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In case you haven’t heard, we’re in the midst of an Italian spirits renaissance. For decades, bottles of Cynar, Fernet-Branca, and Aperol languished on liquor store shelves enjoyed only by the quiet yet passionate drinkers of bitter Italian beverages. But, look around! We’re surrounded by Negronis aplenty, think pieces about why the Aperol spritz needs to die, and dozens of American enthusiasts recreating the beloved drink of Italy: amaro.
What The Hell Is Amaro?
Amaro, which means bitter in Italian, refers to a broad and complex group of spirits. Basically, amari are bitter liqueurs typically consumed after meals and made with a variety of herbs, roots, spices, and more to achieve a balance of zippy bitterness, subtle sweetness, and refreshing herbaceousness. Some of the most popular brands of amaro include Averna, Montenegro, and the aforementioned Cynar. Closely related, and sometimes grouped together, is the Aperitivo, a pre-dinner liqueur that is the yin to the amaro (or digestivo) yang. These would include the classics like Campari, Aperol, and Martini & Rossi. In this wide ranging category of “Italian spirits” you’ll find a multitude of flavors, applications, and complexities from the vivacious Select Aperitivo to the dank and moody Nocino.
Italian spirits have long been beloved overseas and by drinkers in the know. But, thanks to a handful of young amaro producers in the states, they've garnered a new generation of enthusiasts. And the epicenter of this American amaro resurgence has gone down in the most fitting of venues: Brooklyn, New York.
Where Else But Brooklyn?
It makes sense that the borough so enmeshed in hipsterism should be the American home to this “I liked it before it was cool” beverage. But Brooklyn has welcomed Italian spirit drinkers new and old with open arms. And the modern amaro makers just seem to be excited people are enjoying them.
“I'm personally thrilled that so many people are into making and drinking amaro and bitter booze now,” shares Patrick Miller, founder of Faccia Brutto Spirits. “For a long time it was flavored vodkas and trendy junk, but with an ever-expanding digital world we've been introduced to a whole new world of liqueurs.”
The Italian spirit nexus in America is most definitely Brooklyn, NY. St. Agrestis Spirits and Forthave Spirits, two of the most well-regarded Italian spirit producers in the country, have been holding it down in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, respectively, for several years. Faccia Brutto is the newest kid on the block, producing its award-winning liqueurs in the same building as Forthave. These three producers have become the face of the Italian spirit renaissance. And, unlike other distilleries that might also make whiskey, vodka, or other spirits, these three have almost exclusively stuck to Italian spirits.
“There's a strong culture of DIY adventurists in New York, and we see distilling as an extension of that,” Aaron Sing Fox, co-founder of Forthave, explains about setting up shop in BK. “Add to that the diversity of cultures, great restaurants, the change in distilling laws and available manufacturing space certainly played a role as well!”
How To Try Italian Spirits
Now that we’ve piqued your interest, it’s time to hit your local liquor store or cocktail bar and snag some tasty amari. Because the category is so broad, most distillers will suggest sampling as much as you can. (If you happen to be in New York, East Village’s Amor Y Amargo is perhaps the best amaro education watering hole you’ll find.)
“We like to recommend that folks go to bars and restaurants and ask to taste different amaros,” says Fox. “It's a wild spectrum of aromas and tastes, and a lot of fun to explore!”
A good place to start is picking out some flavor profiles that have piqued your interest. If you ask your bartender for an herbaceous, refreshing amaro or a citrus-y, floral one, they’ll have a better time giving you suggestions. The Golden Rules: kick off your meal with an aperitivo and cap off the night with a digestivo. Can you enjoy a spritz after dinner or a glass of Montenegro beforehand? Sure. The amaro police won’t track you down. But, the experience and tradition of this beverage definitely helps set the mood.
“People new to the style should start with reference point Italian brands and then try local/American stuff,” suggests Miller. “Italy has been making this for hundreds and hundreds of years. We in the US are neophytes; it's cool to understand what the products truly are first, and then try permutations. The Italian brands are established for a reason and are always well made— something the new folks can’t always say— and if someone’s first experience with it isn’t pleasing, then they’ll never come back.”
The Round Up
St. Agrestis, founded in 2014 by brothers Louie and Matt Catizone, has been producing top-tier spirits for years. Inspired by the classic amari that his family would enjoy while growing up, Louie explained that he wanted St. Agrestis to evoke a sense of nostalgia and tradition with a modern twist. Starting with the straightforward and downright delicious Amaro and Inferno Bitter Aperitivo, St. Agrestis has gone on to bottle, can, and box its own ready-to-drink (RTD) Italian cocktails. That’s right, you can get yourself a box of negroni to stash away in your fridge or cans of St. Agrestis spritz for the dog days of summer.
Where to start: St. Agrestis is a gateway to the wider world of Italian spirits. Though they are bitter, St. Agrestis’ spirits are very approachable and the RTDs are a great place to start. Get a taste of a properly balanced negroni and then stock your cart with Amaro and Inferno Bitter.
Of the three Brooklyn spirit producers we’ve featured, Forthave boasts the most diverse lineup. Not only does the brand make a damn fine amaro (Marseille) and delicious aperitivo (Red), it also offers a gin, a coffee liqueur, a nocino, and a génépi.
Founded by Aaron Sing Fox and Daniel de la Nuez, Forhave has been experimenting with a line of one-off amari that showcase a variety of flavor profiles beyond just classic Italian spirits.
“We find inspiration from botanical spirits from around the world, not just Italy,” shares Fox. “The tradition of digestivos can be found all over.” In fact, Forthave has their own personal library of vintage amari and bitter booze -- for research, of course.
Where to start: You really can’t go wrong with any of Forthave’s offerings. But, Marseille, Forthave’s flagship amaro, is by far one of the best amari you can buy stateside. It’s complex enough to sip by itself but plays well in a cocktail, too.
Relative newcomer Faccia Brutto has already made a huge impression on the American amaro scene. Founded by chef and restaurateur Patrick Miller, Faccia Brutto’s offerings are approachable and balanced. Experienced amaro drinkers will find plenty to enjoy in Faccia Brutto’s lineup, but Miller wanted the average drinker to not feel overwhelmed by his spirits.
“First and foremost I look for something that I like and that I think my customers will love,” he shares. “There's little point in making something that I like that nobody will buy. My whole line is and will be constructed of styles that are established and people recognize.”
Where to start: While I really enjoy Faccia Brutto’s aperitivo and variety of amari, I was absolutely blown away by its Fernet. It’s incredible. If you’re skeptical of the style, this is the one to try.
Once you’ve tried your way through the classics, I’d highly recommend picking out some bottles from these producers for your bar cart. You can order St. Agrestis right to your door but you’ll need to do a little hunting (or trading) to get bottles of Forthave or Faccia Brutto. If you reach out to them directly, they should be able to provide you with a list of stockists.
While I’m thrilled to see this modern renaissance of amari, the tradition of Italian spirits is about more than the drink itself. It’s an appreciation of the ritual, the communal dining experience.
So kick off your amaro journey and share some bitter booze with friends and family after a delicious meal.