The best guide to Italian amaro
Food&wine

Italian amaro: the story and the characteristics of a world-famous drink

Preparing a cocktail with Italian amaro

The category of Italian amaro includes many different products both in alcohol and sugar content, united by the predominant presence of bitter flavoured substances. The medieval origins of Italian amaro are found in the production of monks from the abbeys and monasteries. The use of spiritual mixtures based on bitter herbs, however, dates back to millennia ago, in fact, the Greeks and Romans began to use botanicals in wine to treat numerous diseases. If originally, therefore, bitters represented an aid prescribed by doctors and sold in pharmacies, after the Second World War they became products for pleasure. Now in Italy the category has flourished again in production and there are thousands of bitter’s brands. The most famous historical names are probably Fernet Branca and Strega liqueur.

Definition and production of Italian amaro

The name derives from the German term “bitter” which was later used also internationally. This defines that alcoholic drink characterized precisely by the bitter taste, which we sometimes identify also with the digestive drink. Bitter is obtained from various herbal drugs and can also be used as an aperitif. This type of drink is part of those called “spirits”, made by infusion and distillation. The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of the bitter is 15% vol: not all generic digestives with a bitter taste can, therefore, be technically defined as “amaro”.

The bitters are created by macerating plant components in a neutral spirit or wine which is then often sweetened. The frequent wooden passages help to balance the aromatic peaks and achieve greater complexity of flavor.

Why is Italian amaro called digestive?

Not everyone knows that humans are born with a genetic predisposition aimed at avoiding the bitter taste. When the brain perceives bitterness, it thus sets the digestive system in motion, activating saliva and gastric juices in an attempt to expel what has just been ingested. In Italy, we’re probably more accustomed to the perception of this type of flavor since our agri-food heritage includes numerous bitter foods and drinks that we take from childhood.

The extractive methods for making Italian amaro

Preparation of a cocktail with Italian Amaro

For extraction, there are traditional methods and innovative methods. Among the former, the most common are distillation, maceration at room temperature, percolation at room temperature and digestion at a temperature between 35 and 65 ° C. In the decoction, however, the vegetable sources are boiled together with the solvent, for at least half an hour. Among the innovative extraction methods, there are countercurrent extraction, ultrasound extraction and the Naviglio principle (solid-liquid extraction with cyclic pressurization).

To make the bitter, the choice of herbs, berries, roots, bark, fruits, leaves and flowers is fundamental in making the difference between one product and another. Among the most used substances there are:

  • artichoke leaves,
  • rhubarb rhizomes,
  • cinchona bark,
  • helichrysum,
  • gentian,
  • dandelion,
  • licorice.

The book and guide on Italian amaro

The book about Italian Amaro

A book entitled “The Great Book of Italian Amaro” has recently been published. Written by internationally known bartender Matteo Zamberlan, aka Matteo Zed, and published by Giunti Editore.

Matteo Zed built the first Amaro bar in Brooklyn and it is in the United States that this drink has experienced an important “revival”. In America today, amaro is considered on a par with gin, with the advantage that it has a significantly lower cost. An unusual fact, if we think that in the United States, the average population is historically more accustomed to sweet tastes. The new “amaro peoples” such as the Americans, South Americans and Australians have learned to appreciate this drink and have given it new life with the local production of bitters with a strong “territorial connotation”. In the world of international beverage, meanwhile, amaro represents the base of increasingly popular cocktails.

On the Webradio SenzaBarcode you can listen to my interview with the author Matteo Zed published on Saturday 21st December 2019.

Candy Valentino

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