In this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe talk all things amaro. Is it “amaro” or “amari”? What trends are we seeing for the category in the United States? What is the best way to include these Italian liqueurs in your cocktails?
Tune in to learn more about amari.
OR CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” So, we’re talking about amari today, or amaro.
J: Amari is the plural.
Z: Before we get into this, I have to ask, because this is actually connected to this whole thing. I always struggle internally when I think about this, because yes, Joanna is correct. “Amari” is the Italian plural for “amaro.” But in this country, aren’t you being a little bit pompous if you’re like, “it’s actually amari,” as opposed to just saying amaro like the way that would pluralize any other word?
A: It’s like when you go to Starbucks and order a “croissant” in a French accent. No, it’s a croissant here. Just calm down. Don’t be a pompous ass; you’re going to Starbucks.
Z: You get a little bit of a break on Italian, because French is inherently more pompous. But I think there’s a point at which when you start going, “Excuse me, you’re eating a single raviolo.”
J: I think that’s less offensive than somebody who is like, “rigatoni alla vodka.” That really gets me.
A: So anyways, are you both amaro fans?
J: Yes, I like it, but I feel like there’s a whole world of amari that I just don’t know too much about.
A: That’s something we’ll chat about, too. What about you, Zach?
Z: Oh, absolutely. It’s one of the categories of spirit that I enjoy exploring most because, almost more than any other, you really have no idea what the f*ck you’re going to get when you know you really do.
A: Yeah, I love it. But I’m curious, why do you think it took so long to pop off in the U.S.?
J: I think that amaro is very challenging to the palate, and it’s very bitter, very herbal. We’ve discussed Fernet on this podcast before. I just think that to most American palates, that’s very challenging. And especially if what you’re drinking is not very sweet, either, then it’s very hard to enjoy. That’s the reason why it’s taken so long for it to really reach our palates today.
A: That makes sense to me.
Z: There are a couple of additional reasons beyond those, and I agree with Joanna. For a long time, frankly, the availability in most of the country was very minimal. Maybe you could find a few brands. It’s only relatively recently — in the last five or so — that you’ve seen more than a handful of amari that are available in markets around the country. I think the other piece of this is that amari and the broader digestif, maybe even aperitif category, has always struggled to land in the U.S. because we just don’t have that as a part of our dining culture. If you think about how these are classically consumed in Europe, they’re an after-dinner drink. But after-dinner drinks are not popular in the U.S.
A: It’s such a shame.
Z: Yeah, absolutely. People don’t drink sweet wines. They don’t drink digestifs, grappa, or things like that. They’re just not part of drinks culture in this country in any large way. It’s really been the craft cocktail movement that’s really created the market for these spirits in the U.S. because it’s not their original use case. I sometimes will drink an amaro after dinner at home or if I’m out. But the vast majority of people who encounter an amaro are encountering it as a part of a cocktail first and foremost. What’s really cool about that is, it’s also a very new phenomenon in cocktail culture, right? Because they weren’t popular here and they weren’t in the market; I don’t think you find very many classic cocktail formulations that include amari.
A: So you’re saying it wasn’t Andrew Carmellini. He tries to claim a little bit that his restaurants are some of the first to have extensive amari lists. I think you’re right, there’s so much that’s caused it to take a long time. But now that it’s come, it’s come really hard. You see it across the country. I mean LUCA in Lancaster, Penn., has one of the deepest amari lists in the country. It’s not just New York, San Francisco, L.A., and Chicago. Overwhelmingly, across the country now, people have amari on their list. I’m wondering if it’s also become popular because it’s hard to understand. Beverage professionals — no offense, Zach — like to have a bunch of stuff that they can then educate you on. This is the part of a menu where they can be like, “Oh, you’ve had Nonino? Well, that’s the baby’s first amari.” Then they show you Braulio or something else, walk you through, or sample things for you. Let me “somm-splain” to you. I just came up with that. I think it’s a really good thing; we should keep it from now: somm-splain.
Z: I’m pretty sure we’ve used that phrase before.
A: Have we?
Z: I’m pretty sure Andrew Carmellini came up with it, I’m not sure.
A: Sure Andrew Carmellini came out with it. He’s going to read the transcript to this podcast and be like, “Who the f*ck is Adam Teeter, and why is he calling me out?” Anyways, does that track with you, Zach? It’s another thing to show a huge amount of breadth on your menu or list, to then talk to people about. And for beverage professionals to geek out over, because there are so many of them, it’s this thing to discover that you don’t elsewhere. You can have a bunch of different producers of Cognac, but at the end of the day, it’s all f*cking Cognac. As you said here, you never know what you’re going to get. That’s a fun adventure for almost any drinker. Then, you pass it around the table and everyone’s like, “You try mine, you try mine, you try mine.” I think that’s why it has gotten so popular recently.
J: It’s also that people are more adventurous eaters and drinkers now. There has been more emphasis on food and beverage in our culture in recent years. Do you agree?
A: Yeah, I do.
Z: I think it’s both of those things. You need guests and drinkers who are willing to take that voyage with you. And certainly in this category, you may need someone to explain it to you or at least point you in the direction. The thing that you said earlier, Joanna, about how they’re bitter and intensely herbal is not really completely true. It really depends on where in Italy the amaro is from.You actually have tremendous range. Adam referenced Nonino as an amaro that’s on the sweeter side. Averna from Sicily is quite sweet and very approachable for a lot of newcomers to the category. But of course, there are also your very intensely bitter, herbal, northern Alpine amari as well that are very challenging, even for people who do like amaro. There are also all the things that are essentially amaro but are not from Italy. Therefore, they get called other things, whether they’re French, German, Austria, etc. Also, it’s easier to use because they’re not particularly perishable. You can have two dozen open bottles and it’s not a big deal. It’s not like having a bunch of glass pours of wine where you have real spoilage issues. The other piece of it is that people don’t have a good internal register for what the price of an amaro should be. You can charge a lot of money. I’m not saying all of this stuff is cheap, but amaro should not be priced the same way that your single-malt Scotch is. But yet it often is.
A: It really is. That’s really funny that you say that, because I think it is true. As amaro became really popular in the U.S. and I would travel back and forth to Italy, I would go through duty free and see actually how affordable amaro is. “Wait, I can get that Montenegro at duty free for $25 a liter? I definitely spent $15 on a glass of it recently.” That’s a really interesting point.
J: Are you both ordering amaro while you’re out?
A: Oh, I do.
J: Really? I don’t know the price because I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
A: It’s Naomi’s favorite thing. She’ll ask for a round of amaros. Naomi loves amaro way more than I do, and I really like it. If we are going to a dinner where she knows amaro is on their beverage list, she will have that at the end of dinner. We’ll have a bottle of wine and then I’ll have an amaro. She really enjoys it. I know that we’re going to publish a piece next week about its rise to craft cocktail culture. But I am curious if there’s another reason it’s popped off. And that is the IPA.
J: Go on…
A: The bitterness and that herbaceous, hop-forward profile got people used to more bitter drinks. Was that just a natural crossover to the actual amaro? The reason I asked that is because a lot of craft breweries and craft beer bars, especially in the early aughts, would have Jäger. They would also have their bitter liqueurs. Underberg was a big one that they would all have. So I’m wondering if they were the first people that really had this, and then it got grabbed by craft cocktail people and high-end restaurants. They greased the wheels, primed the pump, whatever you want to say, to get us used to these other flavors. And that’s why we’re so much more accepting of that.
J: That’s a really interesting take. What do you think, Zach?
Z: I had never thought of that. On the surface, it seems plausible enough to me. When we see the American palate shift or change or flavors become more or less popular, it’s always a little hard to say where this begins. The answer is usually that there’s no one single beginning for the most part. But I do think that the rise of the IPA and a bitter beer helped normalize bitterness as a critical part of food and drink for balance and complexity. In that sense, I don’t doubt it. The most widely enjoyed bitter beverage in the alcohol space has been hop-forward beers for decades. In its wake, could amaro have slipped in? Absolutely. I think that’s totally plausible. I don’t know if at this point they’re particularly connected. It’s also one of those challenging things where the two categories feel very distinct right now. You don’t see a lot of people drinking IPAs alongside amari.
A: Like an amaro-IPA crossover.
Z: But then again, all things that were once old are new again. So maybe we will be looking out for IPAs inspired by amari soon enough.
A: Very cool. Yeah. Are we going to drink some amaro?
A: What are we drinking, Joanna?
J: We have some Cynar here, which is an artichoke-forward amaro.
A: Do you have Cynar as well, Zach?
Z: I do. I’m finishing up one bottle, and I have another one here. It’s part of the standard back bar at my house.
A: Are you a big Cynar fan?
Z: I do like it. I can save this comment for when we’ve tasted it, but what’s fascinating to me about Cynar is that it has a really great natural pairing with a spirit that I think you would not anticipate. So I’ll save that for after the tasting.
A: Did you ever try Cynar on pizza?
Z: I have not done a pizza luge, no. Although we made pizza last night, so I could technically microwave some pizza and give it a try. But I feel like you need a foldable slice, and that’s not what comes out of our oven.
A: You only live once. Everyone should have pizza luge once in their life.
Z: Didn’t you have pizza luge at the VinePair party?
A: Yeah, at the VinePair summer party. Tim was adamant that we pizza luged.
Z: I’ve been promised a video of this, but I’ve yet to see it.
A: At least with an ice luge, there’s a very clear channel for the liquid. Even if you try to fold the pizza, it definitely goes everywhere all over your face. But it’s a fun thing. It definitely picks up the cheese grease, and you really want to do it with a pepperoni pizza. Anyways…
Z: I really like Cynar. To me, it’s a really beautifully balanced amaro in terms of sweetness and bitterness working well together. Artichokes are also my favorite vegetables, so I always enjoy that.
A: I love fried artichokes.
J: This is funny because I really like Cynar. I’m just thinking back to our Fernet tasting.
A: This is totally different.
J: I know, they’re totally different. They have a similar nose, though.
Z: There is definitely a mintiness to Cynar as well, and a green vegetal note, which obviously makes sense given that we’re talking about artichokes.
A: It’s really good.
A: I’ve never tried that.
Z: One of my favorite drinks to make with Cynar is: an ounce of Cynar, an ounce and a half of your tequila and an ounce or half-ounce of lime juice. I often make it with reposado, though it also works well with a blanco tequila. And it’s really f*cking good.
A: I think I’m gonna have to try this.
Z: Yeah, you shake it and strain it. You can garnish it with lime. I don’t think artichokes and agave are related at all, but there’s something about the green, vegetal notes that come out of both spirits that work really well together. And the sweetness from Cynar picks up and works well with the tartness of the lime juice. There’s a lot of green energy to it. But the one downside — and this is a downside to all a lot of amaro cocktails — is that it kind of looks like dirty water. This is the challenge with most things that you put amaro in. The brown is hard to escape.
A: Did you come up with this cocktail yourself?
Z: I did.
A: I’m very impressed. I don’t think I would have ever thought to put this together.
Z: Well, you should save your praise until you actually try it. You can report back on Monday, but we’ll hope that it was good.
A: Cool. Well, guys, this was a fun conversation. If you’re a big amari fan, hit us up at [email protected], and let us know which ones are your favorite. Or let us know about ones that we may not know about and which ones we should be on the lookout for. Joanna and Zach, I’ll talk to you both on Monday.
A: Yeah, see you then.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.