage to the official hymn of Fiorentina written by Narciso Parigi and the verses: ” Garrisca the purple banner in the wind … “. A project born by chance at the bar between a bartender and a customer, respectively Giulio Cossentino and Roberto D’Alessio, which leads to the recovery of a recipe from the latter’s grandfather. From this meeting and from the skill of Giacomo Guazzini, master blender in the Deta distillery, Amaro Làbaro was born.

Bitter . Amaro Amara is produced with the peel of Sicilian blood orange IGP, the water of the springs and the spontaneous herbs of Etna. In short, it is appropriate to say Sicily in the glass. The product, conceived by two very young Sicilian entrepreneurs, is very versatile and appreciated in the world of mixology.

Benefort . It owes its name to the Roman absinthe , called Benefort in Valle d’Aosta . Over 20 types of flowers, roots and alpine herbs from the Aosta Valley. This is the secret of Benefort’s strong and decisive taste. It was born in the seventies of the last century from the inspiration of Armando Calvetti, founder of the Alpe distillery.

Formidable . The amaro of the capital, with a very personal style. Produced with a mix of herbs, flowers, barks, roots and fruit peels: red cinchona, Chinese rhubarb, absinthe, gentian, bitter orange, star anise and rose muscat which are cold macerated in wheat alcohol without the use of additives , dyes, caramel and flavors. To underline the naturalness of the raw materials, the Formidabile bottle brings back the vintage.

Kaiserforst . Kaiserforst is an artisanal Alpine recipe that belongs to the Trentino tradition. Through the infusion and distillation of 47 botanicals, a liqueur with a strong taste is obtained, made more current by the addition of ginger and cardamom roots and by the refinement of six months in French oak barrels used for the Valentini brandy.

Mandrake . An amaro produced by Torino Distillati according to an ancient recipe dating back to 1873 and attributed to a pharmacist from Valchiusella, not far from Turin. The project sees the collaboration with the distributor Compagnia dei Caribbean. The result is the production of this liqueur with strong digestive abilities based on eight herbs. Also of note in the Company’s catalog is the amaro Jefferson based on bergamot from Roccella Ionica, orange from Bisignano, rosemary from Montalto Uffugo and oregano from Palombara.

Quintessentia . A Nonino liqueur should not surprise you. Quintessentia is the result of the union between the family amaro based on aromatic herbs from the Carnic Alps, and ÙE, a single-variety grape brandy that is aged in barrique. Product intended mostly for mixing.

Toccasana . The name itself testifies to the virtues of this amaro from the Langhe, produced since 1970 thanks to the cold maceration of 37 herbs, flowers, roots and berries. The creator is Teodoro Negro of Cossano Belbo (CN), fascinated since childhood by the ability of the Piarist Fathers in the monastery of Carcare to the point of choosing to graduate in herbal medicine at the University of Pavia.

Vaca Mora Poli Distillery . Vaca Mora was the name of the steam train that stopped at Schiavon. Here at the end of the nineteenth century the Osteria al Cappello di Giobatta Poli stood. In memory of those times Poli Distillerie used this name for the amaro made with the infusion in grappa of 16 herbs and aromatic plants with high digestive properties.

Virgilio Pallini . Amaro Virgilio is dedicated to the president of the company Pallini. Man of ingenuity and it is no coincidence that the image of the tree man appears on the label from whose head ideas and not fruit blossom. The company has been able to recover the ancient secret family recipe based on bitter botanicals by adding spices to give a more modern touch. Pallini also proposes the Fernet from the ancient recipe elaborated in 1880.

Unusual bitters for composition and production

Bitter of the apothecary . The name itself says it: it is made on the recipe of the pharmacist Ernesto Riva and produced by Foletto in Ledro, in the province of Trento. The Amaro dello Speciale is a liqueur based on 22 herbs and roots: among other things, we find gentian, coriander, juniper, absinthe, carnation, mint and dulcamara. A liqueur particularly suitable at the end of a meal and still distributed today in pharmacies.

Amaro Roach . Produced by the Roach Brewery in Monopoli. The Roach Amaro, flavored with hops , is perfect for after meals. It is made with the all-in a cold single step method . In addition to hops, 13 other botanicals are used including herbs, flowers, roots. No preservatives and excipients are used. That’s why it deserves to be enjoyed at room temperature with ice to appreciate its aromas.

Pratum . There is no recipe for the Bonaventura Maschio bitter . It is nature that decides : the particular herbs come from one of the stable meadows of Friuli, where nothing is done in any way. The meadows are protected by strict regional laws. Among the herbs we find yarrow, wild thyme, minor centaury, wild mint, plantain, zolfino rennet and thistle.

Bitter Emperor . Behind this label hides the young Lucerino entrepreneur Salvatore Marchetti. It is the typical Amaro of Daunia, produced with the use of the fruits of the earth such as lampascione and rocket . The Emperor’s inspiration was his grandfather Giuseppe La Cava. Roman chef Arcangelo Dandini of L’Arcangelo restaurant prepares sweetbreads with Amaro Imperatore to give a special flavor to his dish.

Amaro Brethium . Produced by a young Calabrian company, it is made with 15 bitter essences that grow spontaneously in Calabria: among other things we find gentian from Pollino, chicory, bergamot, bitter orange and wild rocket. The first recipe for the amaro was developed by Donna Rachele in the early 1900s and recently reworked by the great-grandson Roberto Maiorano.


St. Agrestis (USA) . It is the aging of the amaro in barrels used for the production of bourbon one of the particularities of this star and stripes amaro. St. Agrestis was built in 2014 by two former sommeliers from Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group. The product, based on 20 botanicals, reflects the identity of Brooklyn where it is produced both for the use of raw materials and for the aging barrels of an artisanal whiskey distillery also in Brooklyn.

Salmiakki Dala (Iceland) . This Nordic amaro takes its cue from the basic ingredient of licorice candies called Salmiak : ammonia salt. Dala Spirits has seen fit to create an amaro that reminds of this confectionery product. Ten botanicals used.

Jägermeister (Germany) . A liqueur of German origin with a recipe that is still secret today. For the Jägermeister 56 elements are used including herbs, roots, fruit and spices. All strictly macerated in alcohol.

Amaro Cinpatrazzo (USA) . Comes from Chicago, Illinois, this stars and stripes amaro. Behind this project there are the memories of a study stay in Florence and a trip to Puglia among the trulli of Alberobello. Two experiences that guided Pat Magner and his wife Cindy on the right path until they got their Amaro Cinpatrazzo. The basic ingredient is rocket, which comes with sage and mint from a farm near Chicago.

Økar Amaro (Australia) . It is Australia with its infinite varieties of botanicals that inspired Økar Amaro. A liqueur, according to the intentions of its creators, which does not want to mimic the Italian production but aims to express the 100% Aussie spirit . Hence the expression of Island Amaro to underline the uniqueness and peculiarities of the product: it contains 16 different botanicals and most of them are all of Australian origin.

Unicum (Hungary) . Among the best known in Italy, it is consumed as an aperitif or digestive and was invented in 1790. In other countries of the world it is known by the name of Zwack. The recipe still remains a secret and includes more than 40 medicinal plants.

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