Boston Cocktail Summit: Do You Speak Amari?

1 Nov


14 Amari for breakfast? I think I died & went to my own booze-soaked heaven

My most-anticipated class at the inaugural Boston Cocktail Summit held in October was “Do You Speak Amari,” and it did not disappoint. Having the opportunity to try over a dozen different amaro in itself was enough to make it a worthwhile event, but it was presenter Franceso Lafranconi who made it my weekend highlight. The warm, knowledgeable, and charming Franceso started behind the bar in Northern Italy when he was 18. He now serves as National Director of Mixology & Spirits Educator at Southern Wine & Spirits of America and gave an informative and polished presentation.

So what is this amari I keep talking about? Literally meaning bitter in Italian, an amaro is an Italian bitter herbal  liquor. It is considered a digestive that is usually consumed at the end of a meal.

The process begins with selecting the herbs and spices  that will give the amaro flavor. Fernet Branca, for example, is a blend of over 40 herbs and spices. These herbs and spices are then ground and pressed in order to extract the active compounds. The next step is infusion and filtering or maceration. This mixture may then go through a partial distillation. A dark and bitter extract is then obtained, filtered, and mixed with sugar.


My good friend & fellow writer from LA “The Minty” checking out the bottles of amari we tried

While all amari share basic characteristics like bitter botanicals, a minimum ABV of 15%, and sugar content under 10%, certain dominant ingredients and flavors can be identified with a little attention. Cynar and Fernet Branca have long been must-haves in my home bar. Cynar was developed in 1952 and is made from an infusion of artichoke leaves. Cynar is a favorite among bartenders when adding a bitter element to a cocktail, and it’s inclusion in a drink typically makes it a must-order for me.

Created in 1845 by Bernadino Branca, Fernet Branca is the #1 selling digestive in the world. It’s ubiquity has lead to the common misconception that Fernet is a brand, but it is actually a category of amaro with several new Fernet liquors entering the market. We had the opportunity to try Fernet Luxardo, which was developed in the 1960’s and is higher in alcohol content and lower in sugar than Fernet Branca. Coming in at 90 proof, Luxardo is strong on licorice, cinnamon, saffron, and the flowering plant gentian (which is also featured in Angostura bitters and Aperol).


Amaro Averna is also one of the most widely available amari. Created by an herbalist friar in 1868 as a healing bitter elixir, it was either given by the monks to Salvatore Averna as payment for help, or the stolen recipe was bought by Averna from someone at the monastery. Either way, this lower proof and sweeter amaro now leads the amari market in Italy and remains in the Averna family. At 58 proof, this almond, orange, and liquorice-forward elixir is good anytime.

Another amaro you may have encountered at a well-stocked bar is Rabarbaro Zucca. Featuring steamed rhubarb and weighing in at only 32 proof, Zucca has been enjoyed as a before dinner spritzer since 1845. I can’t wait to experiment with it in cocktails after Francesco shared some good pairings: lemon, strawberry jam, and gin.


Also on our tasting menu were some less-commonly seen amari. Perhaps the most unique, and most bitter, was Amaro Sabilla. Founded in 1868 by Girolamo Varnelli, the company is still in the Varnelli family. 30 herbs and spices are heated in a wood fire to a boil with honey from the Sibillini Mountains, water, and alcohol. The micro batches are stored for six months in stainless steel tanks and yield a 68 proof honey and gentian-forward amaro. Just a few dashes of Sabilla in a cocktail will add a bitter & honey touch. I shared Francesco’s appreciation for the beautiful logo and bottle, and he was kind enough to arrange for the company to send me a poster. And yes, it was sent by a Varnelli.

Amaro Sibilla by Varnelli

I’m excited to get my hands on a bottle of Nonino Quintessentia. Once we were told it paired great with ginger beer and ale, as well as Prosecco cocktails, I knew a trip to a North End liquor store laid ahead. Made with grape distillate and stored in sherry oak barrels, it features orange and liquorice root notes.


We were among the first in the US to try this amaro

Francesco still had one surprise up his sleeve. We were among the first in the US to try the Braulio Amaro Alpino – definitely worth seeking out amari lovers.


The class was sponsored by market leader and king of cool Fernet Branca. A drawing for a Fernet bike captured the hearts of so many of us cocktail nerds.

I do not recommend recreating my first amaro experience. My friend accidentally bought Fernet Menta instead of the more common Fernet Branca. After a particularly heavy home-cooked meal, he was pushing shots in order to drain the bottle and provide justification for purchasing another bottle of Fernet. Fernet Branca is already pretty mint-forward, and Fernet Menta was a straight minty punch to the face for my uninitiated palate. Yet, after a big meal the next day, I was craving a sip of Fernet. It hasn’t been the same since – I’m currently sipping on Fernet Menta as I write this post.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bus to the North End to catch so I can buy a few new amari favorites.

4 Responses to “Boston Cocktail Summit: Do You Speak Amari?”

  1. Harland Bakos June 2, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    Distilled beverages bottled with added sugar and added flavorings, such as Grand Marnier, Frangelico, and American schnapps, are liqueurs. In common usage, the distinction between spirits and liqueurs is widely unknown or ignored; consequently, all alcoholic beverages other than beer and wine are generally referred to as spirits.”;:^

    My own internet page

  2. Ela Cuesta June 23, 2013 at 12:34 am #

    While some people may dismiss herbal remedies as quackery, the use of botanicals is well rooted in medical practice. Ancient doctors methodically collected information about herbs and developed well-defined pharmacopoeias to treat a variety of ailments. More than a quarter of all drugs used today contain active ingredients derived from those same ancient plants.^-.`

    Take a peek at our very own blog page too http://www.healthmedicinebook.comub

  3. Adam August 13, 2013 at 9:13 pm #

    Any chance someone you know of in Boston that stocks the Braulio?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. BCS: Do You Speak Amari? « LA Cocktails - December 21, 2012

    […] in the morning (it was before noon). For a full description of the various amari, check out Treasure MA’s post. I’m going to go through some highlights as most of these amari are familiar in the LA […]

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